By Shaun Lee Case (El Sobrante, CA)
In the film, Where Is the Friend’s Home? Kiarostami demonstrates how plot occurs organically from the simple motivations of a central character. This does not seem unusual, until you consider his choice of a main character. Instead of using a standard cinematic figurehead – a leading lady or male hero figure, both which require the formal trappings of plot, dramatic scenarios, and situational resolution, Kiarostami uses a unique and somewhat underutilized plot device: that of telling the story through the voice and eyes of a minor character.
Akira Kurosawa used this ‘minor character’ device effectively in The Hidden Fortress (1958), allowing the film to unfold around two incompetent, bumbling peasant farmers who try to make a little money by signing up as war mercenaries. In the opening scene, we see the farmers returning from battle, wearing mere rags, physically exhausted, blaming each other for their unfortunate fate. They were late to the battle and made no money, ending up as slaves for the opposition, burying their own dead soldiers. George Lucas claims this film heavily influenced his choice of central characters – the two bickering, disagreeable robots, C3PO and R2D2, in Star Wars (1977ii). Director Peter Jackson focused the action of his epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003) upon two diminutive hobbits, farming peasants in their society, whom carry the magic ring to its final end.
In his film, Kiarostami focused on a young schoolboy who accidentally takes home his friend’s homework, without which his friend will get expelled the next day. By centering the film on the routine trials of the boy, the audience follows a socially neutral central character, allowing the viewer to see the townspeople in the film without any restrictions. We see the boy’s mother in an unadulterated way – a tired, overworked, strict disciplinarian with 3 kids, exhausted by the end of her day.
We see the underwhelmed schoolteacher, disappointed by his students and clearly unhappy with his job; the village door maker, at the end of his life, sharing his former glories and regrets with the boy. The boy’s grandfather shares his philosophy in life, telling us why he’s so hard on the boy; (“My old man gave me a penny and a beating everyday…he sometimes forgot to give me the penny…but the beating…somehow, he never forgot to give me the beating…”) Not chastising the boy would allow him to grow up soft and undisciplined, unable to keep a job or support his family. (“It’s the tradition we live by.”) The elder generation requires discipline in the young modern Iranians, more heavily influenced by Western ideals than the previous generation.
One example from the film of a tradition passing from the elders to the young boy is exposed in the final image of the film. Earlier, the village door maker gave the boy a flower and said, “Put this in your book…”
[The teacher checks the boy’s homework. He opens the book, finding the homework and a pressed flower, which was given to the boy by the door maker. “Good boy…” the teacher says. The image stays on screen. Blackout.]
Kiarostami leaves it up to the audience to interpret the significance of the flower. Perhaps it is an ancient Persian custom, some centuries old, or perhaps the teacher reconnected with nature for one brief moment when he saw the flower. Iranians are very fond of poetry, and this certainly is a poetic gesture, but I assert it is a symbol of the lesson learned by the boy; an artifact proving that some elder relative took the time to show him something about his Persian culture.
In Iran, Pressed flowers signify the eternity of nature, and demonstrate to the teacher – and audience – that the boy has learned a central life lesson along with his humble school assignment while searching (in vain) for the friend’s house.