Breaking Shackles: Kiarostami’s Treatment of Freedom, Autonomy, and Selfhood of the Child Protagonist in Where is the Friend’s Home?

3cyx3rxtnn3fqrirry7yuvciok8Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was a well known name in his native land by the 1970s, but it was his seventh film, Where is the Friend’s Home? (Khane-ye Doust Kodjast?), produced in 1987 that established his fame outside Iran. Kiarostami would focus on the ordinary lives of commonplace people in his films and many of his protagonists were children, revealing the social and political restrictions in Iranian society. Where is the Friend’s Home? relates the apparently simple story of Ahmed (Ahmed Poor): an eight year old child who has unintentionally taken his friend’s school notebook home and has to return it to him so that his friend can do his homework. The entire film revolves round Ahmed’s attempts to locate his friend’s home in Poshteh and his determination to find his friend’s house on his own as he receives no help from the adults around him.

 Kiarostami sets his story in the small village of Koker, a place that would become a setting for some of his later films as well. Kiarostami’s cinematic world is the mundane world of ordinary Iranian village dwellers; his cinematography uses everyday shots of mud caked boots, half open door frames, latched windows to convey his thematic concerns of authoritarian imposition on a child’s will and autonomous desires. Throughout the film’s narrative one gets a sense of the disconnection between the child’s world and the adult’s world (the stern disciplining of the schoolteacher, the indifference and negligence of Ahmed’s mother and the lack of help of any adult towards Ahmed’s goal of returning the book), as well as a confusing adult code of rules and duties that clashes with the honest impulse of Ahmed that impels him towards always “doing the right thing”.

All Ahmed knows about the location of his friend’s home is that it is in the neighboring village of Poshtesh, and when his mother asks him to fetch bread he rushes out of his home with his friend’s school notebook on his quest to return it to him. Ahmed’s journey to Poshteh is a direct violation of his mother’s order and in this sense his journey to Poshteh becomes a quest to achieve autonomy by doing his duty towards his friend. None of the adults in the film can comprehend Ahmed’s urgent need to return his friend’s note book; Ahmed’s strong loyalty towards his friend is interpreted as unnecessary stubbornness by the adults. Once in Poshteh Ahmed finds out that his friend’s cousin has just left for Koker, to whom he can hand over the note book. So he runs all the way back to Koker.

The shots of Ahmed running through the Iranian countryside generate panoramic images of pastoral beauty. Interestingly one can also see a parallel between the emerging free self of Ahmed with the vast, open, untamed valleys and fields of the natural world around him. The wide open fields instill within the viewer a recognition of Ahmed’s growing sense of elation and his freedom from adult imposition. Once back in Koker, as he passes by a store, Ahmed meets his grandfather who sternly reprimands him for going outside the village. The short cameo of the grandfather is significant: from his conversation with the other adults near the stores we learn of the harsh Iranian views of child rearing. What is remarkable is the grandfather’s hypocrisy: while he wants Ahmed to be dutiful and honest, he is totally indifferent to Ahmed’s sincere and loyal desire to return his friend’s note book. Near the stores, Ahmed overhears a tradesman mentioning the name of his friend and follows him all the way back to Poshteh, believing that the tradesman is related to his friend.

 Back in Poshteh Ahmed meets a boy in the tradesman’s house but he is not his friend. By this time dusk has settled in and darkness descends all around Ahmed. Yet he is not willing to give up his quest of returning the note book. He chances upon a man who promises to show him his friend’s house. But eventually Ahmed realizes that the man is full of tall tales and may not know where his friend lives. Amidst the barking of the dogs and the darkness all around him, Ahmed feels threatened and scared. Recognizing the pointlessness of roaming any more in Poshteh, Ahmed runs back to Koker. However, his quest to help his friend is not over. Back in his house Ahmed sits with his and his friend’s books in front of him, trying to solve the problem of getting his friend’s homework done. The next shot of the film takes the viewer to the next day at Ahmed’s school where the stern schoolteacher is checking all the boys’ note books for their homework.

In a heartrendingly beautiful ending, Kiarostami shows Ahmed entering the school room, sitting beside his friend, and calmly telling him not to worry as he has done both their homework. The film ends with the open notebooks of Ahmed and his friend, with a distinctive yellow flower pressed between the pages of Ahmed’s friend’s book. Ahmed succeeds in fulfilling his duty towards his friend, and in the process of doing so, achieves his own autonomous selfhood, free from the restrictions of hypocritical adult rules. Childhood friendship in the film becomes a means of subverting adult impositions and indifference. Ahmed manages to break free from the shackles of mundane rules of the adult world by achieving his selfless goal of helping his friend. At the end of the film the viewer is filled with happiness, not just at the fulfillment of Ahmed’s quest, but also because of Ahmed’s triumph over the adults around him. Kiarostami, through the character of Ahmed, celebrates the intelligence, autonomy, and innocent compassion of a child who refuses to be thwarted by the authoritarian cruelty of the adult world.

– Somrita Misra

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