By Tristan Teshigahara Pollack


 I.  Mysticism, Sufism and the Pir


The more I think the less I understand

why the truth should be so bitter.

–Abbas Kiarostami



In order to decipher the implicit qualities and poetic references in Kiarostami’s oeuvre, a brief discussion on Persian literature is necessary. Provided that ancient Persian is still intelligible for contemporary Persian speakers, the whole span of Persian literature is accessible for reading and thus remains influential. Hence, the poems of Rudaki (858-941), the first to write in modern Persian language, would be totally comprehensible for the layman. Mahmud Kianush in Modern Persian Poetry confirms Rudaki’s impact on Persian poetry. After Rudaki died, many other prominent poets, such as Naser Khosrow, Ferdowsi, Farrokhi Sistani, Manuchehri Damghani and Nezami Ganjavi, established the Golden Age of Persian poetry in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Their art was innovative, specifically in its figures of speech, rhythm and nuanced imagery. Yet, many of the poets who followed could not produce anything original, and would often imitate the masters. Nevertheless, Kianush asserts, some of the greatest poets to come out of this period like Sanai Ghaznavi, Attar Nishaburi and Jalal od-Din Mohammad Mowlavi did produce some of the best poetical works in mysticism and Sufism (10).

Mahmood Jamal, editor and translator of Islamic Mystical Poetry, has cited: “what defined the early Sufis was their absorption with God, other-worldliness and a life removed, and these concerns were reflected in their sayings and poetic output. These Sufis were mystics and philosophers first and poets second” (Jamal xix). Many early Sufis spent their time developing and justifying the ‘Sufi Path’ through the mixture of Islamic culture and mystical ideas of the Sufis. The Sufi Path can be described in several ways but Jamal offers one perspective: “for most, the Path is a path of loving God through His manifestations. To put it simply, Sufism in its human essence replaces a fearsome and unforgiving God with a loving, lovable and merciful one” (xx). Their purpose in life is to annihilate the state of “not-being” so that union with God is made possible. Jamal asserts that one can transcend the element of “not-being” only by conquering Self. Even though the Self may seem real to us, “it is in fact an illusion that is the cause of our main sorrow, that is, our separation from the Divine” (xxi). This principle helped shape Sufi ideology of ecstatic love and tariqa (way, path or method). The tariqa is recognized as a school of Sufism, and those who undergo the tariqa are appointed a pir or murshid (spiritual guide) who serves in the role of guide or teacher. The pir is responsible for guiding and instructing the disciple on the Sufi Path, through general lessons and personal guidance, in essence, he is responsible for leading his student to the quest of union with God. Mahmood Jamal states, “human love, which is the first stage of love, no matter how good and valuable, is not the end of the journey. The true pilgrim of love must recognize it as simply the bridge that he must walk across towards a higher goal” (xxii). In other words, the only way in which the lover can reunite with its Divine source and find its ultimate goal with Truth is through love. The first lessons of attaining this Love, which is the key principle of Sufism and of all the Sufi poetry it has inspired, must be learned through an earthly, human love. In the end, the disciple must cross the bridge of human love, leaving it behind. As Jamal reminds us, it is not a loss to resign from human love, since much of what awaits the lover is by far more enlightening and beautiful (xxii).

Sufi poetry explores many of the ideas outlined above; it most frequently extols human love as a bridge to an echo of the Divine. That is why many of the Sufi aphorisms and verses have double meanings (and in the case of Hafez, a triple meaning). That is to say, what appears to be mundane and worldly is, in actuality, infused with a spiritual meaning. Aside from the recurring ideas mentioned above, Sufi poetry is pervaded with symbols and metaphors that stem from and expand many of the philosophical ideas from the inception of Sufism (xxv). For example, when a Sufi poem celebrates wine it is also celebrating the spiritual wine Ma’rifat (gnostic knowledge). To illustrate let us observe a poem by Rumi:

In love, nothing is eternal but drinking your wine,

there is no reason for bringing my life to you, other

than losing it. I said, I just want to know you and then disappear.

She said, knowing me does not mean dying.


Indeed, it is clear from the outset that Sufis are always seeking ways to beguile us and enhance our enjoyment with their wit, suspending us between worldliness and spirituality, and by alluding to wine, love, beauty and the Divine in the most illuminating colors.

So how does Kiarostami fit into the realm of Sufism? On the surface, it seems that Kiarostami has nothing to do with the devotional practices of Sufism. It is true that his films are not religious in tone, but they do share similar philosophical themes as expressed in Sufi poetry. In his cinema, many of the motifs that are repeated have metaphoric meaning. Usually, the hero travels in search of something and is accompanied by the pir, who helps him during his expedition. The very notion of extolling and searching for others has much to do with Kiarostami’s cinema. In Close-Up, Hossein impersonates the director Makhmalbaf; Beyzad in The Wind Will Carry Us waits for the burial of the elderly woman; and Farhad, Kiarostami’s surrogate, in Life and Nothing More searches for the two boys in Koker. Kiarostami expresses his subjects with a free-spiritedness just as Sufism has addressed the subject of Islamic religious order, and in so doing he extracts the elements of Sufism that interest him the most. It is also crucial to understand that many of the themes and poetic styles of contemporary Iran originate from ancient Iran. With that said, some of the elements that shape Kiarostami’s spiritual outlook spring from Iranian modernists.


 II. Modern Art in Persia

Abbas Kiarostami is a central figure in contemporary Iranian literary and cinematic production. Perhaps the Persian inclination to resort to versification has to do with the country’s long-standing problem with extreme censorship. The voice of dissent within the Iranian New Wave sparked a renewed international interest in Iran, permanently putting Iran on the map of cinema, but none of the contributors to the movement reached (nor maintained) success and reverence on the level of Kiarostami. Mehrnaz proposes “that at this time Iranians had such a stereotyped image in the West, his cinema introduces a human and artistic face” (Saeed-Vafa 51). She stresses that films before the Iranian New Wave were largely propagandistic, abiding by the Shah’s rules.

Abbas Kiarostami, who established himself as a graphic designer, almost incidentally became a director. Kiarostami began his excursion in film after building the film department in the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon). The Shah’s wife founded the institute in 1961, and it uniquely dedicated itself to cultural and creative activities in the field of mental and cultural growth of children and young adults. The Centre served as a film haven for some of Iran’s foremost animators, along with Iran’s most renowned directors: Abbas Kiarostami, Bahram Bayzai, Ebrahim Forouzesh and Amir Naderi (Dabashi 44). Although Kiarostami took advantage of his position at the Centre, allowing him endless creative license to experiment, Kanoon was often criticized for elitism and intellectualism. However, as Hamid Dabashi believes, the intellectualism and exclusivity was not without purpose – a group of artists, filmmakers, and poets were all frustrated, inevitably advocating for a new change of air. The Shah’s failed attempt in transforming Iran into an industrial global power reached a climax with the onslaught of the White Revolution. With a focus on land reform, the Shah hoped to get rid of the landlord’s influence and to build support among the peasants and lower class. Ultimately, the Shah hoped to be allies with the peasants in the countryside, and to break up their ties to the clergy and the landlords. Hamid Dabashi asserts that “the religious establishment was caught off guard. Converging under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, it countermobilized against the regime. The revolt of June 1963 was widespread and rather extensive, but it failed to destabilize the country,” consequently, Khomeini was forced into exile and the uprising subsided (Dabashi 42). The Iranian intellectual scene, agitated, started to respond to these changes through their cinema and literature. Dabashi points out that the catastrophic consequences of these films was more than compensated for by much more significant developments in literature that matched the best of the 1960s cinema… The publication of Forough’s Another Birth in 1964 marked the most significant event in the history of modern literary creativity in the language. (Dabashi 43).

With the untimely suicide of novelist Sadegh Hedayat in 1951, Nima Yushij established his own modern poetry movement. However, cinema had not yet reached the cultural climate and in fact was a step behind the literary movement. Forough Farrokhzad would provide the missing link between the Iranian New Wave and the modern Persian poetry with the release of The House is Black (1962). Forough along with other leading poets – Ahmad Shamlu, Mehdi Akhavan Sales, and Sohrab Sepehri – were redefining the moral and intellectual atmosphere of the time. Forough, the most significant female Persian writer of this period, was never outright political in tone, but she addressed certain issues that were forcibly repressed by the government. One of the most expressive figures, she was much more than simply a voice of underrepresented femininity, but often would explore a wide range of taboos and forbidden themes. For example the explicit poem, The Sin, feverishly expresses the poet’s desire to be with a married man:

I sinned, a sin all filled with pleasure wrapped in an embraced, warm and fiery I sinned in a pair of arms that were vibrant, virile, violent.


In that dim and quiet place of seclusion

I looked into his eyes brimming with mystery my heart throbbed in my chest all too excited by the desire glowing in his eyes.


In that dim and quiet place of seclusion as I sat next to him all scattered inside his lips poured lust on my lips

and I left behind the sorrows of my heart.


I whispered in his ear these words of love:

“I want you, mate of my soul

I want you, life-giving embrace

I want you, lover gone mad”.


Desire surged in his eyes red wine swirled in the cup my body surfed all over his

in the softness of the downy bed.


I sinned, a sin all filled with pleasure next to a body now limp and languid I know not what I did, God

in that dim and quiet place of seclusion. (Translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak)

Forough’s subversion of the moral code was not only restricted to her creative work, but was also a topic of controversy in her personal life. She refused to live by society’s norms. After marrying her husband at the age of 16, within two years, she divorced (in 1954) and lost custody of her only child. Establishing herself as a poet with a strong feminine voice, she traveled to Europe and had a tryst with filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan, a married man and father. As Forough’s story illustrates both creative freedom and personal freedom left many of the Persian intellectuals in a quandary. These poets were so affected by their limited expression, that they would often look back to older forms of poetry in order to overcome the censorship. The quandary wasn’t only prevalent in literary circles, but many of the key New Wave directors were also subject to government censors.

For instance Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980), one of the greatest proponents of modern Persian Poetry in the 20th century, alienated himself from the literary and artistic trends. His concept of art, uniquely inspired by mysticism, is remarkably linked to a traditional Persian poetry aesthetic. As Alberto Elena emphasizes, “Sepehri has to be considered – not unreasonably – as the poetic counterpart or equivalent to Kiarostami, a kind of lyrical alter ego, with whom he certainly shares multiple and significant points of contact” (Elena 73). Address, a poem who’s first line is eponymous to Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home, overtly advocates to the tradition of mysticism, Sufism, which encompasses the best of Sepehri’s work. This philosophical musing is not entirely modern and Sepehri is aware of this, often paying tribute to the tradition of mysticism.


In the false-dawn twilight

The rider asked

‘Where is the House of the Friend’

The sky halted a passerby

had a branch of light

in his mouth which he gave to the darkness of the sand and pointed with his finger

to an aspen and said:

‘Before you get to the tree there’s a garden-lane

more green than God’s dream.

And in that garden-lane,

as far as the breadth of the wing-spread of candor, love is blue.

You go to the end of the lane which appears behind adolescence then you turn

towards the flower of solitude two steps more to the flower… at the foot of the mountain

of eternal myths you stop and stay and a transparent fear envelops you. In the intimacy of flowing space

you hear a rustling you see a child

who has climbed a pine tree to pick up a chick

from the nest of light

and from the child you ask:

Where is the House of the Friend’


The poem is a meditation on the “poetic mappings” of Sepehri, which for Alberto Elena: “conjures up the figure of the ‘Friend’ as soon as the poem begins; this is one of the names given to God in the great Persian poetic tradition, while the ‘House of the Friend’ is none other than the unattainable goal of the mystical quest” (Elena 74). As the poem implies, Sepehri is less of an Islamic practitioner but more of a mystic admirer. Sepehri, also an accomplished painter, seems to be more drawn to nature and humanity. Although the film isn’t exactly faithful to the poem, there are some commonalities and recurring images. Ahmad crosses a “garden-lane” which steers him to the lone tree, and Ahmad frequently questions the passersby, as he embarks on his journey. Elena reminds us that the symbolism Kiarostami employs is not “abstruse” or made to confuse us; the “zigzag path ‘archetypal symbol of the snake and metaphor for desire,’ or the tree on the crown of the hill, ‘symbol of friendship’ in Persian literature, according to Kiarostami’s own explanation” (Elena 75). The symbolic images of the tree and the meandering path are so significant to the conception of the film that the director actually had to ‘construct’ them. Kiarostami explains: “I had carried this image around in my mind for years, long before making the film. It’s as if I had always been subconsciously attracted by that hill and that solitary tree. So that is the image we wanted to reconstruct accurately in the film”(75). A trope in almost all of his films is the voyage of self-discovery.

Throughout Ahmad’s exhausting journey, he tries his utmost to find his friend’s home, hoping that he can return the misplaced workbook, but really it is a journey of initiation in the poetic and metaphysical sense. As for Kiarostami, “the journey forms part of our culture, and it is linked with mysticism; for us what is really important is not the goal we wish to attain, but the path we must travel to reach it”(75). This certainly applies to Ahmad, considering that although his efforts to find his friend are fruitless, the experience of the journey itself is just as crucial and enriching. Rumi’s own search to find “The Friend” marked a consequential change in which he founded his own unique rapturous self-discipline. For example in Mathnavi he wrote: “When matter dissolves in the ocean, the particles glow. As who I am now melts in a candle flame, identity becomes one vast motion.” Yet again if we look from another perspective there are further connections. As documented in Mathnavi, Sufi teaching has much to do with pedagogy. Rumi emphasizes the role of pir: a spiritual guide or teacher in Sufism. The old carpenter in the film unpredictably fills in the role of pir as Ahmad travels through nocturnal Poshteh. Clearly the most helpful character throughout, the carpenter seems to be the only one who can show Ahmad the way to his friend’s home. Sepehri and Kiarostami show us that there are allusive ways of avoiding censorship, which can imbue the Iranian public with metaphoric readings. At the same time, these artists would play with the tradition of devotional imagery without every being completely religious.

However, if we satisfy ourselves with the Sufi imagery and themes in Kiarostami’s work, we will miss the influence of a decidedly Iranian avant-garde on his work (and his own contributions therein). Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), a film that paints a very unflattering portrait of the state of Iran during the Pahlavi regime, angered the Shah’s censors with its unsympathetic exposure of poverty and destitution; consequently, the film’s release was delayed. The film concerns a man, Masht Hassan, who owns the only cow in an isolated and remote village. He loves the cow like his own child, bathing him, eating with him, and sleeping with him. When the man is away, the cow unexpectedly dies. The villagers, too afraid to break the news to Masht, hide the corpse from him, claiming that it ran away. Masht is so shattered and despondent that he soon begins to behave like the cow: biding his time in the barn, eating hay, until he’s convinced that he is the cow.

For the regime’s censors, the film shot in stark black and white, is the epitome of the ‘cynical,’ negative image that directors like Mehrjui would project. Depicting impoverished backwards peasants, films such as The Cow worked in direct opposition to the Shah’s positive image of Iran. In the post-White Revolution era, both filmmakers and audiences were ready for a bleaker view of their world and a more accurate critique of contemporary struggles. Though denounced by the government, the New Wave directors were able to sustain themselves through their international successes. In the early 70s, some of the most important films of the Iranian New Wave were released. A Simple Event, directed by Sohrab Shahid-Saless, depicts the languid, every-day cadences of quotidian life. The film is shown through the eyes of a 10-year old boy who lives with his mother and father in the coast of Iran. The boy helps his parents, facing much drudgery and experiences no sense of happiness. The family lives together in a single room, enduring a poor and miserable existence. One day the mother falls seriously ill and all hopes for a brighter future are shattered. School is proven to be futile: the boy is incapable of learning anything in a tyrannical system that allows no freedom for individual growth and discovery. Saless’s world is a grim one – nothing will stop the father from spending all his earnings on alcohol, nothing will change in the boy’s drudgery, and even when the most disturbing ‘event’ takes place, as the film’s title implies: life goes on. By contrast, Still Life (1974) examines the uneventful, dreary life of a railway switch-operator, a film which clearly influenced Kiarostami. The story of the film, if it even has one, concerns a nameless, aged man who routinely goes to a railroad junction to operate the switch in some unknown town. Throughout the course of the film, we learn nothing about him, his wife, his home and his retirement. Nothing changes in

the old man’s life until the unexpected occurs, when the supervisor from the office visits him to inform him of his imminent resignation. Hamid Dabashi astutely notes, the problem in this case is not with power but with its command to initiate something it calls retirement. Retirement from what? There has been no tiring effort in the old man’s life from which to retire and rest — as there is no conclusion to a life that has not, nor has it ever, even begun. Time and space are languidly stale in this purgatory — nothing really starts or ends, nor does this couple move from one to another location. (Dabashi 153).

Indeed, Saless’s film is by no means a political statement although it’s easy to read his films that way. Like Kiarostami, Saless is too contrarian to fit it in any political agenda of the 70s. The methodology of Saless’s cinema also seems to parallel Kiarostami’s. Sohrab Shahid-Saless claims, “A Simple Event has no plot. It is only a report on the daily life of a boy.” This remark is by no means intended to be cheeky, but instead it can be read as a brief exegesis in discerning the implications in Saless’s cinema. Take for example the seemingly uneventful life of the switch-operator in Still Life, a man who experiences no shift or alteration in his daily life, who is suddenly asked to retire.


The situations in Saless’s film start unassumingly, Saless invites his audience to engage and empathize with the monotonous existence of these anonymous characters. While Kiarostami paints a much more uplifting picture of Iranians, they both share a similar sensibility in their depiction of these characters. In a similar vein to Saless, Kiarostami is balanced between objective reporting and poetic storytelling. The nexus of the New Iranian Cinema and the modern Persian literary movement signified artistic opposition to Pahlavi’s regime. Regardless of how you look at it, the unclassifiable aspects of Saless’s and Kiarostami’s cinema, are symptomatic of the many radical changes that were brought about by each of these unique artists.

Despair and cynicism, according to Mehrnaz, was the tool of the New Wave: “the tone of many of these films was negative, conveying a sense of disappointment and estrangement towards the indifferent and hypocritically imposed modernism of the 1970s” (Saeed-Vafa 57). This was the only way in which the artists could protest against the Shah’s system of propaganda. Aware of the repercussions of their polemic, many artists of this period would resort to symbolism. Through symbolism they were able to transgress the conventions of cinema without upsetting the censors. Azadeh Farahmand notes, “these regulations resulted in the outright banning of certain imported ‘revolutionary’ films, such as Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1965), Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969) and Guzman’s Battle of Chile (1976), and in the manipulation of other films through dubbing, cutting, and even re-editing to conform to ‘acceptable’ criteria” (Farahmand 88). The 60s and 70s marked a time of government pride, and the bulk of films screened displayed a scathing image of Iran, resulting in bans of several films, such as Amir Naderi’s Elegy (1975) and Mehrjui’s The Cycle (1975). Persian poetic form not only marks an integral skill for contemporary Persian artists, but it also brings to mind the false portrayal of Iranians in cinema.

The use of allegory, signs and symbols has frequently been used as a way to overcome the oppressive propagandist image-making of the Shah. While poetic implicitness isn’t directly linked with reflexivity, this ‘poetic realism’ critically attacks the unrealistic ‘happy image’ of Iranian society. Many of the leading directors of the Iranian New Wave implemented the language and structure of Poetry to their cinema. An epitome of this ‘poetic realism’ would be the subdued, minimal, detached realism of Sohrab Shahid-Saless’s A Simple Event. Other examples would include the rolling canister in Close-Up, and the apple in The Wind Will Carry Us, which are all symbols that appear intermittently and ambiguously. But perhaps the most common staple of metaphor is the image of the ruins. Mehrnaz confirms the cinematic trope of ruins in Iranian cinema. For Iranian directors, the desiccated ruins often stands as an image of social or spiritual desolation. In some cases it can be historical (e.g. And Life and Nothing More) as well as personal. It often conveys a sense of alienation or longing that brings the boy to Tehran in The Traveler and coaxes the protagonists of Where is the Friend’s Home, Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us out of Tehran into the country (Saeed-Vafa 59). Some of the key images of ruins in Kiarostami are the hole in the graveyard in The Wind Will Carry Us, the land desiccated by bulldozers in Taste of Cherry, the remaining rubble left by the earthquake in Life and Nothing More, which is then echoed in Through the Olive Trees. Nevertheless, these images are not just limited to barren or devastated locations but are a reverberation of the internal landscapes of the characters. By contrast, symbolic treasures can be found throughout such as the wilted flowers in Close-Up or the femur bone dug out of the cemetery in The Wind Will Carry Us. These are motifs that are embedded in both Persian cinema and literature. They appear in Naderi’s The Runner (1985) and Water, Wind, Dust (1987), Saless’s A Simple Event, also in Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat and Rumi’s and Hafez’s poetry. The contrasting symbols in poetry, fiction, and film would all serve as stepping-stones for Kiarostami’s vision. The cinema of Abbas Kiarostami is a space that demands that spectators actively engage and use their perceptive powers. Abbas Kiarostami invariably creates a dialogue between Western Reflexivity, Modern Iranian Cinema and Persian Poetry aesthetics.


III. Ahmad’s Journey

Now that the theoretical argument is in place, let’s explore the extent to which Kiarostami blends the different aesthetic practices mentioned above. Where is the Friend’s Home (1987), made in between First Graders (1984) and Homework (1989), pointed Kiarostami back to the territory of the classroom, a heartening area, also marking a return to fiction (since the Revolution, he had not been able to experiment with this mode of cinema). Although the film is often credited as the first installment of the unofficial Koker trilogy, the film is structurally and thematically closer to Homework and First Graders. Unquestionably his first masterpiece, the film would be his last pedagogical work for Kanoon.

While there is clearly nothing immediately reflexive within the film, the poeticized fictional world is clearly a world constructed by the director. There isn’t a single moment in which the film mirrors reality. Kiarostami has even admitted to altering and building the sets in Poshteh in order to fit his vision of Ahmad’s quest. A deceptively simple account: an assiduous 8-year old, Ahmad, goes on a quest to return his friend’s notebook in a faraway village. If he doesn’t return it in time, his friend will be expelled from school. While there are no character asides present in Where is the Friend’s Home, there are certain elements which reveal the filmic codes. Notably, the film is the first of Kiarostami’s to employ off-screen poetic allegories and implicit questions. The film begins with a question through the dictatorial teacher: “What’s happening? What’s all this mess? What happened? You promised me you’d be quiet? I can’t be away for five minutes? Everybody, stand up. Come on. Who told you to you to sit down?” As the teacher continues to lecture the boys, chastising them for their misbehavior, he individually checks their homework. When he reaches Nehmatzadeh, the questioning ensues: “What is this, Nehmatzadeh? How many times did I tell you to write your homework in your book? How many times, Nematzadeh? How many times must I repeat it to you?” The abusive interrogation results in the teacher ripping up the homework, which dissolves into the boy’s weeping.

The establishing sequence here may read as a fairly conventional set-up for a film, but what follows is perhaps Kiarostami’s trademark of unspoken revelations. In this particular way, the director establishes his inconspicuous symbolism. While the film appears to tell the story of one boy’s conscientious attempt to save another boy from the wrath of their teacher, as Kiarostami suggests, the film has further meanings. In a sense, the lost workbook functions as a central character. It is because of the workbook that Nehmatzadeh is punished. The workbook irrevocably impels Ahmad to secretly visit Poshteh, in pursuit of finding his friend’s house. Once Ahmad escapes from home, nothing seems to dissuade him from pursuing his goal. Even though all of the adults and children ignore his questions and lack information on Nehmatzadeh’s whereabouts, Ahmad valiantly follows his goal (suggestively linking his quest to a quest for “truth”).

The credits roll over the door of the classroom, the chatter and bickering of children can be heard off-screen, a world that is not unfamiliar to us. In fact, this decrepit school, in a faraway rural province, near Poshteh, does not seem very far from the one in the The Traveler; also, the teacher’s ridiculing tactics are not so far from the tyrannical teacher in The Traveler. Discipline is emphasized and highly valued, consisting of a series of lectures and prohibitions, which inevitably creates an atmosphere of unease and tyranny. For the abusive teachers, homework functions as the basis of this oppressive system, and is one of the underlying themes of Where is the Friend’s Home. Ahmad tries all in his power to the return the book to his friend but many obstacles get in the way. The biggest obstacle of all is Ahmad doesn’t have his friend’s address. In a sense, Ahmad is one of the earliest examples of a stand-in or surrogate for the director. Ahmad innocently defies all rules and requisites of the authority figures, instead, chooses to do what he believes is right, an act of solidarity. As in earlier films for the Kanoon institute, Where is the Friend’s Home displays a world that is bitter, dreadful, and even violent for children.

The communication between adults and children is dictatorial, causing a communication barrier; the adults never show any interest in children. Aside from the fact that the teacher lacks any interest in the students, the parents too ignore the subjectivity of their children. Ahmad’s mother ignores him; she disregards his explanations and constant pleas to go outdoors. When Ahmad travels to Poshteh, in search of finding his friend’s address, the adults are noticeably nicer, but are inevitably unhelpful. His encounter with his grandfather is of particular importance. He sends the boy on an errand to buy him cigarettes and begins a conversation with his neighbor. The grandfather explains, “I didn’t send him to buy a packet because I need any, it was to teach him manners and obedience, so that he’ll turn out a good citizen… if he takes no notice, I’ll wallop him. Like I said, my father walloped me every fortnight to teach me manners, and he never forgot.” Ahmad’s resistance is not just a simple, trivial venture in search of his friend’s home, but should be read as an active rejection of an authoritarian society that is both oppressive and harmful to children. Ahmad personifies the

filmmaker’s condemnation of the oppressive rules of a patriarchal system imposed by the weight of tradition. While the social and ethical implications of Kiarostami are clear and familiar, the journey to Poshteh leads the viewer onto new paths that would soon become staples in his later works. Although the film takes its cues from Saless’s A Simple Event and Naderi’s The Runner, in truth, it creates its own world with a special gift in poetic and symbolic depth.

Ahmad’s excursion to Poshteh turns into a journey of discovery – and judgment – of a universe that until now was unfamiliar to him. A journey that is both spiritual and moral with allegorical resonances, where recurring imagery obtains a point of personal initiation. In fact, Where is the Friend’s Home’s monotonous rhythm is key to the film’s structure, the déjà vu excursions to Poshteh. There is no difference in Ahmad’s second journey to Poshteh, which is filmed in the exactly same way, in the same environment; from Ahmad’s vantage point. Further, Ahmad’s journey is like a rite of passage, with fixed predetermined stages. The ritual of travel itself is multi-faceted, serving as a passage to Ahmad’s tariqa (his road or path to self-discovery). The film also establishes its repeating rhythms through Ahmad’s desperate pleading about Nehmatzadeh’s address, asking questions to the neighbors over and over again. Not surprisingly, each of them repeatedly say the same thing: “I don’t know where he lives.” Conversation is nearly impossible in an abstract world devoid of any communication. As in traditional poetry, repetition is used here to conjure a metaphysical realm in place of everyday conversation. It’s clear that the director has no intention of creating a realistic mirror of Iran.

Kiarostami is always concerned with finding new ways of looking, finding unmapped locations, and perhaps Where is the Friend’s Home is most vital in displaying what will be the leading principles and thematics of his filmmaking. After all the boys’ attempts, no progress is made in finding Nehmatzadeh’s house and subsequently night falls, without his giving back the exercise book to his friend. Even the carpenter, the one resourceful person, doesn’t seem to be of much help. The creaking of doors, the subdued sounds of animals, the overwhelming wind, all of these sounds dominate the little whimsical town and add to Ahmad’s frustrations and distress. Despite all of Ahmad’s struggles he arrives at a point of self-assurance. The next day he goes to school and brings back the notebook. He sneaks the notebook into Nehmatzadeh’s bag before the teacher reaches their table. As the teacher reviews his notebook, the camera cuts to a shot of the notebook as he approvingly nods and the credits roll.


  The Schoolchild walks on the old rail clumsily mimicking the sound of the train.

– Abbas Kiarostami

After exploring these trends in Kiarostami one might ask, are Kiarostami concerns always ethical and spiritual? The dispute would likely be framed on the stylistic differences between his early pedagogical films for Kanoon and his increasingly critical films from the 1990s. It is true that some of the early shorts from Kanoon are exempt from any Persian poetic allusion or spiritual implication. Further, one can make the case that the notion of cinema as a journey is not something entirely new. In fact, isn’t all of cinema an artistic form of journey? Indeed, cinema inherently has the power to allusively awaken some of the most profound sensations. The meticulous tracking shots in All the Memory of the World (1956) via time-travel invites audiences to travel to an imagined past. Although the Resnais film has a political agenda, it doesn’t allow for multiple paths and excursions the way Kiarostami’s cinema does. Above all, what makes Kiarostami’s work so unique is the many possibilities that it allows for the audience (for critic Roger Ebert, this is a drawback). In essence, there is no definitive meaning or way to experience his cinema. That is why for some, his films literally have no meaning at all.

For this reason, it’s significant to keep in view the philosophical precepts that are embedded in Kiarostami’s idea of an ethical journey. Throughout his oeuvre, Kiarostami has employed an array of objectives and methods in depicting the flight of self-discovery.


The trope of self-revelation consists of several key components. The most discernible aspect would be reflexivity, whether this consists of the director’s application of deconstructive methods, character asides, or rhetorical questions about filmic “truths.” Where is the Friend’s Home, Kiarostami’s first true masterpiece, not entirely reflexive in tone, is a sign of the director’s foray into implicit interconnectedness of all things in life. The film is certainly his most narratively conventional, but as its title suggests, the film is pervaded by poetry, and specifically, the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri (someone who shares much of the same philosophy and beliefs as the director). Repetition or reiteration and miscommunication can be located in nearly all of his films. In Bread and Alley (1970) after the first boy escapes, a second boy is confronted by a menacing dog; in The Traveler (1974) Ghassem fails to connect with any adult figure; in Where is the Friend’s Home (1987) images of a solitary tree and a zig-zag path reoccur; in Close-Up (1990) the story is shown from numerous vantage points; in Taste of Cherry (1997), Mr Badii fails to coax anyone into helping him commit suicide; and in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) the ‘media person,’ Behzad, repeatedly inquires about the health of an old woman. At times the miscommunication occurs between worlds: the world of adults vs. children; sophisticated vs. provincial worlds; real vs. fictional worlds. These oppositions are rendered visually through the very Western technique of shot/reverse cutting, plus the more “Eastern” technique of frontal static shots, where a single character faces the camera in Ozu-like fashion. This is perhaps the most recognizable use of reflexivity; the film is not redirected back to the subject but rather to the spectators. There is also the trope of “the car as man” which makes an appearance in all of his later works: Close-up, Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, and even some of his most recent films such as Ten (2002) and Certified Copy (2010).

In addition, limiting the interpretation of Kiarostami’s oeuvre to the socio- political context of post-revolution Iran can be problematic. While there is no denying that Kiarostami had to deal with the tumultuous years beginning with Pahlavi empire and ending with the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the director often avoids tackling these political matters. Along with filmmaker Sohrab Shahid-Saless and poets Forough Farrokhzad and Sohrab Sepehri, Kiarostami is much more interested in finding new ways to subvert contemporary Iranian cinema. Appropriating various traditions of reflexivity and the aesthetics of Persian poetry, Kiarostami discovered in cinema a meeting-place for both his philosophy of indeterminacy and the pir. As I have addressed earlier, the notion of the pir (spiritual guide), the title for a Sufi master, is a concept embedded in many of his films. The pir, is responsible for teaching several Tariqas (paths), for example Farzad, temporarily serves as Behzad’s pir in The Wind Will Carry Us. While it is true that the notion of the pir dates as early as 1207, modern Persian poets have adapted it to their own purposes. Kiarostami is one of those poets. Nevertheless, as filmmaker and artist, Kiarostami is devoted to uncertainty and indeterminacy, something that has always been a part of Iranian poetry and art. The films are simple and unchanged, they never force the audience to separate the known from the unknown. In fact, if the films divide their audience, it would be a separation between those who are patient and those who are not. Through fracturing and concealing information, commencing sudden expeditions and diversions, and examining and exploiting the creative possibilities of reiteration as a means to achieve a “distancing” effect, Kiarostami permits a unique collaboration between the perceptive audience and the director. Whether or not the audience chooses to embark on this collective journey is entirely a subjective choice.

 Works Cited

Cheshire, Godfrey. “How to Read Kiarostami.” Cineaste 4 Sept. 2000: 8-15. Web. Dabashi, Hamid. Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future. London: Verso, 2001. Print.

Elena, Alberto. The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami. London: Saqi in Association with Iran Heritage Foundation, 2005. Print.

Ghasemi, Shapour. “A Brief History of Persian Literature.” Iran Chamber Society. 2005.

Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <>.

Jamal, Mahmood. Islamic Mystical Poetry: Sufi Verse from the Early Mystics to Rumi. London: Penguin Classics, 2009. Print.

Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad. An Anthology of Modern Persian Poetry. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1978.   Print.

Kianush, Mahmud. Modern Persian Poetry. Ware, Herts: Rockingham, 1996. Print.

Kiarostami, Abbas, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, and Michael Beard. Walking with the Wind.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Film Archive, 2001. Print. Sadr, Hamid Riza. Iranian Cinema: a Political History. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006. Print.

Saeed-Vafa, Mehrnaz, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Abbas Kiarostami. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2003. Print.