Abbas Kiarostami made a bunch of films in the ‘70s and the early- and mid-‘80s, but, on some unknown proportion of merit, accessibility, and initial acclaim/visibility (it won an award at the 1987 Locarno Film Festival), Where Is My Friend’s Home, the beginning of the informal Koker Trilogy, is considered his first major work among a great deal of cinephiles.
More than that, though, Where Is My Friend’s Home is a perfect piece of evidence that a plot need not be eventful to be worthwhile, and that sometimes the simplest stories are the most touching. At the beginning, we see a schoolteacher scold Mohamed Reda Nematzedeh because he did his homework on a sheet of loose-leaf instead of a newspaper. This is now the third time he has been told to use a notebook and the next one comes with expulsion. A rather hefty penalty to impose on someone who does their homework, one might think.
Unfortunately for Nematzedeh, Ahmed accidentally takes his friend’s notebook home, and now he has to return it, lest his mistake lead to someone else’s expulsion. That means venturing to Poshteh and hoping that someone can tell him where Nematzedeh lives, preferably before dark so Ahmad can get home early enough to prevent his mom from being too angry.
In a strictly plot-driven sense, all that really happens is that Ahmad asks people where Nematzedeh’s house is and receives marginal help at best. What is happening beneath the surface is that Ahmad is discovering some form of civic obligation to help. He must correct his own mistake and he must go the extra-mile to help out a classmate, because that’s what good people do for one another. Nematzedeh does his homework. His being expelled for not doing it in a notebook is silly. Morality, Ahmad learns, comes from within oneself, not from the rules someone else imposes on you.
Morality especially does not come from the rules that an older generation imposes on youth. The schoolteacher is clearly unhappy with his job, and a lengthy conversation between two adults shows what kind of upbringing they had and want to continue: “My father gave me a penny every week and a beating every fortnight…sometimes he forgot the penny, but he never forgot the beating” says one. If a kid is doing everything right, find an excuse to beat him. Kiarostami does not judge them, though. Instead, he lets us know what shaped their beliefs and shows how values can easily be instilled in one generation from the previous.
Sometimes, that’s not a good thing. Ahmad’s mother hears talk about returning a notebook and assumes that Ahmad is going to blow off homework and play. Even when he shows her the two notebooks and explains that Nemtazedeh will be expelled, she says he deserves it even if it is Ahmad’s mistake. If Ahmad did exactly as he was told perhaps he would have the same opinion, but he sees no reason his friend should be expelled and will go through great trouble to fight for what’s right. It also illustrates the growing divide between parents and children at the time, which shows itself in all of the interactions between children and adults. When Ahmad asks for directions or help, almost all of the adults refuse to give any kind of meaningful or personal assistance. Ahmad himself only asks the most straightforward, basic questions, as If he is afraid of getting into an actual conversation. When he finally does, the results are fascinating.
The grand irony in the end is that when Ahmad can’t find his friend, he does his homework for him in the journal and arrives just in time to have it checked by the teacher. “Good boy,” he says, not because he did it but because it’s in the journal. It works out better to cheat than to do things in a slightly less organized fashion.
Essentially, this is an illustration of the pitfalls of Paulo Freire’s Banking Concept of Education, a method that emphasizes following the rules and doing what you’re told but discourages critical thinking, told on a very small scale both literally and through a commentary about generational disconnect in Iran. A child learns that not all his elders say is right and that sometimes rules ought to be broken. But it also makes for a very particular kind of coming-of-age story. Ahmad has to do something wrong (cheat) in order to prevent a bigger wrong (expulsion), and Nemtazedeh gets by with having done nothing at all simply because his way of doing things would not have been “right.” We don’t get enough to say that these are two completely different kinds of students, but over the course of about 24 hours, we do see two drastically different approaches to their own schooling and moral code and how authority and righteousness don’t always mix. It’s not the most groundbreaking realization, sure, but it’s a perfect demonstration of a much-needed one, and it’s hard to imagine a child not wanting this exact kind of message given to them at a young age. “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education,” Mark Twain said. Ahmad is taking it to heart. He probably learned far more in the day depicted on screen than he did all school year.