By Ray Freedman
This year marks 30 years since the initial release of “Where is My Friend’s House?” in Iran, a film that showcases the power of beloved Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.
There is a raw innocence and compassion that embodies this 1987 film. Once the first close-up hits the screen in “Where is My Friend’s House?,” it is hard not to be enveloped by the tender but intense hands of Kiarostami. A wide-eyed Ahmed (played by Babek Ahmed Poor) listens to his teacher humiliate his friend Nematzadeh for writing homework on a loose sheet of paper, rather than in his notebook. Kiarostami frames the next shot on Nematzadeh crying in the middle of the room. The teacher hovers, chastising him and threatening expulsion from school. Ahmed sits, his face evoking pure sympathy, but there is nothing for him to do.
The story is Ahmed’s story, the listener in the first scene. Ahmed accidentally takes Nematzadeh’s notebook home, which could lead to his friend’s expulsion. He must return the notebook so his friend may complete his homework in it and avoid expulsion from school. But he does not know where his friend lives. This results in an overwhelming, and perhaps surprising, sense of anxiety. Ahmed must ask himself the question: where is my friend’s house? It is deceivingly simple and shameless in its vulnerability.
Ahmed embarks on a journey, no one in the film quite understanding the problem. His worry seems childish and mundane to the adults in the village, and Ahmed must surreptitiously but relentlessly navigate to and through unknown territories to try to return the notebook. Ahmed is alone as he goes through hills, paths and houses, the film unrolling like a fable.
Ahmed runs from one village to the next. There is a moment where he approaches a hill. The camera sits far away, showing the entirety of the hill. The trail on the hill is shaped like a zigzag. Kiarostami holds the camera there as Ahmed runs endlessly from side to side to the top, the image depicting the crookedness it takes to achieve something simple.
What’s most surprising about the film is its ability to unnerve audiences. When I showed the film to my father, a man who was a medical malpractice lawyer for 20 years, he couldn’t believe how nervous the film made him. He was almost tortured by worry for Ahmed. The length to which Kiarostami extends the title’s question is compelling, but uncomfortable. Ahmed’s worry becomes the audience’s worry, and makes one remember the fearful predicaments of youth.
The tension between Ahmed and the world around him is created by Kiarostami’s artful direction. The camera follows Ahmed’s eyes and feet with extreme focus, often cutting between his eyes and what he’s looking at — his movements and where he’s going. The lens mimics Ahmed, bleeding empathy without pulling any formulaic cinematic tricks — we just move with the character.
Three decades later, it’s easy to see why it was Kiarostami’s first film to gain international attention, paving the way for his legendary career. At a tribute event for Kiarostami after his death in 2016, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch reflected on Kiarostami’s work.
“More than anyone I know, he represented the fact that ideas and human expression are so much stronger than authority, money, guns, than prisons, etc,” Jarmusch said.
“Where is My Friend’s House?” shows how human expression, through simple observation, can permeate with rare sincerity