Where Is The Friend’s House? (Khane-ye doust kodjast?)

Iran (1987) Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

As children, we are constantly told by adults to be good, act with honesty, and always do what is right, perfectly admirable traits to instil in a person. Unfortunately, as children, we find ourselves being pulled in different directions by adults forcing their own interests upon us, putting our actions in behaving responsibly in jeopardy with someone.

Eight year-old Mohamed Reza Nematzadeh (Ahmed Ahmedpour) earns the wrath of his stern teacher (Kheda Barech Defai) for not doing his homework in his notebook which he left at his cousin’s house. The teacher warns Mohamed he will be expelled is he fails to present his notebook again, but that afternoon, Mohamed’s friend Ahmed Ahmadpour (Babek Ahmedpour), who sits next to him in class, discovers he has accidentally picked up Mohamed’s notebook.

Not wanting his friend to be expelled, Ahmed feels duty bound to deliver the book to Mohamed but his mother (Iran Outari) refuses to listen to her son’s plea, forcing him to do chores for her instead. When sent out to buy bread, Ahmed takes this opportunity to sneak off to Mohamed’s house but doesn’t have the exact address, only that he is in the neighbouring province of Poshteh, which is a distance away.  

Having since been recognised as one of Iran’s foremost filmmakers of the last thirty years, Where Is The Friend’s House? is the film that broke Abbas Kiarostami in the international market. Considered the first in the unofficial Koker Trilogy (Koker is the tiny village where Ahmed lives), this deceptively simple tale of a friend’s devotion to another is a veiled swipe at archaic attitudes towards duty and responsibility.

Like many neo-realist filmmakers before him, Kiarostami uses the innocence of children to make his metaphor just that little more potent, whilst ensuring the audience has a protagonist to root for from the start. It’s a tactic that should be frowned upon but the best way to make a situation all that more unreasonable is to have someone in it who is incapable of presenting a counter argument that will be heard.

Teachers are often portrayed as bullying brutes in film purely to engender sympathy for younger protagonists, yet it feels quite natural that the male teacher in an impoverished Iranian village would be the myopic, hectoring type. He shows no remorse for making Mohamed cry in front of the whole class, and tearing up the homework he submitted just because it wasn’t in the notebook is extreme – at least the boy did the homework.

Ahmed can only watch on helplessly, and doesn’t feel any pride when the teacher uses his notebook as a perfect example of what he expects from the others. The rationale behind using the notebooks is to encourage discipline and to have a chronological record of their work to check their progress. Makes sense, but couldn’t he have stapled or glued Mohamed’s independent page to his notebook, which was returned by his cousin, also in the same class?

In establishing the distance between Koker and Poshteh, the cousin arrives late and is admonished by the teacher, instructing him and others from the area to go to bed earlier so they can get up earlier and be on time for school. Sound advice but is it his right to make this demand? Furthermore, the teacher makes a rigid decree for the boys to prioritise their homework above anything else, be it going out, helping the family, or anything else.

Unfortunately for Ahmed, and it seems the other boys, his family doesn’t share this urgency; at home their word is law, so if they ask for help on the farm or to do chores, homework can wait. As kids, it is difficult to play one against the other as both rule with an iron hand, so all they can do is make a decision based on which holder of authority has the harshest punishment to endure.

But there is a deeper moral crisis for Ahmed, having done his homework but not wishing to see Mohamed expelled for his error which he knows the teacher won’t be sympathetic towards. Despite explaining the situation to his mother, she shows zero compassion or concern, instead has Ahmed rushing about seeing to the baby before sending him out to get the bread.

The journey to, from, and around Poshteh is eventful for a variety of reasons, the only constant being Ahmed’s determination to deliver the notebook but with no address, he is spitting in the wind. Kiarostami throws in some nice missteps in making this mission as insurmountable as possible, with clever teases of Ahmed having found his friend before revealing a bait and switch, a case of so near yet so far.

Perhaps the most pointed segment of the film comes from Ahmed’s grandfather (Rafia Difai), a toothless old crone with a series of apocryphal stories about his childhood (his father used to beat him on alternate weeks by way of instilling discipline into him), which he uses to justify his own unfair treatment of Ahmed. Even in 1987, Kiarostami was aware perpetuating an endless cycle of misery under the guise of respecting tradition was folly and counterproductive to Iranian society moving forward.

With one exception, a helpful old carpenter, the adults in this tale are portrayed as pig headed and inflexible, showing no consideration for others; they certainly refuse to give children credit unless they have discipline beaten into them. Through Ahmed’s dogged sense of fairness and concern, his choice to follow his own moral compass leads him down a path of righteousness we all should tread.

Kiarostami employed non-professional actors for this film which gives it its believability, including a sterling lead turn from young Babek Ahmedpour as Ahmed, the embodiment of wide-eyed innocence. Where Is The Friend’s House? is 83-minutes of thoughtful, endearing, yet quietly powerful cinema reminding us the compassion within us shouldn’t die with age. An essential and sadly still relevant work with a message of universal importance.