‘The Poetic Minimalism’ of Abbas Kiarostamiby Vandana Kumar October 27 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 5 secs
Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016) is unarguably the most known face of Iran on the map of World cinema, writes Vandana Kumar
After seeing not just a couple of his films, but also reading some poems from his poetry collection, he comes right up there in my list of favorite poets too, along with other favorites like T.S. Eliot, Mahmoud Darwish, John Donne and Arseny Tarkovsky.
From his poetic œuvre, my heart lingered a little bit longer on his film Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987). This film shot in the region of Koker, Iran, was not just a recipient of the Bronze Prize at the 1989 Locarno Film Festival, but a film that made the World officially declare Kiarostami’s presence. The title of the film ‘Khaneh Ye Dost Kojast?’ is derived from Sohrab Sepeheri’s (a prominent modern poet) poem. The title could well be a literal one-line summary of the film’s story - the search for the friend’s home.
It is one of the simplest human ideas to be thought of as a story and then made into a feature film. It’s about life through the eyes of 8-year-old Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) who must return friend Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh’s - Ahmed Ahmed Poor - notebook that he has mistakenly taken. A conscientious lad, his only concern for the next 16-18 hours on his return from school is to have the notebook handed over to his friend. The 8 year old sees grave danger in not returning it. The schoolteacher had emphasized the importance of carrying all their notebooks with their respective homework done. The dire consequence of not doing so was only one - being expelled from school.
The hardships of the Iranian life make this about their discipline in daily affairs. The schoolmaster had not minced words. Students not doing their homework or worse, ‘not carrying it’ is just not acceptable. We understand how these schools are. Children come from not just the neighborhood, but also far off villages, to this school. The students are friends in school but have never had the luxury of mingling with each other after school hours. Apart from the ones from their own locality, they have only a faint idea of their friends’ homes and just about know that they come from a particular region there.
This becomes significant when young Ahmed embarks upon a journey to return the notebook to his friend. He is clueless about his friend’s home. Daily life has no scope for diversions like meeting friends outside their locality. The beauty of the film is that while highlighting the discipline in the quotidian, it brings out the loyalty of the friend, Ahmed, and his compassion – to what extent he can go so that his friend does not get into trouble with the schoolmaster?
The old and the young both are important in this journey to the glaring exclusion of the middle-aged. Ahmed’s parents, barring the teacher obviously, have little to impart in terms of wisdom or advice. It is the children who weigh responsibilities in all earnest on their shoulders. It is the elders who are observing and emphasizing their role in society. The film is about the old men who sit under trees, at the corner of the village, where they daily gather and it is about their observations. It is equally about life as the young children see it. There is the poetry of both the young and the old. Of birth, awe and wonder and the experience and wisdom that age brings with it. All this is played out in the harsh terrains of their homes and the neighboring villages.
From the precise moment of Ahmed’s discovery, that he has by mistake carried the friend’s notebook, he is obsessed with a one-point agenda of returning it. Ahmed, in the sincerity with which he has taken the teacher’s word, is ready to defy. It starts at home with the mother. The woman of the house is ‘to a timetable’ born. Ahmed must lend her a hand in a bit of the household work. It’s a harsh life for her with no scope for varying routine. Her mind is closed to the idea of listening to Ahmed as she goes about instructing him mechanically to eat, help out with the newborn, settle down to homework and then play. His multiple attempts at telling her he needs to go to Posteh (Nematzadeh’s village) fall on deaf ears. This finally leads to a moment when he just leaves the home, sans permission. Probably a first for him to do so, given how much he had tried to explain to his mother. The fear of the repercussions that not doing homework would have for his school friend is given priority. All dilemma and conflict gets resolved, as he knows precisely that the journey has to be embarked.
The geography of the journey is what constitutes a large part of the poetry. The camera misses nothing as it lingers on everything it possibly could - from the hillocks to the zigzag paths. It is a quest and an important solo journey in Ahmed’s life - one that will be a learning experience whether he processes it this early in life, consciously or not. As far as the literal journey, too, he seems to be going up and down this path with a single tree atop (apparently created especially for the film) and not getting any closer to the home while getting enriched along the way. Every house seems identical. It’s a sort of maze from which there seems no return.
Afternoon soon turns to dusk and the hero’s journey continues. There are people giving directions but nothing is clearer. Nobody has the time to help. Very early in the journey, Ahmed meets a familiar face from school - Morteza. The classmate guides him but is unable to accompany him even for a few moments. He is retrieving milk from heavy containers and that is his immediate homework. It is no wonder that children doing such daily chores find it impossible to finish assignments, but the disciplinarian schoolteacher won’t obviously understand.
Morteza’s directions are vague, “In Khanevar, up the hill, there’s a staircase in front and a blue door right by a bridge.” It’s a world seen through a child’s eyes that will not process left and right or kilometers, but things that leave an impression. We later discover that the directions weren’t particularly helpful, what with many similar looking structures around. I still remember giving similar directions as a child, “Turn left you will find a cow sitting and go further to find a letter box”. The scene definitely put a smile on my face.
After much effort at finding his friend, Ahmed discovers that Mohammad Reza and his father have just traveled to Koker (Ahmed’s village). The boy runs back with spirited enthusiasm to Koker only to discover that it is a different Mohammad Reza. One of the most unforgettable scenes is at this point. His encounter with his grandfather highlights a lack of connection between the two generations. Ahmed is commanded to run an errand (to buy cigarettes) and the grandfather at this point has an animated conversation with a neighbor who offers him a cigarette. He feels that the grandson is preoccupied and undermining his instructions. It is a must for him to run the errand so that he knows orders have to be obeyed. It’s a world order that has to be swallowed as a bitter pill by young Ahmed.
Ahmed’s journey is far from over but he is not fatigued. He resumes his search by heading back to Posteh. It is here that he meets an old man with rheumatic knees - so far the most kind and helpful man in Ahmed’s journey. The dialogue between the two gives many insights about changing times and generational attitudes. Unlike the disciplinarian grandfather, this man is kind and nostalgic about the olden days. He is the only one with time and compassion to accompany Ahmed although he starts to pant and his knees play up. He tells Ahmed he can’t keep pace. We learn that he makes doors. He says that no one demands ornate doors anymore because they use iron doors. Traditional crafts are being replaced and also employment prospects closing down on those stepping in certain traditional skills.
Night falls and our young Ahmed hasn’t found his friend, so he makes the journey back home. The journey back is a lonely one as he has failed to meet his objective – and yet a wiser, more mature Ahmed returns home. And finally it is none of the people he asked directions from (although they had their purpose in his journey and some did guide him) but he that finds the solution to the problem. When the family retires for the night he does Mohammad Reza’s homework for him in his notebook. In doing so he saves his friend from disciplinary action.
Many could say it wasn’t a particularly ethical thing but it is about priorities. The actual journey shows he would risk indiscipline to follow the school discipline. So that’s the contradiction and one that shows how high he places his loyalty to a schoolmate.
In Sepehri’s poem too, it is the child “high up in a pine tree” who has the answer: High up in a pine tree/You will see a child/Who will lift a chick out of a nest of light/Ask him/Where is the friend’s house?
The film ‘Where is the friend’s home?’ has been considered the first part of Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Kosher Trilogy’, along with ‘Life goes on’ (1992) and ‘Through the olive trees’ (1994), by the critics because they felt that the three were connected by the place - the Northern Iranian village. It is a clubbing that Kiarostami himself debunked saying that thematically the three were not connected and clubbing on the basis of a place made little sense.
The first film that I saw of Kiarostami was ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ (1999) and personally I found more similarities in these two films. Both films, for one, derive their titles from poems. Forugh Farrokhzâd is the modern Persian poet in the case of ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’, and both films have a search that gets established right in the beginning. In the case of ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ there is a land rover carrying a film crew looking for some vague address. Both films are a poetic quest as they pass through either winding roads or through zigzag terrain between two villages. Both the films have simple plots with focus on imagery. Both films are journeys with seekers. Along the way in both films, there are people aiding and guiding. Just by their philosophical answers they take these films forward.
Those who accuse Kiarostami of not being overtly political enough and to continue working under the Islamic regime, perhaps, don’t realize that not all resistance is overt. Sometimes the subtle messages against authoritarian rule are far more impactful and to the discerning observer he will find resistance in simple everyday acts of disobedience, as is the case with ‘Where Is the Friend’s Home?’
From sounds of life all around the harsh village terrains to the wise old men sitting and observing life, the director shows us, through camera movement, that it’s a land oozing with poetry - effortless and natural. I don’t know if it was a conscious rejection of the western world but it certainly was a cinema rooted in Persian traditions - of life as they know it and of oral traditions of storytelling.
A few lines that I wrote to conclude because only poetry should round up an article on a film like this: The zigzag terrain (Inspired by the film Where is the friend’s home?)/This land has a solitary tree of sagacity/The octogenarians sit under it/It is sunset/By now the tree’s wisdom/Has rubbed on to them//The middle-aged/Dead, in-between things/Have lost the twinkle of wonder/Their eyes are dulled/By pails of water/They daily fill//Home is near enough/The journey long/Ask directions/Only from the very young/Or the very old.
Abbas was so rooted in poetry that he even read a lot of it in preparation for his filmmaking. The result was magical - wafer thin stories and the ‘poetic minimalism’ of his cinema.
I leave you with the words of Abbas Kiarostami himself: Poetry in Iran pours down on us, like falling rain/And everyone takes part in it.