Where is the Friend’s House? Abbas Kiarostami ( 1987; Iran) Babak Ahmadpour
viewed 16 Oct 2022 Star and Shadow Cinema; ticket £7
Where is the friend’s house?.…an existential question?
The first shot in Kiarostami’s ‘Where is the Friend’s House?’ is a long duration shot of a section of a nondescript door over which the opening credits are burnt in. The door’s paint is a worn cream sort of colour and you can see screwed onto one side of its frame a little retaining hook. It looks like a cleaning cupboard door; behind it the soundtrack comprises a high pitched racket. When the door finally opens, it reveals the interior of a classroom full of young boys revelling in high spirits. It is the teacher who has just entered, his presence bringing the immediate control of silence.
This opening shot introduces Kiarostami’s thematic: childhood – as a stage in life – defined by an undifferentiated anonymity with adult presence that is only a door away.
Kiarostami is filming in a remote rural area of Northern Iran. His film location is a mud built village called Koker where he observes a series of child/adult social relations that are particular to their situation but whose governing dynamics are universal their in their general relevance.
The universal dimension is the extent to which children are in essence a function of the phenomenological constructs of the adult world. This is to say that relations with children are viewed by the controlling adult world as a series of prescriptive ‘oughts’. Children ‘ought’ to do as they are told, children ‘ought’ to do their homework children ‘ought to’ help’ look after siblings, children ‘ought’ to pay attention; or alternatively children ‘ought to be free to do what they want, children’s opinions ought to have the same weight as adults;. Of course the obverse applies to the adults in their relations with children. Adults have their ‘oughts’ as well as ‘ought not to’s’: adults ‘ought’ to bring their children up to be obedient, adults ‘ought to’ take responsibility for their children’s development, adults ought to listen to children.
In this sense children have an existential problem: they only exist as extended projections of the adult mind. They don’t exist in their own right; and Kiarostami’s script maps out, in a prescriptive environment the line of a particular child’s development.
In the world of Koker Kiarostami’s scenario observes the relations between adults and children. In Koker as perhaps in many other cultures, in a sense the children are almost invisible to the adult eye, do not exist except in relation to adult need. The scripting begins with the school teacher’s non negotiable demand that each boy possess a notebook. The notebook has a symbolic importance. It is defined by the teacher as a sign of the pupil’s commitment to the both the state’s and the school’s values; Ahmed’s mother makes a series of demands on Ahmed: that he fetch carry help do his homework; Ahmad’s grandfather demands that Ahmed obey the first time; the old carpenter demands that Ahmad listen. But even as Ahmad child revolves about the nucleus of his actual inexistence to adults, something at the core of his being is at work. An act of witnessing a classroom incident and a moment of carelessness on his part, creates a situation for the inception of an operational consciousness. His spirit shifts enabling him to escape from the gravitational pull of his inexistent orbit around the adult body.
Ahmad learns to say: “No!” I do what I think I should do because I know that I have to help my friend – whatever.”
Ahmad decides to go and look for his friend, to find where he lives so that he can give the friend back his notebook which Ahmad has accidently picked up. Failing in this quest, he takes remedial action. In the said notebook Ahmad forges the friend’s homework for him, thereby achieving his moral purpose: to keep his friend out of trouble by defying the prescripts and percepts of the adults. The point is that his behaviour is not reactive, it is a conscious move on his part to do what he does. It is an existential move into being.
Ahmad reaches a point in his life where he is asked to make a decision on his own that will entail a step away from being a phenomenological captive of others, to become an active being. Although Kiarostami’s observations derive from a society ideologically far removed from Western belief systems, the psychic shift in Ahmad’s consciousness seems no less relevant in those societies that pride themselves in addressing an understanding of child development, where the child is regarded not as inexistent but rather the centre of the socialisation process. These are also societies in which gang culture, drugs and somatic dysfunction may be playing out in their own way re-active functions rather than existential development.
There is something in the manner in which Kiarostami shot his film that reminded me of Kafka’s ‘The Castle’. The dark compressed look of the village, with its interminable maze of streets alleyways and passages, the circuitous nature of the search and its ultimate failure. The meetings with strangers who at first seem to offer hope but it’s hope that turns out to be illusionary. And ultimately the determination of the seeker, whether it be ‘K’ or Ahmed not to concede to disappointment but to continue with the task however difficult.
Kairostami’s titular question: ‘Where is the Friend’s House’, points not so much to a literal quest or question, but to an interrogation about a state of being.