“Abbas Kiarostami: Life As Art” Film Series Reviews

by on September 10, 2019

Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive is currently in the midst of screening “Abbas Kiarostami: Life As Art,” a near comprehensive retrospective of the films of Abbas Kiarostami.  This event is a months-long film series dedicated to the works of the late highly acclaimed Iranian humanist filmmaker. In a way, this film series’ existence rebukes Washington’s shallow political vilification of the Iranian people with the complexities of art’s ability to capture the nuances of the human heart.

Kiarostami’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable when the viewer considers how simple his films appear to be.  Instead of displaying ADHD-afflicted film editing, the camera serves as a patient viewer surrogate quietly observing the events depicted onscreen.  The descriptions of Kiarostami’s films can generally be summarized in one sentence, such as “boy goes to a neighboring village to return friend’s notebook (Where Is The Friend’s Home?)” or “a hypothetical class disruption becomes a study in solidarity and obedience (Case #1 Case #2).”  Even when Kiarostami participates in his documentaries, he never steals attention away from the people he’s observing.

The experience of watching a Kiarostami film might be likened somewhat to reading a haiku.  Both creative media start from a place of bare bones simplicity, yet closer attention to the unstated ideas reveal deeper meanings in the work presented.  Yet unlike the Japanese poem form, Kiarostami’s films are not bound by the restrictions of format. Iranian government censorship, though, creates its own limitations on Kiarostami’s work.

Four of the films reviewed here use the struggles to children to launch larger understated critiques of Iranian society.  The documentary “A.B.C. Africa” may be an outlier, but children still play a significant role in the film.

“Where Is The Friend’s Home?” might be called the most casually accessible of Kiarostami’s films.  This movie is the first installment in what eventually became known worldwide as the Koker trilogy.  The title refers to the films’ common setting, an Iranian rural village called Koker.

This first Koker film starts off in an elementary school classroom.  Ahmad and Mohammad Reza are classroom seatmates. When Ahmad discovers he’s accidentally taken his friend’s notebook by mistake, he sets out for Mohammad Reza’s home village of Poshteh to find the other boy and return the notebook.  The boy’s big problem is that he doesn’t know where his friend lives.

The quest to find Mohammad Reza’s home may be the engine that drives Kiarostami’s film.  Yet the movie’s real goal is capturing the arbitrariness of adults’ relationship to children.

Mohammad Reza’s ability to obtain schooling gets endangered by his teacher’s disciplinary excesses.  It’s not enough to the instructor that the boy did his homework. The pedagogue’s more concerned that the assignments be done in a certain way: written in a notebook and brought to class.  Instead, the unfortunate student submitted his homework on loose pieces of paper. Given what the viewer sees of both Koker and Poshteh’s poverty, these pieces were probably not easily found.  The teacher’s public destruction of the boy’s homework papers and his threat to expel his student if the boy forgets his notebook again conflates discipline with maximum public humiliation. As Mohammad Reza’s seatmate and protector, Ahmad is very aware of the enormity of the consequences of his friend’s failing to bring his notebook to class.

Yet many of the adults Ahmad encounters in his efforts to return Mohammad Reza’s notebook also unfortunately put higher stock in Ahmad’s blind obedience.  The builder who tears a page out of Mohammad Reza’s notebook so he can write a receipt clearly doesn’t care about Ahmad’s objections. Ahmad’s mother puts the boy in a continual bind by expecting him to do his homework while also performing such sudden tasks as fetching water or rocking the baby.  It’s almost an insult that she sees her conscientious son as a laggard seeking an excuse to go out and play.

But the film’s most quietly chilling iteration on adult arbitrariness comes with Ahmad’s grandfather.  The old man sends the boy on a fake errand home to look for cigarettes. The point of the errand, as the elderly man explains to a friend, isn’t to actually find the smokes.  It’s more about training a child to perform a task after being asked once by an adult. The injustice of this mentality is underscored by the social acceptance of an adult beating a child even for invented reasons.

The direct nature of the sequence with Ahmad’s grandfather contrasts strongly with the less direct storytelling Kiarostami uses in other parts of this film.  The probable punishment Ahmad receives for his unauthorized trip to Poshteh and late return home is never seen on screen. Instead, the viewer is shown an incredibly withdrawn Ahmad and parents who act as if things are normal.  It’s not a stretch to imagine the boy being filled with self-doubt regarding the wisdom of his emergency trip to Poshteh.

The answer that’s delivered comes metaphorically to Ahmad via a blown open door and laundry hanging on the line.  The patient efforts of Ahmad’s mother to retrieve the laundry proves unintentionally instructive for the boy.

Kiarostami suggests in this film that kids like Ahmad are pint-size Odysseuses.  Their lives involve continually navigating between the Scylla of social obedience and the Charybdis of being a good student.  Some kids like Mohammad Reza wind up crashing against the metaphorical rocks. But others such as Ahmad can make it through this proverbial narrow passageway, albeit with frequent difficulty.

***

“Homework” returns to the familiar relationship between children and homework.  However, the director’s curiosity pushes the film’s formal inquiry in a different direction.

Kiarostami asks:  If homework is intended to be for children, why are adults more involved in the process of doing the work?  Is the root of the problem the children, their parents, or the educational system itself? Finding the answers to these “research project” questions involves in part interviews with boys from the Shahid Massoumi school.  On the adult side, only a couple of fathers talk on camera. The only teachers who appear on screen are leading their young charges on group chants.

Then again, particularly in matters of student discipline, the instructors come off spectacularly badly.  The teachers treat corporal punishment as part of their job toolbox. Whether it’s ruler or cane or belt used to administer physical punishment, the average Pacific Film Archive viewer will probably wind up shocked at the casualness with which corporal punishment is administered by school personnel.

Yet the parental units certainly can’t claim moral superiority on the punishment issue.  Quite a few of the boys interviewed remember being beaten by their parents for not doing their homework.  At the same time, these boys also get beaten for not immediately helping with the household chores. It’s rich that some parents set themselves up as arbiters of the quality of their children’s work, as quite a few of these adults are illiterate.  It’s also damning that these children can easily describe the forms of punishment they may be subjected to. To the boys interviewed, imagining what adult praise or encouragement looks like in practice appears to them like an inconceivable abstraction.

The only exception to an apparent norm of atrocious adult behavior comes from a father who’s seen educational systems from other countries in action.  The Iranian educational system noticeably fails to encourage student creativity. Also, isn’t it odd that teachers are trained in new methods to teach students, yet even semi-literate parents also seem expected to help their children despite the adults’ unfamiliarity with the new teaching methods?

The damaging consequences of this harsh system on the students’ psyches are generally subtle.  None of the interviewed boys see corporal punishment as an incongruent part of the educational system.  Questions regarding the students’ preference for homework vs. cartoons yields a suspiciously consistent student choice of homework.

2nd grader Madji’s very visible fear openly shows how badly a child’s psyche can be damaged by this punitive teaching environment.  He cries uncontrollably and has a panic attack at the possibility of being left alone in a room with any adult, even Kiarostami and his crew.   Only when the viewer hears Madji sing a religious song with astounding sureness does his fear and anxiety evaporate,

“Homework” came out a couple of years after the earlier “Where Is The Friend’s Home?”  Instead of imposing a story on the material he filmed, the director chose to let his interview subjects’ words in front of the camera shape his approach to the filmed material.  The plethora of talking heads and shots of the cameraman focusing the lens may get visually repetitive. Yet the film’s gradual accretion of similar everyday detail makes Kiarostami’s criticism of the Iranian education system particularly powerful.

***

One Kiarostami character who clearly resists the pressures of the Iranian educational system is Qassem Julayi.  He’s the anti-heroic lead (and titular character) of Kiarostami’s first feature film “The Traveler.”

Qassem is obsessed with soccer.  He plays soccer games without caring about being late for class.  Covert reading of a soccer magazine in class is worth risking his teacher’s condemnation.  But the boy’s biggest challenge comes when he wants to see his favorite team play in distant Tehran.  Theft, lying, and scamming become necessary tools to raise the money for his excursion.

Kiarostami resists the dramatic shortcut of moralistic condemnation in favor of asking a pointed question about his young anti-hero.  How deeply can the amorality of desire consume “The Traveler”’s protagonist? There’s something admittedly ingenious about Qassem’s coming up with such scams as charging money to take pictures with an old defective camera.  However, an important ethical barrier feels badly breached after the boy betrays his fellow soccer teammates to obtain the last bits of money he needs for the trip.

It’s ironic that once Qassem reaches Tehran, the desire that motivated him to make the trip to the city turns into an emotional liability.   His desire to catch the game overrides both his shoestring budgeting and his willingness to reject a ticket scalper who sells game tickets at extortionate prices.  The boy’s pre-game exploration of the area around the stadium shows by implication how small his obsession appears compared to his glimpses of the wonders of Tehran.

Kiarostami’s cinematic chronicling of the consequences of Qassem’s driving desires doesn’t deny the boy will face a future reckoning alluded to in a dream.  Yet it’s also clear how pitifully unprepared he is to face that inevitable moment.

***

A non-fictional study in crime and punishment describes the documentary “Case #1 Case #2.”  A range of individuals (including a student’s parents, the executive producer of a TV children’s program, the Minister of Education, and a filmmaker) are presented with a hypothetical situation and are asked for their opinions on the students’ actions.

In a classroom, an unnamed student’s repeated covert under the table drumming interrupts a teacher drawing the makeup of the human inner ear on the blackboard.  In retribution, the teacher punishes the students in the two back rows by sending them out of the classroom. An ultimatum is attached to the temporary expulsion:  either give up the name of the culprit or both guilty and innocent students lose a week of classroom time. Various interview subjects are asked whether the punished students should reveal the name of the culprit or else suffer the collective punishment of temporary expulsion.

The range of interview subjects impressively goes from the boys’ parents to education experts to even a religious judge.  Unsurprisingly, the subjects’ answers and their rationales in particular also cover a variety of viewpoints. Among the reasons given for a subject’s answers are: preserving solidarity with one’s peers to squandering educational opportunities; blaming the teacher for lack of preparedness; and opposing solidarity for a wrongful purpose.  The cumulative disagreements don’t show that the filmmaker has failed in his aim. Instead, they create an engrossing intellectual conversation regarding the values that a society should cherish and promote.

Jason Sanders’ note on “Case #1 Case #2” in the Pacific Film Archive program adds a couple of intriguing background notes.  First, Kiarostami began the film during the last days of the Shah of Iran’s reign and completed it in the early days of the Iranian Revolution.  It’s not clear if this fact affected the answers interviewees gave. Second, the Iranian Revolution would personally impact many of the film’s interviewees.  For example, Ayatollah Khalkali gained a post-Revolution reputation as a hanging judge while foreign minister Sategh Ghotbzadeh was executed a few years after the film’s completion.  It would have been interesting for someone to have compared the film interviewees’ responses with their post-Revolution fates.

***

As mentioned above, the documentary “A.B.C. Africa” is an outlier among the films discussed here.  It was filmed in Uganda, not Iran. The director made this film under the aegis of the NGO International Fund for Agricultural Development.  The intention behind the film is to draw world attention to the organization Ugandan Women’s Efforts To Save Orphans (UWESO).

UWESO started out as a woman-run volunteer organization dedicated to helping child orphans created first by civil war then by the AIDS crisis.  It has branches in over half of Uganda, and has aided tens of thousands of affected children. These numbers are impressive. However, the scope of the orphan problem is figuratively a hundred times worse than the children UWESO has helped.

Kiarostami’s digital footage captures some of the details of UWESO’s operations.  They include bright yellow shirts and blouses worn by dozens of children to the anonymous bunk bedding provided to women served by UWESO.  A particularly moving moment involves the preparations for transport of a child’s corpse. Some of the preparations feel make-shift, such as the use of a previously used cardboard box and bungee cords.  But it’s all necessary as the transport vehicle is the back of a bicycle lacking even a storage basket. Instead of appealing to other countries’ charity, Kiarostami’s footage inside and outside UWESO’s facilities capture the volunteers’ adaptability to perform what’s needed in the face of an overwhelming problem

Admiration of the Ugandans’ adaptability comes through every frame Kiarostami shoots for this documentary.  So what if a ramshackle building lacks windows or even doors? As footage of the building’s inhabitants shows, the roof  provides protection from the rain and that’s what matters. Or what if there are more orphaned children than adults available to tend them?  Grandmothers prove unconcerned as they raise ten or even twenty orphans including non-blood relatives.

The director even gets his own hands-on experience with the country’s ethos of adaptability.  At one hotel where Kiarostami and his party are staying, the electricity gets cut off at midnight.  The sudden cutoff plunges the screen into darkness, a problem worsened by the director’s neglecting to carry a flashlight.  But instead of complaining about his carelessness or using his digital camera to provide some illumination, Kiarostami takes a different approach.  In a sequence lasting several long minutes, he and his party treat the careful moving around in the dark as an adventure where they try to deduce where their rooms are located.

The film’s title may suggest the film could be taken as a cinematic child’s primer of Uganda or even other African countries.  Yet it’s also an allusion to Kiarostami’s openness to seeing the basics of everyday Ugandan life. From his request to hear a tape of lively Kampala-based music to seeing a village’s improvised businesses, the director displays a curiosity that finds more beauty in the sight of mosquitoes flying around a night-time lamp than in the sight of his hotel grounds’ carefully manicured topiary.

Perhaps that unstated attitude explains why the presence of the white Austrian couple never feels like a moment of salvation.  The couple, both teachers, appear kind-hearted and able to provide a materially richer home for the Ugandan orphan they’re adopting.  Yet how great a price will the child pay for adapting to the culture of the adoptive parents?

(“Where Is The Friend’s Home?” screens at 7:00 PM on September 13, 2019.   “Homework” screens at 8:00 PM on October 11, 2019. “Case #1 Case #2” screens at 4:00 PM on September 22, 2019.  “A.B.C. AFrica” screens at 4:00 PM on November 22, 2019. All screenings take place at the Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley).  “The Traveller” is still streaming on the Criterion Channel. For further information about these films and others in the Kiarostami film series, go to www.bampfa.org/program/abbas-kiarostami-life-as-art .)

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