Where Is the Friend’s House?

Iran 1989, 84 mins
Director: Abbas Kiarostami

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away the film’s ending.

Kiarostami’s classic centres on a young boy determined to return a schoolmate’s notebook he took home by mistake, but unsure of his exact address in a neighbouring village and frequently distracted in his quest by domineering adults.

An exhilarating blend of low-key realism and lightly stylised parable – the boy’s repeated journeys resonate with subtle symbolism – the film is funny, insightful and finally deeply moving.

Where Is the Friend’s House? takes its title from a poem by Sohrab Sepehri. (Modernist Persian poetry has been an inspiration for Kiarostami.) In Sepehri’s poem a traveller in a strange land is instructed to ask from a child, ‘Where is the House of the Friend?’ In Kiarostami’s film the world is depicted through the eyes of a child, a schoolboy determined to find the house of a friend whose notebook he has picked up by mistake and feels he must return, since their teacher is strict about homework and requires students to do it in their notebooks, and the friend has been threatened with expulsion if he again fails to comply. As he sets out on a quest for the friend’s house, a traveller in the strange land that is the world around him, the boy is made the film’s centre of consciousness without any of the condescension, the feeling we know better as adults, that usually accompanies our sympathy for children. We share the path and the perspective of this boy facing the odd requirements of the adult world, not challenging them – he endeavours with sweet earnestness to help his friend comply – but throwing them into question in a search for the friend’s house that turns into a journey of exploration of the world, its mysteries and its possibilities. The boy often returns to places where he has been before, but as the philosopher said, you can’t step in the same river twice, and the same places are each time revealed in a different aspect. This is a film about wonder: the wonder of seeing things with fresh eyes, the wonder from which philosophy is born. It’s a wonderful film.

In contrast to the sleek and fast editing style prevalent in movies today, with shots like soft clay being moulded at will, Kiarostami cuts sparingly, like a carver respecting the character of the stone. A cut should have a reason, he says in 10 on Ten, and rather than editing for the sake of variety he will let a shot go on until there is a point in replacing it. He cuts, one feels, only when he must; his cuts have the elegance of economy and carry the weight of necessity. The boy’s perspective in Where Is the Friend’s House? is established not so much by cutting to what he sees – there aren’t many point-of-view shots, which makes them all the more striking when they come – as by the camera’s steady empathy with his way of seeing.

At two points the film departs from the boy’s perspective, each time shifting to an old man. The first time, early on, we move to the boy’s grandfather, a traditional disciplinarian, petty and unsympathetic to him. The second time, near the end, we shift to an old man who used to make carved doors and windows for local houses, the sole adult willing to help the boy in his search. By this time it is dusk, and the old man’s doors and windows, which he points out along the way, look beautiful as the lights inside shine through the carving. This old man is a figure of the artist. Even while employing the modern medium of film – whose light it is that shines on the screen – Kiarostami identifies himself with this old-fashioned craftsman. Although the old man doesn’t succeed in taking the boy to the friend’s house, he offers him, and us, a haunting experience of beauty in the twilight. And he gives him a flower to press inside the friend’s notebook. The shift in perspective to the old craftsman, whom we follow inside his house as night falls and the wind blows, enables the film to omit the boy’s return home, which lends a mysterious suddenness to the images of him there, in a familiar environment where everything seems to have changed.

Ellipsis, the use of omission, is central to both realism (because reality always exceeds its representation, so any representation necessarily leaves out much of reality) and modernism (because art that would own to its means and its choices must acknowledge what it leaves out), and on both fronts is central to Kiarostami’s art. Where Is the Friend’s House? stays with the boy for most of its duration, yet there are things it noticeably skips, and what it leaves out it brings into play.

Back home, the boy gazes at his mother – and here we get one of the few point-of-view shots – as she takes down in the dark night the wind-blown white sheets hanging out to dry. From this eerie image we slowly dissolve to the classroom the next morning. This is the film’s only dissolve Kiarostami’s technical austerity lends greater impact to a device when he sees fit to use it – and it marks another ellipsis. The boy hasn’t as yet turned up in class, though the friend is there and the teacher is going around checking each student’s homework. Not until the boy arrives and returns the notebook to the friend do we learn that, after failing to find his house, the boy did his homework for him. The teacher looks over the notebook with approval. And as he flips through the pages, suddenly the flower pressed inside comes into view. We have forgotten about it, and Kiarostami, who knows when to cut a shot short, swiftly concludes the film at the point of our surprised recognition.

The flower represents beauty. A gift from the old craftsman, a reminder of his beautiful doors and windows, it is a metaphor for the boy’s beautiful act of friendship – as if the craftsman who took care and pride in making things the right way stood behind the boy who has gone to such lengths to do the right thing for his friend. Ethics and aesthetics come together here – the beauty of an action, a bit of human doing, and the beauty of a work of art, a bit of human making, both of them moving us to admiration and calling for the best in us. Philosophers have pondered what an action and an object of contemplation have in common that we should find them both beautiful, and Kiarostami’s pondering takes concrete form in a film that is itself beautiful.
Gilberto Perez, Sight and Sound, May 2005


Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Production Company: Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults
Executive Producers: Djahankiz Mirchakari, Asghar Chahourdi, Bahrouz Mouaeniane
Producer: Ali Reza Zarin
Production Supervisors: Ali Asghar Mirzai, Naamet Allah Yamini
Production Manager: Sadika Sarfrazian
Production Assistant: Naser Zeraati
Assistant Director: Kiomorth Poor Ahmed
Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami
Story/Adaptation: Changiz Sayyad
Director of Photography: Farhad Saba
Camera Operator: Madjid Ferzana
Editor: Naamet Allah Alizadah
Costume Designer: Hassan Zahidi
Titles: Abdoullah Ali Nourad, Fard Moukadem
Sound/Music: Amine Allah Hessine
Light/Colour: Irg Mahra Bakhach

Babek Ahmed Poor (Ahmed)
Ahmed Ahmed Poor (Mohamed Reda)
Kheda Barech Defai (teacher)
Iran Outari (mother)
Aît Ansari (father)
Sadika Taouhidi (Persian neighbour)
Biman Mouafi (Ali, a neighbour)
Ali Djamali (grandfather’s friend)
Aziz Babai (waiter)
Nader Ghoulami (property owner)
Akbar Mouradi (old man from Azerbaîdjan)
Teba Slimani (husband)
Mohamed Reda Berouana (man mistaken as Ali)
Farahanka Brothers (young boy)
Maria Chdjari (girl who stutters)
Hamdallah Askarpoor (old man)
Kadiret Kaouiyen Poor (religious old man)
Hager Faraz Poor (apple seller)
Mohamed Hocine Rouhi (carpenter)
Rafia Difai (grandfather)
Agakhan Karadach Khani (street vendor)

Iran 1989
87 mins

Introduced by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large (Wed 19 June only)

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