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On Kiarostami - Part I (Where Is My Friend's House [1987]) // Op-Ed


I would like to take a few moments to discuss a filmmaker that has recently entered the go-to shortlist of my "favorite directors."

Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian filmmaker, was born in Tehran in 1940 and died of intestinal cancer in 2016. In those middle 76 years he was a poet, writer, photographer, painter and most notably, for this post at least, a film director.

Kiarostami started his career by creating and heading a filmmaking division at the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Despite what was usually seen as an easy and (apologies) elementary demographic, Kiarostami chose to elevate the material he created for these projects to tackle deeper emotional issues and societal restrictions that children are forced to deal with all while keeping the stories simple and relatable. For example: his first short film The Bread and Alley (1970), was ten minutes of a kid trying to avoid a hungry dog attempting to get a loaf of bread he was sent to buy for his family. A Wedding Suit (1976) was about three teenagers sneaking into their friend's house to quickly try on a suit that was rented for a wedding the next morning.

Where Is My Friend's House (1987) , the film that broke Kiarostami to an international audience, is certainly a thematic holdover from his years making these emotionally dense yet uncomplicated narratives. (It also happens to be my favorite of his films that I've seen) The film centers around 8-year old Ahmed and his quest to return a notebook he accidentally took from his friend before they get to school the next morning. More importantly, the film illustrates the relationships between children of that age and the adults that surround them. At almost every turn, Ahmed, who is the only person fully aware of the consequences of his friend not having this notebook, is met with an adult's disregard. It is uniquely painful to watch such a kind child being continually ignored by family and community members who have had any similar helpful spark in their heart snuffed out long ago and replaced only with the dull flicker of life's patterns and superficialities.

If you'll allow me to spoil the film slightly, Kiarostami beautifully symbolizes this age-based disconnect in a single pressed flower. A small one at that, nearly crushed in the friend's notebook.

Earlier in the film Ahmed journeys to the next village over in hopes of finding where his friend lives. Despite his clear haste he accompanies an old man attempting to help him, in his own slow way, all while waxing-poetic about his career and the changes he witnesses in his waning life. In these excruciatingly long and, to be entirely honest, boring shots, the man off-handedly has Ahmed pick a flower and put it in the notebook. Although not the first act, this is one of those brilliant moments of a "silent" Chekhov's Gun. An item that is so passed over by the dialogue and forgotten but still finds a way to be worked back in at the end (my favorite flavor of the Chekhov's Gun trope). It should be noted that Kiarostami boldly shoots this sequence entirely locked down and from a medium-long-shot so the flower isn't even shown when it is picked; no insert, no punch-in, no close up.

After failing to find his friend, Ahmed completes both sets of homework and gives the notebook back in the final possible milliseconds before class. (A moment crafted with the same amount of intensity as bomb-diffusal) Finally, their teacher flips through the pages and haphazardly grades each assignment. Once the correct page flips open to reveal our humble little beauty, my heart genuinely jumped and I teared up. The teacher does not comment and moves on to the next student.

It takes a true auteur to incite such a strong reaction in me with something so small and forgettable; a perfect representation of Ahmed throughout the film. That page flip moment is one of the greatest and most emotional movie-viewing experiences I have ever had and I wish I could thank him for it.

(continued in part 2)


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©2019 BY ZACHARY J. TERRELL