The innocuous childhood drama of Where is the Friend’s Home? contains a strong undercurrent of subversive themes. In fact, given that this is an Iranian film, it’s shocking how boldly the film critiques system of power, control and authority. The politics of Where is the Friend’s Home? is not caught up in physical revolution, but in the revolution of the hearts and mind of a generation.
When gradeschool boy Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) accidentally takes home his classmate’s homework book, he’s faced with a dilemma. The boy in question Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh (Ahmed Ahmed Poor) has already received a stern warning from the theater he’ll be expelled if he doesn’t return the next day with his homework done in his homework book. Instead of listening to his mother (Iran Outari) who tells him to let the boy be expelled, he slips away with the book and seeks to find his classmate.
The film’s brazen attack on authority occurs on several layers. The Teacher (Kheda Barech Defai) demands strict discipline, scolding the boys for being rowdy when he arrives in class and often embarrass the young boys in order to assert his supremacy over them. No actual learning is shown in the classroom, only an institution that seeks to form these boys into docile, compliant citizens.
Another level on which this attack on authority occurs is in Ahmed’s family. His mother’s cruel indifference to his friend’s predicate and her constant bossing of Ahmed show her motherly affection and sympathy has been replaced by a desire to be obeyed. Likewise, Ahmed’s grandparents scold him for minor lapses, such as wearing his shoes upstairs or not immediately answering their questions.
Therefore, writer/director Abbas Kiarostami is attacking this excessive form of legalistic authority as an institutional and generational disease. It creates for people who are cruel and harsh regardless of whether or not the object of their punishment deserves the treatment. This is because it is how they were treated by their parents, the disease creeping down through the ages.
Where does the change happen? For Kiarostami, it’s in the hearts and minds of the children, the great hope being that these kids can see beyond the fear of punishment and not treat people the way they deserve (or often worse), but go out of their way to help others in need. Only a new generation, a new way of thought can break the cycle of authorial abuse.
It’s a testament to Abbas Kiarostami’s writing that all this exists as a natural outpouring of the narrative conflict. Ahmed needs to face these obstacles in order for the film to be more than a feature of aimless wandering and yet every conflict he comes across presents another layer to the thematic richness of the film.
And therein lies the strength of Where is the Friend’s Home? While the film is politically charged, it never lets the themes or ideas conflict with the strong, human story at the heart. In fact, it’s Kiarostami’s sympathy for his protagonist that makes his ideas and themes all the stronger. It’s more than simply a critique of systems of power and control; it’s a call to replace them with concern and sympathy for one’s fellow human beings.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing