‘Where Is the Friend’s House?’ – Abbas Kiarostami’s first childhood odyssey on Criterion Channel

Where Is the Friend’s House? (Iran, 1987), Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s first and most conventional dramatic feature, is an odyssey of sorts, a sweet and simple story of childhood in rural Koker.

Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) is a schoolboy who discovers he’s accidentally taken home his buddy’s homework assignment. Against the express orders of his mother he rushes off to a nearby village to return it, getting little or no help from the adults who confront, berate, or simply ignore him on his mission of honor.

They don’t understand the importance of his journey, but we do: in the opening scenes Ahmed witnesses a schoolteacher rip up his friend’s homework “to teach him a lesson.” It sends the boy into tears and Ahmed nervously looks away in pained discomfort. It’s a startling scene that shows a society rooted in authoritarian demands and the kids who get lost in the grown-up world of business and responsibility.

Kiarostami came from the documentary world, where he focused on children, and he brought the arsenal of techniques acquired from years of nonfiction filmmaking for his first fictional feature. While Where Is the Friend’s House? might at first seem slow to western audiences, its “speed of life” pace is rich with character and beautifully captured details of everyday life.

Kiarostami largely casts the film with non-professionals, both local kids and adults, and it’s rather like watching real people “play” themselves in a documentary, so aware of the camera that they perform to it. The kids are rowdy and restless, the adults too busy with their own concerns to really understand the pressures the children are under. It may not be realistic in the accepted sense, but it feels as completely genuine and honest and perfectly complements his quiet, observational style.

Toward the end of the film, as night falls and Ahmed is still searching for his friend’s home in an unfamiliar town, increasingly anxious and edgy, an old man offers to show him the way. As they walk through the town the lonely old carpenter shows off his legacy of doors and windows, which set off the darkness like ornaments as the light from the houses throw the color of stained glass windows and the designs of ornate grills into relief on the alley walls. It’s a marvelous contrast: the impatience of youth hurrying the shuffling pace of age, the beauty of craftsmanship disappearing in the face of modernity.

It became the first in what Kiarostami called his “Koker Trilogy,” followed by And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994). The three films pulled together not by character and story but place and theme. His development comes into sharp relief as he questions the very naturalistic roots of this first film.

Not rated, in Farsi with English subtitles

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Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Koker Trilogy (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Koker Trilogy (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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