Mashgh-e Shab (1989) (aka Homework)
“Punishment means getting beaten up.”
There are a few directors whose films I can never say no to. More Jarmusch? Yes please. More Herzog? You bet. More Kubrick? Is there even a question? Abbas Kiarostami clearly belongs to this pantheon. Trust Kiarostami to come up with something completely new and radically profound. In what may be his greatest work to date, Homework (1989), he pulls off something that world directors have been struggling to even script. But more than the content, what baffles us about all his films, more so in Homework…
Homework is, quite predictably, a plotless film. It involves the director interviewing some first graders about why they don’t complete their homework on time. If you are tempted to ask what ever can be interesting about it, please think again. Using what are decidedly banal questions, Kiarostami emphatically derives and establishes social, cultural, political, emotional and even moral patterns prevalent in the contemporary Iranian society in a fashion no spectacular cinema can provide. Without ever being overtly controversial, he successfully exposes the national mentality through the words of children that indicate the society’s complacency towards violence and the influence of the extremely competition-oriented behavior of the west.
“What do you like more – cartoons or homework?” is the question that he asks the children, who invariably reply that they prefer the latter. They are obviously lying and proved so when they contradict themselves in the succeeding questions. But why should they lie? It can be seen that they are aware of the presence of the camera and realize that someone watching them would directly mean prosecution for their petty crimes. Kiarostami then asks them the meaning of punishment. The children are quick to answer unanimously that punishment means getting beaten up with a waist band. He then goes on to ask them what encouragement means which too produces some interesting trends. Also seen in parallel is the tendency of the children to desire top grades and look at anything below that as poor. And encouragement for them seems to be a causal commodity that follows only these top grades.
The emotional responses of the children are simple and their priorities, straight-forward. They try to save their skin but also try not to implicate anyone in the process. They want to be fearless, patriotic and go war against Iraq but, in accordance with the morals they have been taught, do not like fights at home. The passivity of the adults towards domestic violence is alarmingly evident and the children seem to be happy enough to continue the tradition. The freedom of choice and of preference for indifference over involvement seems to have been overridden by the authoritarian and one-dimensional nature of the educational system, which in turn reflects the political-ideology and history of the country.Kiarostami integrates such macroscopic facets into a disarmingly and deceivingly simple format that one wonders if censorial prohibition is a hindrance to handle controversial subjects at all.
Earlier in the film we are shown the school’s prayer song that contains anti-Saddam lines interspersed with lines in praise of God. We also come to know that this theological element runs deep into the education system and into the figures of speech. The choice of Faith is removed and the morals made black and white. So is the cinema that the kids watch – based on war between Iran and Iraq with altruistic Iranian soldiers and Iraqi baddies. I must say that sadly, the same patterns would be revealed if such a film was made in other countries too. There is, however, a healthy pattern that is visible too. Almost all the parents seem to be illiterate and the kids seem to be helped by their sisters. Clearly, the awareness about the importance of education, especially girls’, seems to have spread largely in comparison to the previous generation.
Interestingly, there are two segments where adults speak about this homework issue to Kiarostami. I initially disliked this idea as it seemed like a tacked up summary of the film so far. But a closer inspection revealed that these guys were as camera-conscious as the kids themselves. Only that these guys were crafty enough to hide their lies and seem like being utterly objective about it all.It is extremely difficult to pin them down with their statements but it is observable that they were both trying to exonerate themselves of the blame (a laRashomon), and to criticize the state of the educational system. So eventually, no one speaks the truth in the film except the film itself. And in some ways,Kiarostami scores over Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) which at least provided a humanitarian glimmer at the end.
Like his extremely acclaimed Close Up (1990) that was to follow, Homework’s biggest success is its meditation of the nature of the medium and the tag of reality that goes with it. It is known that Kiarostami never hesitates from letting his audience know that there is a camera in operation during the film. Kiarostamiquotes:
“A filmmaker has to be conscious about his responsibility. I always wish to remind the audience that they are watching a film. You see, it is very dangerous to make the audience more emotionally engaged than they need to be. In the darkness of the cinema, people are so innocent. It makes them feel that everything is closer and stronger. That is why we should not make them even more emotional: People need to think when they watch films, not to be robbed of their reason … I make half movies. The rest is up to the audience to create for themselves.“
Furthermore, in Homework, even his characters are conscious of the film tools.Kiarostami crosscuts the interviews with shots of the cinematographer behind his camera – the omniscient eye – to remind us that we are watching a film and the characters that they are being watched in a film. In essence, he removes the transparency of the camera from his cinema and makes it an opaque and often intrusive object for us and the characters. Kiarostami’s technique is perhaps the smoothest form of Brechtian alienation employed in modern cinema. He trivializes the film image by exposing the tricks of the trade, yet this knowledge of the truth is ironically what makes it so complex. Like the classic case of the Schrödinger cat, reality seems to be altered by the presence of the film camera, proving that reality in cinema can indeed be achieved only through artifice and by undoing the consciousness induced by the camera.
An additional layer of complexity is added by the presence of Kiarostami, the director (over Kiarostami, the interviewer). Two possible answers evolve when one thinks how Kiarostami might have carried out the film. One – he might have told the parents about his project about homework and the parents’ involvement in it (as he does in the first scene to an admirer, possibly one of the two adults in the film). In this case, the parents would have been quick to ‘condition’ their children in order to save their faces and prepare the kids with all the statements required to conceal truth. This would be an indirect and psychologically complex way of directing children by actually directing their parents. Or Two – he might have hinted to the children that the information they provide will be delivered to their parents and teachers. This would also shape up the stimuli of the children who would try to evade the waist belts. In either case, Kiarostami’s point turns out true – that children are being made victims of a violent game of power, ego and greed of the adults.
Homework is an epic film. Not in its spectacle, but in its scope and implications. It is too profound, too complex and too vast for words. Both its form and content are uniquely and completely cinematic to the point of redefining its boundaries. This is a film that shows why the perspective of a director is more important than his ambitions. A must-see.