Speaking in Doha during a special retrospective of his films last week, celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami talked a little bit about his work. He prefers not to say much by way of interpretation of his work, leaving it to the individual viewer to come to his own conclusions, but he was coaxed to say some words about his first ‘breakthrough’ film, Where Is The Friend’s House? from 1987.
“Once the film is finished your relationship with it becomes impossible because it’s not yours any more. I don’t watch them generally, but it’s true that this one has a special place in my filmography,” he said after the showing, which he exited after the opening scene.
Featuring themes and cinematographic style that become typical of Kiarostami’s work, the film shows the angst of a young schoolboy in a remote Iranian village over having taken his friend’s notebook by mistake. Knowing the teacher could expel him for failing to do his homework in the book, the boy faces various obtacles on a desperate attempt to reach the neighbouring village and find the house of his friend. Its charm lies in the realism of its characters, who were not professional actors – classic Kiarostami schtick.
“They had never seen a film in their lives before and there was no television in their village. The benefit I had was their total ignorance of acting, so it was touching because they lived the film rather than acted it. All the scenes are genuine in that sense, there was no artifice. It was also shot in the order of the script. So they really lived every single stage of it,” he said.
“I am as struck as you are now, asking myself how I was able to get such realistic actions from children. There was a film crew, booms, cameras. So how to get them to believe the story? But I can see there is a cohesion to the film. One thing I’m sure of is that it’s a miracle that only happens once.”
The anxiety of the boy is the central theme of the film and Kiarostami was lucky to find someone who so perfectly, and genuinely, conveyed a the sense of worry.
“When I started looking for actors I needed a child who looked worried. I was by chance at this religious building that was being pulled down by a crane. The look in his eyes was as if he was responsible for it, so I knew I wouldn’t have to ask him to do much,” he said. “I had to find the actor for the second boy. I was at a bakery in the village and saw this kid. I asked where he lived and then went there in evening. I found the first boy opening the door – I realized they were brothers.”
Focussing indulgently on daily scenes of village life, Where Is The Friend’s House does not rely on stunning scenery or colourful locations. The village is located in barren hill country – an element of his film-making that Kiarostami gave more attention to perhaps in later works.
“I can’t give a definition of a good location. You might like a landscape because it’s green but you might as well find beauty in the desert landscape because we’re not used to that. If you’re story is relevant for the characters and the location, then all the beauty of the location emerges, it’s a matter of relevance. I don’t know if you’ve seen Amin Naderi’s Water, Wind, Earth. He forgoes the bucolic landscapes of Iran for barren landscapes.”
Asked about the creative process – how he develops ideas for films – Kiarostami said it was not straightforward. “It’s a good question but the answer would be long. There’s not one unique answer. I don’t go and get the subjects, rather they come to me. And when they are stubborn and remain for months, I realize the only way to get rid of them is to go ahead and write them,” he said.
It’s 15 years since Kiarostami made a film in Iran itself because of political pressure on the cinema industry. The last work shot there was his Taste of Cherry, the film that won him the Palme D’Or in 1997. He has made the most of it, with a series of films shot in foreign locations and in different languages, including Certified Copy, shot in Italy in 2010 and Like Someone In Love, shot in Japan in 2012 – testament to his belief in cinema as a universal mode of artistic expression that transcends boundaries. They remain quintessentially Kiarostami despite the divergence in form.
“We have censorship in Iran but it never really stopped us making films, especially now with new technology. You can make films with small cameras, so you can make films no matter the circumstances. Censorship hasn’t managed to stop the trend of young filmmakers, though it has had an influence (on the nature of the output),” he said. “I’m not exception – my films haven’t been released in Iran in 15 years, but I’ve continued making films outside Iran, unfortunately.”