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Owen’s Oldies: ‘Where is the Friend’s House?’



Owen's Oldies written behind an old film projector
Ben Hurney / THE GATEPOST

By Owen Glancy

Asst. Arts & Features Editor


Many countries have a rich and expansive catalog of films that define their place in the medium’s history. The obvious ones like the U.S., France, South Korea, Japan, and the United Kingdom have long enjoyed time in the spotlight of both film history and the casual movie-going audience. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know of at least one film from all of these countries. 


Ask that same person if they know any Iranian films, however, and I doubt you’ll get the same response. 


Iran is a country with just as rich a film history as many of the modern giants like South Korea. However, most people are unaware of Iranian film, and even those that are often find it hard to pick that first film to watch. This is where Abbas Kiarostami comes in. 


Kiarostami is the most popular and prolific name in Iranian cinema, and for good reason. His films stand out as being some of the greatest works in the history of the medium, especially his 1987 masterpiece, “Where is the Friend’s House?”


Taking place in the small village of Koker, this was the first film in what would become the Koker Trilogy, a series of films all set in the titular town and directed by Kiarostami.


The story follows Ahmed, a young boy who realizes that he accidentally took his friend’s notebook home with him, without which the friend cannot complete his homework. Afraid his friend will be expelled if he misses another assignment, Ahmed decides to track his friend down to return the notebook before the day is over. 


This is by no means an epic story - the consequences are fairly small - but to Ahmed this is the most important moment of his life so far. It's that perspective of a great journey that makes the film so compelling. 


I’ve never seen a film that so perfectly understands not only what it’s like to be a child, but how being a child is perceived by those around them. Unlike many films about children, which often feel the need to prop up their young protagonists as heroes or bigger parts of the community than they actually would be, this film makes every interaction and small little detail about how children are portrayed feel realistic. 


Ahmed is absolutely the focus of the story here - there can be no doubt about it. But the camera chooses not to focus on him, oftentimes being more interested in capturing the bigger picture. It keeps us grounded in the realism of his journey while still making it feel significant. 


The cinematography is only one piece of the puzzle though, as the production design goes a long way in giving the film the unique atmosphere it has. These towns feel simultaneously bustling with activity and somehow very empty. This community is so tight-knit, it feels like everyone knows everyone else. That sense of community is what makes Ahmed, and on a greater scale, the children’s roles in it feel so realistic. 


Throughout the film, Ahmed routinely tries to get the help of different adults in his quest, but it never seems to work out. From his mother telling him not to leave the house, to his grandfather demanding he go run him errands, to the random people he encounters on the street brushing him off or giving him blatantly wrong directions, it is made abundantly clear how these adults view the children of Koker.


There isn’t any malice in their actions, but there isn’t love either. The film walks this emotional tight-rope between love and hate and it makes for this moral gray that covers the adults throughout the movie. 


Life has undoubtedly not been kind to many of these characters, and as such, they know that Ahmed’s mission is inconsequential. However, because they are so jaded, they fail to remember how important those nagging little issues with your childhood friends felt to you. It leads to these adults giving half-baked advice and compliments that only serve to further increase the difficulty of Ahmed’s journey. 


Frankly, this perspective makes this essential viewing for anyone looking to see an accurate yet entertaining portrayal of childhood in film. So why isn’t this more popular? Well, a lot of that probably has to do with how the public views foreign films. 


Admittedly, this has gotten better in recent years, but the cinema of countries like Iran still has not caught up to the public consciousness, and that is a genuine shame. 


“Where is the Friend’s House?” is a masterpiece that should be seen by everyone, regardless of how familiar with film and its history you are. 


The only place to stream this film is on the Criterion Channel - otherwise you must buy the physical release. 

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