Where Is My Friend’s House (1987)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

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Where Is My Friend’s House reminded me of several different children-centric European films: Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) and another 1987 film, Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants.

The story follows a young boy, Ahmed, as he doggedly searches a small town to return a notebook to his classmate.  It’s an incredibly simple story, like the plot of The Bicycle Thief, and it’s the kid’s sincerity that connects him to Anotoine Doinel and the children of Au Revoir Les Enfants.

It’s hard not to love Ahmed, and it’s hard not to be put off by the adults.  Like in Truffaut’s debut film, the adults are a force of oppression, and the kids are like prisoners.  They are at the mercy of the adults who impose rules and dole out punishment.

When this film begins, we’re in a small classroom where the teacher chastises a boy, Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh, for not doing his homework in a notebook given out to each boy (only now do I realize there were no girls in the classroom).  Nematzadeh begins to cry, saying that his cousin took his notebook, but the teacher doubles down, telling him that the next time he fails to do his homework the right way, he will be expelled.

That night we follow Ahmed home.  His mother tells him to watch the baby and then to help with chores around the house.  Ahmed looks into his bag and realizes he took Nematzadeh’s notebook by mistake.  He insists he must go return it to him so the boy won’t be expelled, but his mother says he must finish his own homework before going out to play.

Ahmed tries to tell her this isn’t so he can play, but throughout the film he will be drowned out or otherwise ignored by the adults around him.  Look at how earnest this boy is…

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…and the adults are just there to get in his way.

To highlight the theme, there’s a conversation between two men about midway through the film.  One speaks of how his father used to alternately punish and reward him as a child.  One week he would give him a small allowance and the next a punishment.  Occasionally he forgot the allowance but never the punishment.

He reasons that the punishment was necessary to shape him into a functioning adult.  Kids need to be kept in line.  The man to whom he speaks challenges him by posing a similar hypothetical.  What would this man do were he in his father’s shoes?  Well, he’d just punish the boy like he was punished.

“What I mean to say is, suppose the kid did nothing wrong. What would you do? What then?”

“I’d find an excuse and give him a beating every other week. So he wouldn’t forget.”

The man is oblivious to his irrationality.  He will punish the boy just to punish him, working under the assumption that a child needs to be punished like a garden needs to be watered.

This is the line of thinking of most of the adults in the film.  They are stern and lack any apparent compassion.  It’s not that such compassion doesn’t exist, just that we don’t see it through the film.  Like those other children-centric films I listed above, this is a story seen through the child’s eyes.  To Ahmed, the parents are the enforcers, they are the law, really they are judge, jury and executioner.

But Ahmed persists.  He is so tireless in his attempt to find Nematzadeh, even as others cast aside his concern or refuse to believe his motivations altogether.  Ahmed is pure, trying his best to make his way through a world that tries to keep him down.

It’s a story with little nuance, but it certainly gets the point across.  We also feel for Ahmed.  This is a quiet story, often taking its time like with Kiarostami’s other works, but the final shot of the film, in which we see if Ahmed’s efforts were worth it, are strangely exhilarating.

So Ahmed is no different than any other child.  At least, we’re not led to believe there is anything special about him.  The purity of spirit, his desire to do good, to help his fellow man, can be taken to reflect the other children around him.  He already has it in him to do the good that adults think it takes a series of punishments to encourage.  He has it already, but they can’t see that.

Maybe the lasting message is that we underestimate children?  Or that what one child needs another doesn’t, and vice versa.  Ahmed is under a system that seeks to weed out a disposition he may never have possessed.

Up Next: The Breaking Point (1950), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)

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