In preparation for a podcast that Rob Davis and I did (which is up now at errata), I thought I’d post a review of Homework I wrote several years ago. Re-reading the review, I’m struck by how Kiarostami’s reputation has fallen with his last three films. Few critics would rank Kiarostami as the most influential filmmaker of this decade. But that doesn’t affect the power of the films he made in the ’80s and ’90s, which stand the test of time.
Unfortunately, the print of Homework that has recently played in Toronto, New York, and San Francisco has been ravaged in a different way. Expurgated, I assume, by the Iranian government, it is about fifteen minutes shorter than the version I saw in 1996 and again several years later. What has been cut out is crucial to a proper understanding of the film; what’s left is a poor representation. This review is of the “original” version. In the podcast, Rob and I talk at length about what’s been changed and how that affects the movie.
At the end of 1999, the magazine Film Comment surveyed a large number of film critics, directors and programmers and asked them to name the most influential filmmaker of the ’90s. While there were many votes for Jean-Luc Godard, Quentin Tarantino and others, the most common choice was Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Who, you ask? I can’t blame you for not recognizing the name. Only one of his films, Taste of Cherry, has received any sort of prominent release in Chicago. His other works have been shown only sporadically.
My first contact with Kiarostami came a few years ago when the Film Center mounted a retrospective of his work. I went downtown to see two of his documentaries: Close Up and Homework. Close Up is famous in film circles for its re-creation of a true story, with all of the original participants playing themselves. With a postmodern self-referentiality and a genuinely amusing plotline, it is considered by many cineastes to be Kiarostami’s best work. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of seeing six of his movies, and all of them are wonderful pieces of art. For me, though, my favorite continues to be the other documentary I saw that day–Homework–which is as interesting and provocative a movie as I’ve ever seen.
On its surface, Homework is a deceptively simple film. It’s just a series of interviews with 7- and 8-year-old boys about why they do and don’t finish their homework. Placing them in front of the camera, usually by themselves but sometimes in pairs, Kiarostami asks them questions like: do you finish your homework, do you like school, why don’t you finish your homework, do your parents help you, and which do you like more: cartoons or homework?
This last question would seem to be a no-brainer, but the boys’ convoluted answers are fascinating. Often Kiarostami opens the interview with that question, and almost all of the boys pause, look around as if hoping to see the right answer on the wall, and then uncertainly respond, “Homework.” Then after a few more questions, usually easy ones about their friends or hobbies, Kiarostami again asks about cartoons and homework; this time around, almost all of the boys gleefully talk about their favorite cartoons, obviously forgetting what they just said.
Kiarostami’s focus on how children respond to authority finds its visual equivalent in two ways. Periodically, the camera will cut to a frontal shot of Kiarostami, who–decked out in dark, imposing sunglasses and framed from below (adopting the boys’ point-of-view) with a bright camera light behind him–seems truly menacing. It’s not surprising that the children would be initially intimidated.
More striking, though, are the repeated shots of children standing outside the school (either before the start of school or during recess). The teachers, never shown on camera, command the children to line up in rows and then to recite, in unison, various Islamic or national creeds. It’s the equivalent of saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The children, though, are much more interested in other things–moving around in line to be next to certain friends, giggling, pushing each other–than about what the teachers are saying. By showing the boys blithely ignoring the teachers’ authority, Kiarostami subtly undermines the state’s authority as well. The children neither pay attention to nor respect what’s handed down–do their parents? should they? In the Iran of 1989 (when the film was made), those sorts of questions would’ve been genuinely subversive. Kiarostami ups the ante even more when he intentionally cuts out the soundtrack (the voiceover cheekily claims so as not to offend religious sensibilities), and all we see are children . . . being children.
Another thing I noticed when I first saw Homework was how strong a resemblance these Iranian boys were to American kids I had taught. I consider myself fairly open-minded and resistant to media propaganda, but I was genuinely surprised that these 8-year-olds acted just like the 8-year-olds I knew. I’m not sure what I expected (Koran-chanting zombies??), but delightful children who joke, get nervous, hang out with friends, and lie caught me off-guard. This stark reminder of our common humanity fits nicely in the humanist framework of Kiarostami’s early films.
The most powerful theme of Homework, however, is its exploration of the nature of truth: what is truth, why do we lie, is it wrong to lie? As Kiarostami interviews each of the boys, it becomes clear that many of their answers are either outright falsehoods or lame excuses. Sometimes, the boys attempt to shift the blame to other friends, teachers, or their parents. Sometimes, they do the opposite, such as trying to excuse their parents for things they didn’t do. This reaches its apex when, late in the film, Kiarostami interviews one of the parents. By that time, we in the audience have become so attuned to the children’s lies that we quickly notice the parent’s evasion. The father is certainly more skillful than the children at this business of deception, but yet still gives himself away.
By examining the nature of truth at its basic level, Kiarostami forces us to contemplate how that works in our own lives as well (why do we lie? how do we lie?) as well as in the systems of power that surround us. Are our teachers lying when they have us recite different dogmas? How are the media and government twisting the truth? How do we teach our children, and, particularly, what are we really teaching them?
The movie’s conclusion is an amazing interview with two boys, one with a student we’ve met before who’s very comfortable in front of the camera. The other boy is obviously terrified of Kiarostami. He makes up excuses of why he can’t be interviewed, protesting over and over that he has to memorize a poem for a class assignment, until finally he flees the room in tears. Coaxing the boy back in, Kiarostami tells him that he can practice his memorization with them. What follows is a spectacular climax that brings all of the film’s themes into focus and forces the audience to completely re-examine what we’ve seen.
Homework is an extraordinary movie that works on a number of levels. It can be appreciated for just its surface pleasures: the insightful, often amusing responses of children. But it’s so much more than that, as Kiarostami examines the basic tenets of the human condition, subtly but effectively forcing his viewers to examine themselves as well.