The Iranian cinema is abundant with films about children (The White Balloon and Children of Heaven being the two classic popular examples). Where Is the Friend’s Home? in many respects began the trend of Iranian child-themed films and is the most culturally significant to date for a number of reasons. Foremost, it was the first film in a few decades to garner attention outside Iran. It is ostensibly a neorealist film in the style of Bicycle Thieves: a young boy must return his friend’s notebook or his classmate will be expelled from school. Shot on location, using non-actors, featuring an impossible-quest narrative (to reveal the ambiguity of life, no less) the film appears extremely straightforward as a social critique of Iranian culture towards the treatment of children. But Friend’s Home is so much more than a simple rehashing of Italian neorealist traditions; it is rich in symbolism and poetic form.
Ahmad, a seemingly timid child, bears witness to his friend Mohammad Reza’s scolding at the hands of their teacher—not for failing to do his homework, but failing to do his homework inside his notebook, which is apparently a big deal. From the onset, the viewer witnesses the ugliness that is the experience of the Iranian child—discipline through humiliation, negativity and corporal punishment. Mohammad Reza is told his next offense will result in expulsion, a needlessly harsh punishment that is doubtlessly typical in a real Iranian schoolroom. Having been put in a precarious situation of accidentally taking Mohammad Reza’s notebook, Ahmad must make a series of choices to ensure his friend does not get expelled. First he must obtain permission to leave home; he must then prioritize his other chores; and he must find his friend’s home relying on the spotty directions of neighbors. Having failed to find Mohammad Reza’s residence by film’s end, Ahmad makes the best decision of the whole film: to simply do his friend’s homework.
The repetition of the dialogue becomes absurd to the point of being unrealistic, transformed into something more abstract and poetic that represents the complete lack of communication between generations.
Along the way, Ahmad shows us that child cruelty is not limited to the schoolroom. It is not unreasonable to ask a parent to return a friend’s belongings, especially given Mohammad Reza’s particular circumstances, but Ahmad’s mother refuses to listen to her son, thinking instead he wants to skip out on his chores to play. His other elders are equally condescending; adults are purely contemptible in this film, with one exception: a carpenter Ahmad befriends along the way who knows where his friend lives. As the two make their way through the labyrinthine village of Poshteh, the carpenter gives Ahmad some great life advice—some of it useful, some hilarious. When Ahmad describes his tedious journey in finding Mohammad Reza, the carpenter says, “You should have come seen me immediately.” As mentioned earlier, the film is rich in symbolism, with Ahmad’s impossible quest to find his friend’s home mirroring the quest of life—wherein one must sometimes break the rules to do what’s right—and the flower that the carpenter gives Ahmad to put in the notebook representing altruism and friendship. The closing shot of this film is of the teacher’s point of view as he marks Mohammad Reza’s homework. He sternly flips through the pages, ignoring the now-pressed flower lying in the notebook. Only Ahmad and the viewer understand its significance.
One identifying feature of Friend’s Home is the repetitive dialogue between children and adults, which at times becomes almost frustrating to watch. Ahmad asks strangers, with great frequency and to no avail, if they know where his friend lives, and after a while you get the sense that this is because children and adults do not trust one another. The repetition of the dialogue becomes absurd to the point of being unrealistic, transformed into something more abstract and poetic that represents the complete lack of communication between generations. With this in mind, it’s especially gratifying that the BFI placed Friend’s Home in the top ten of its 50 Films You Should See by the Age of 14 list. Kiarostami teaches children that adults are not always right and that a sense of morality comes from within, not from governing rules or social institutions.