The image of post-revolutionary Iran depicted in the Western mass media over the past two decades has been almost uncompromisingly defamatory and vilifying. It would be difficult indeed to locate more than a few references to Iran that do not contain the terms “terrorist state,” “fundamentalist regime,” or “human rights violations.” While this has only recently shown signs of improvement with the election of Mohammad Khatami to the office of President, there is another side of the country which has received overwhelmingly positive media coverage for the last several years.
Iran has established a strong presence on the international film festival circuit, particularly in Europe. From a certain perspective, it is positive that the nation’s filmmakers are forced by government censorship policies to keep their films completely devoid of sex, violence, and overt political themes. It is possible that the recent and well-received Iranian film tradition, one which uses surface simplisticly and uncontroversial themes (often involving children) to convey veiled sentiment, is not the result of conformity to theocratic regulations, but rather the conscious choice of writers and directors. Regardless, Iranian films have begun to enjoy international recognition despite the country’s strict policies on film export, distribution, and indeed on the approval of scripts (which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance).
The tangible evidence for this recognition is easily found at the Cannes Film Festival, France. Several of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films have screened in recent years, while in 1995 Jafar Panahi won the Camera D’Or and shared the International Critics Prize for “The White Balloon.” Most recently Abbas Kiarostami received the 1997 Palme D’Or (tied with Japanese director Shohei Imamura) for his latest work, “A Taste of Cherry.” Iranian films abound in other festivals as well, such as Locarno in Switzerland, and the international film festival in Montreal.
An earlier film by Kiarostami, “Where is the Friend’s Home?” is the first of an unintended and unlikely trilogy, filmed a decade ago in Roodbar, northern Iran. Kiarostami deliberately used only amateur actors from the communities depicted in the story. Four years after filming, an earthquake struck the region, killing many and obliterating entire villages – many of the film’s actors lost their lives in the disaster. Kiarostami later returned to Roodbar for two follow-up films, “And Life Goes On…” and “Through the Olive-trees,” to document the resilience of the quake’s victims. “Where is the Friend’s Home?” begins in a classroom. The authoritarian teacher, inspiring terror as he checks the daily homework, comes down on Mohammad-Reza Nematzadeh. For the fourth time, the child has written his work on loose paper rather than in the prescribed notebook. He receives a scolding that sends him into tears, while his classmate, Ahmad Ahmadpour looks on compassionately. Nematzadeh is warned that another transgression will result in expulsion.
After school, Ahmad returns home and begins his homework, but to his horror he finds Nematzadeh’s notebook in addition to his own. Explaining to his mother that he must return the book immediately or his friend will be expelled, he is met with only the first in a series of many cases of adult indifference and preoccupation. Ahmad calmly outlines the urgency of the situation, but his mother is unimpressed, decreeing that he is not to leave. After some serious reflection, Ahmad sets out to return the book, undeterred by the fact this classmate lives in another village at an unknown location.
What follows is the boy’s journey through a detailed microcosmos populated by helpful children and adults who serve mostly as nuisances and barriers to success. The unique pace of the film intersperses scenes of frenzied desperation with excruciatingly slow moments of frustration and delay. The audience is enveloped in the urgency of the quest, seeking the tiniest clue that may give Ahmad the key to locating his friend-a blue door here, a pair of billowing brown pants there, a donkey from Poshteh, and a wise windowmaker are all waypoints in the search. When he ultimately finds the house late at night, Ahmad makes an infuriatingly necessary decision which demonstrates that he has done some serious growing up in a world in which children, it seems, are the only ones with a pure sense of integrity, honesty, and responsibility.
By: Ahmad Ali Zadah
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