911. Mashgh-e Shab / Homework (1989, Abbas Kiarostami)

screened Sunday March 4 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York NY TSPDT rank #723 IMDb

First, a couple of Kiarostami-related memories mentioned earlier.

"Homework could stand as the perfect model of cinéma vérité in its capacity to extract the lies that reveal the truth."

Thus wrote Peter Matthews in an article on Homework for Sight and Sound back in 2002. It was one of a series of write-ups leading to the 2002 Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll, where writers were asked to promote "out of the box" titles that could help shake up conceptions about what "great movies" were, and thus the results of the poll (which in my own view has become a predictable roll-call of the usual suspects). All of the films spotlighted were less than 20 years old (the most recent film to crack the S&S Top 10 is The Godfather from 1972) Among the films spotlighted were King of New York (go genre films! Well I guess Godfather took care of that) Muriel's Wedding (go comedies! And by that we don't mean closet comedies dressed as art films a la Regle du Jeu) and Do the Right Thing (go multicultural cinema! except that Amy Taubin, who wrote the film up, didn't even include it in her final ballot. [She even wrote in her comments: "The only way I could limit myself to ten was by choosing exclusively US and European films (thus reinforcing a hegemony I claim to despise) and ruling out all comedy (pleasure at its most direct)." Hello sister, ever heard of practicing what you preach? Bah!])

Matthews' nomination of Homework (the film ended up not getting a single vote) was clearly a bid on behalf of documentaries. His article is one of the most stirring defenses of the documentary as an artform that I have ever read. It came to me at a time when I was not sure what films I wanted to make (guess what, I'm still not sure) and was especially conflicted about documentaries, the secondary citizen of cinema. For me, Matthews' essay was a galvanizing corrective towards a host of misconceptions about documentary as art.

But not only did he celebrate the documentary genre, he took it even further, kicking ass and taking names by evaluating different kinds of documentary as art. He practically hangs John Grierson in effigy for institutionalizing what I'd call "your grandfather's documentary", the stentorian, objectively-postured dispenser-of-factuality approach that has been the norm for so many decades. He writes:

A Grierson documentary is a one-way communication - and that applies not only to the untutored audience, which he hoped to inspire with a sense of good citizenship, but also to the photographic subjects, explained by the narrator and rarely allowed a voice of their own. The documentarist is cast as a paternalistic authority who speaks down to people or on behalf on them. Justly or unjustly, Grierson's films have come to symbolise the traditional documentary aesthetic in toto - closed rather than open, exhortatory rather than questioning, dictatorial rather than collaborative.

Then Matthews really goes on the warpath by calling down no less a documentary legend than Frederick Wiseman for being a Griersonite in sheep's clothing, a practicioner who demonstrates open and direct cinematic approaches but is really utilizing them towards the same reductive, didactic ends:

Following the fly-on-the-wall etiquette of Direct Cinema, Wiseman banishes overt editorialising of any kind - the teachers, guidance counsellors and principal are condemned by their own unctuous words. While there's a powerful illusion of objectivity, the material has in fact been shrewdly selected and slanted to make an anti-authoritarian case. It isn't so far removed from Grierson's didacticism, but angled this time at unpicking the social fabric instead of knitting it together.

Who, pray tell, does Matthews holds up as a welcome counter-agent to all this documentary pontificating? Who was able to shake up this stagnant artform from its didactic shackles and infuse it with more real-life complexity and aesthetic depth? Put down your puny pistol, I got the AK!!!

I should admit that Matthews' argument seems heavily reliant on the notion that a great documentary must acknowledge itself as a "document" in order to avoid the pitfalls of didacticism he sees in Grierson and Wiseman. The self-reflexive meme is certainly present in the documentaries he cites as the greatest the genre has offered to date: Flaherty's Nanook of the North (TSPDT #189 - this may not seem self-reflexive but Gilberto Perez gives a brilliant account of its self-reflexive qualities in his indispensible book The Material Ghost), Luis Bunuel's Land without Bread (TSPDT #488), Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (TSPDT #381), Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer (TSPDT #845), and Homework.

My writing partner Atsushi Funahashi, himself a documentary filmmaker, swears by Wiseman (in fact he interviewed Wiseman for a book on critical writings on him published in Japan, where he is especially lionized), and I've debated Matthews' critiques with him a few times. Wiseman's unprecedented attempts to absorb himself completely into the environment he's filming and render his gaze into a transparent filter of reality is certainly something that requires the utmost skill. If it weren't for a little old thing called the observer effect... All of this is to say that as much as I recognize the narrow parameters of Matthews' standards for great documentary art, the fact is that his argument has had a profound effect on my own valuing of documentary filmmaking, a genre that in my mind has more potential to evolve than any in narrative cinema -- especially given the unprecedented access that people have today to create and experiment with the medium.

Enough about this article, let's talk more about Kiarostami's film. "What movie is this?" The first line of dialogue, innocently offered by a schoolboy who casually notices the camera while walking to school... and yet in the context of this film such a banal question takes on enormous significance -- what kind of movie is this? When the schoolmaster (kept off camera) asks the same question, Kiarostami answers: "The film is just based on an impression." There's a sense of freshness, looseness, of seeing things for the first time, reflected in the sense of wonder on the schoolboys' faces at the strange camera apparatus (the same wonder is echoed in the looks of Ugandan children in his later film ABC Africa). That sense of first sight bestowed on us is what great movies are all about.

And yet for virtually the rest of the film, that sense of looseness and freeness is all but obliterated, in a sequence of unrelentingly tense and claustrophobic interviews with these schoolboys in a room that resembles a police interrogation cell. Kiarostami edits over a couple dozen interviews into segments ranging from one to several minutes. He shoots the kids in harshly lit, full frontal close-ups. Most of the kids are identified as not having completed their homework, and Kiarostami pounds them with question after question as to why they did not finish their assignments. Many alibis are offered, mostly having to do with parents or siblings being unavailable to help them, or having chores. Kiarostami counters cunningly with questions about their cartoon-watching habits, eliciting a range of positive responses from the kids. But when he asks them whether they prefer cartoons or homework, the answer is uniformly the latter.

There's clearly a kind of cat-and-mouse game being played between Kiarostami and the kids, right before the camera lens. As Matthews explains in his article, Kiarostami's camera is not only an objective collector of true documentary moments, it is witness -- as well as an instigator -- to a series of lies and half-truths playing out in its presence. It's worth noting that Kiarostami breaks ranks with convential two-shot interview technique by hardly showing himself in the reverse shot as the likes of Barbara Walters or Mike Wallace would have it -- and when he does show himself, it is with the most uncharismatic of visages, like a schoolmaster sitting behind his desk during detention. Our expectations to identify with the interviewer are thus thwarted. Instead Kiarostami cuts repeatedly to the reverse shot of his cameraman squinting behind a large, imposing lens whose bulbous spectral counter-gaze resembles that of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (TSPDT #4). This machine is poised as the facilitator of our interactions with these kids, and the rhythm of cuts between quivering children's faces and the impassive camera lens creates a sensation of being caught between states of animal and mechanical The camera-eye itself is thus a surrogate for the all-seeing State, the grand machine in which these kids must learn to live and behave. Made just 2 years after Full Metal Jacket (TSPDT #505), this film is probably the closest Kiarostami has come to Stanley Kubrick territory, exploring the programming of human behavior and the human's impulsive reactions to such conditioning.

If there is one complaint I'd make about Homework, it is that it is so unremittingly procedural, lumbering from one punishing interview of a nervous child to the next, that it walks a fine line between being about a kind of torture and being tormenting to the viewer -- perhaps this line is blurred by design. But beyond the Q&A there's an even more subtle layer of activity going on, and it's on the layer of images. The counter-shots of the cameraman are not all the same -- some show the cameraman with the faintest of smiles in response to a child's disarming remark, and sometimes he is caught wiping his bleary eye. Within this rigidly formal apparatus, cracks of humanity show on both sides.

What is also worth considering is Kiarostami's canny positioning of himself within the social hierarchy of the film. The film's procedural rhythm breaks halfway when a parent barges into the room to offer his own long-winded take on the need to reform the Iranian education system, so that it breeds more creativity and freedom of thought among its children. The man's breathless five minute monologue feels like a breach of Kiarostami's carefully controlled interviewing pattern, and we cut to a reverse shot of Kiarostami's most disapproving scowl yet. But if there is such a thing as crocodile's tears, this is surely a crocodile's scowl -- up to this point the interviews have mounted instance upon instance of dysfunction within both Iranian systems and families, leading to the abuses inflicted upon these kids. Surely he'd agree with some of what this man has to say? And perhaps that's why, as an interviewer and editor, he chooses to leave the man's testimony intact. But Kiarostami still offers his own scowling reaction shot, perhaps as a way of covering his own ass lest his film be seen as too reactionary and critical of the status quo.

All of this comes to a head in the film's final moments [spoilers in this paragraph], when one very nervous child breaks into a hysterical fit, afraid of unseen punishments lurking within the camera. (Again, to reference Kubrick, the kid is practically a soulmate to Ralph Meeker's doomed character in Paths of Glory [TSPDT #166]). After much soothing (including bringing his friend into the room to stand behind him - poignantly it's the only time two children are allowed to stand in solidarity), the child expresses his anxiety of missing his religion class and being punished. Kiarostami assuages the boy by encouraging him to recite a religious poem he has memorized. The boy calms down and delivers a poem in a voice whose tone (Kubrickian once more) is somewhere between poetic and robotic. After the movie, Dan Sallitt, Keith Uhlich, my gf and I dwelled on this moment for quite a bit. Dan seemed to suggest that it was a moment of transcendence, all of the tension and coercive technique giving way to a moment where the child embraces the tools of expression imposed on him and finds a moment of ecstasy. As much as I see his point, I'm more inclined to focus on the disturbing aspects of the moment, such as how much it resembles a Manchurian Candidate moment of successful brainwashing. I also see this climactic moment of the boy overcoming his neuroses through rote recitation as another way for Kiarostami to cover his ass, as if to ostensibly support the educational system in the end despite all the misgivings expressed to that point. Needless to say, the ending operates on multiple levels at once, able to disturb for the very reasons it may inspire.

To wrap up, some interesting background info on the film offered by Stuart Jeffries for Countercurrents.org:

After the revolution, Kiarostami continued to make films about children. The last one he made for [Iranian production studio] Kanun was called Homework, and was born of fraught personal experience - his relationship with Parvin Amir-Gholi, the art designer he married in 1969, was collapsing. He has given another reason for staying in Iran after the revolution: "An internal revolution was taking place in my household: I was getting separated from my wife and was going to take care of my two sons, so it was impossible for me to think of leaving the country." In the film's opening sequence, Kiarostami explains to the headmaster of the school where he wants to film: "I've had problems helping my son with his homework... That's why I decided to bring my cameras here, to find out whether it's just my son's problem or if it has something to do with the actual education system." Some critics took the film as a denunciation of Iran's repressive and disciplinarian education system. But it was also informed by Kiarostami's own memories of school which, he admitted in one interview "are still traumatic". Near the end of Homework, Kiarostami films pupils standing in serried ranks in a playground chanting a prayer, which breaks down as the increasingly distracted children start playing around while continuing to recite, thereby undermining the massed display of religiosity. Kiarostami cut the soundtrack to this scene after complaints from religious groups angered that the recital of the prayer was robotic and ultimately not very devout. In the final sequence, Kiarostami interviews a boy and asks him to recite another prayer for the camera, which he does, followed by a freeze-frame of his face that ends the film. The two juxtaposed prayers in Homework lead me to ask Kiarostami if he has religious faith. "I can't answer this," he says. "I think religion is very personal and the tragedy for our country is that the personal aspect has been destroyed. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to say that I am religious, but I won't. This most personal aspect of our lives has become the tool of the government's power. The value of people is equated with their religiosity." Homework was initially banned for three years in Iran, and subsequently only screened for adults. "After I made Homework I was forced to leave Kanun because they disagreed with the film," he says. Additional links:

Senses of Cinema Great Directors bio on Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Extensive Kiarostami entry on Wikipedia

3/9/07: One more comparison to consider: