Where Is the Friend’s Home? / Film by Abbas Kiarostami (review)

February 27th, 2010

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Film review: Where Is the Friend’s Home? a film by Abbas Kiarostami

In the film, Where Is the Friend’s Home? Kiarostomi 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 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 going to war.  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 merely as slaves burying dead soldiers.  George Lucas claims this film heavily influenced his choice of main characters[i] – the two bickering, disagreeable robots, C3PO and R2D2, in Star Wars (1977[ii]). 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, which 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 – tired, overworked a strict disciplinarian with 3 kids, exhausted by 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 to 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…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 discipline of the elder generation is needed 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 elder folks 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.]

Kiarostomi 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 culture. 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.

[i] http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/117

[ii] http://www.thedigitalbits.com/reviews2/hiddenfortress.html

Bashu, a film By Bahram Beizei (review)

February 27th, 2010

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In Bahram Beizei’s film Bashu, the transformation of Bashu from a South Iranian war orphan to the eldest son of a Northern Iranian family is representative of Iran’s transformation during the Iran-Iraq war through national unification, from a third world country to a world power.

Beizei illustrates the vast differences between Southern Iran and Northern Iran, unified through the shared experiences of Naii and Bashu.  He does this in order to make an argument for binding a divided Iran while simultaneously celebrating the diversity (cultural, language, regional, skin color) that is all Persian.  In the end, Bashu is a cleverly disguised nationalistic and social propaganda piece, using a familiar theme in film, the ‘family in crises’ motif, to convey its message.  Beizei illustrates his idea of a united Iran through the shared common experiences and daily struggles faced together by the main characters, Naii and Bashu.

Naii and Bashu couldn’t be from more divergent realities.  The film opens upon a battle scene in a desolate desert village: buildings exploding, bodies burning, film footage so convincing it must be authentic.  Bashu’s homeland is Southern Iran, a hot, arid, rocky desert besieged by planes and bombs. When we first see Bashu, he is escaping the war zone as a stowaway in a truck heading north.  He arrives in Northern Iran and the dissimilarity is breathtaking – we see lush, green, forested farmland with wooden buildings and paved roads.  The staggering visual disparity in skin tone between Bashu, Naii, and all of her fellow villagers situates the central racial theme in the film – the Northern Iranians are much lighter than Bashu.  They stare at Bashu; many have never seen someone with skin as dark as his, saying, “Where’d you get that piece of coal…that cave jinn[i]…that bugbear?”  In one scene, Naii exposes her own ignorance about Bashu when she naively tries to wash him off in the river, genuinely believing he is simply ‘very dirty’.  The second significant barrier to overcome is their language barrier.  These two Iranians don’t speak the same dialect or language!  Naii believes Bashu to be a mute until he breaks down, frustrated and crying, screaming, “Where am I? Am I still in Iran?  My mother was burned up and my father fell down into a hole…”

Naii is a compassionate communicator and protective mother, standing up for Bashu and speaking out against the racism and prejudice of her village elders.  She identifies with nature, calling out to crows, dogs, yelling at the boar that threatens her grain fields.  Naii feeds and houses Bashu, and keeps him safe from the villagers.  Bashu helps her by carrying water, heavy baking stones, taking care of Naii’s children, catching the shopkeeper shortchanging Naii and building a scarecrow for the field.  In all respects, he performs the role of eldest son.

The central cinematic metaphor – shown only in images and not connected to plot – is the scene showing Bashu’s dilemma: Bashu has to choose between two worlds, between life and death, his previous world and Naii’s.  In one scene, Naii is carrying a ladder, and she calls to Bashu for help.  We see Bashu looking at his dead parents, ghosts only he can see; enshrouded, wearing death masks, he follows them into the desert.  Naii walks past the figures in the opposite direction, dragging the ladder through sand, calling out to Bashu. Bashu finally makes a choice for life – he picks up the ladder and helps her carry it.  The ladder symbolizes Naii’s efforts to transport this boy out of his personal tragedy, from out of the land of the dead and into the world of the living. Together, they enter a new Persian world, two Iranians from different cultures, united in their efforts.

Bashu is legitimized further as a member of this world, first on paper in Naii’s emotionally moving letter to her husband (who has been away fighting in the Iran-Iraq war) “…he is my son…a son of the sun and the Earth…” This is the same man who is the prodigal father figure in the emotionally potent scene at the film’s end (Bashu: “Who are you?” Father: “It is father.  I’ve been waiting for you all along.”) The visual metaphor of unification is cemented in the final sequence, when the three (father, Naii, and Bashu) simultaneously sense the boar in the field and collectively chase it away; a field of white doves, symbolizing peace, fly up as they run through the field, bearing down on the invader.   Fending off the invading boar brings the family out of crisis, uniting Naii with her husband, and securing a position in the family for Bashu, no longer a war orphan.  Looking at the larger metaphors at play, the boar represents not only the bigotry of the village being driven out of their home, but also the retreating Iraqi army many miles away, defeated by a now united Persia.

[i]Jinn – creatures of fire; along with angels and humans, one of the three intelligent species created by God”


Jenny McCarthy lets me down again…

February 13th, 2010

Staring at the framed picture of Jenny McCarthy on my desk, imagine how surprised and dismayed I was hearing that there was actually no link between autism and the MMR vaccine on the radio.  What? It sounded suspect, as the published paper from Dr. Andrew Wakefield (Feb. 1998 ) established a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  Why was the sponsoring medical journal The Lancet retracting the original paper? How could my Jenny be wrong?!? This is sort of like getting your college degree, only to later have it revoked.  Any “retraction”, especially in a medical journal, is a very big deal…

I only had to wait a day to get my answer. According to news sources at Reuters and as reported by NPR the next day, “It later emerged that Wakefield had been taking money from a lawyer suing vaccine makers…” .  Baffled, I did more digging. It turns out a British investigative reporter for the Sunday Times, Brian Deer, has been tracking and covering this topic for years.

Following the money, what Mr. Deer discovered was that Dr. Wakefield initially took payments (from Richard Barr, Esq.) of over ₤55,000 ($85,000) to undertake the autism/MMR vaccine study.  Dr. Wakefield was then paid ₤150 ($234) per hour to conduct supporting research, resulting over the years in payments of over ₤430,000 ($670,000).  Why? Barr is an attorney attempting to construct an international class-action lawsuit on behalf of clients whose children have autism.  Barr could make a lot of money with this unfounded frivolous lawsuit, and he needed substantial evidence.

Mr. Deer’s site is an exhaustive link-citation to newspaper and journal articles from 2004-2010 on this issue.  A fine resource.

(Oh Jenny, how could you lie to me…not only is there no autism link, but lots of dirty money was involved…I’m so crushed!)

new earthquakes, new year

February 6th, 2010

Thursday Eureka/Humboldt County experienced another quake – 5.9 this time, which is large enough to get my mom and dad from Minnesota calling me, telling me (again) that I should move to  MN.

Oh yeah, how cold is it there at the headwaters of the Mississippi, dad?”

“Oh, it was warm –  it got up to ten today.”

That’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit…people.

Wind is really whipping through tonight…the Redwoods in Cutten are really leaning into the gusts.

One last note: I got on the air on KHUM-FM Thursday and thanked them – they were the only radio people who gave a damn that Humboldt had just went through another shake and baker.   All other Humboldt stations choked, man.  Community radio- my ass!


Hello world!

February 3rd, 2010

I think I wrote a program once called ‘hello world’ in my intro to computers class in high school.

The teacher made us write it onto punch cards, and we had to pass this test before he turned us all loose on the apple iiE’s…torture!

I then wrote a color graphics program where he was beheaded.  Another dull programming story, anyway…that’s how I remember ‘hello world’…