The culture documented here may well horrify American children and adults alike.
Abbas Kiarostami often seems like one of the gentlest of directors, but one of his most favored locations is a place that critic Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa calls a veritable “museum of torture: the contemporary Iranian classroom.” Against this backdrop, Kiarostami’s 1987 dramatic feature Where is the Friend’s Home? played like the anxiety dream of a child worried about getting his homework done. That film featured a schoolboy on a quest, trying to overcome the obstacles of adults who for the most part ignored him at best and threatened to punish him at worst. The director followed this film with a documentary that presents the chilling real life counterpart to that schoolboy’s fictional crisis.
Homework (1989) reportedly came about after Kiarostami was having trouble helping his son with the amount of homework assigned by his teachers. One of the few adults interviewed in the film insists that the overworked schoolboy is a singularly Iranian phenomenon, for some reason believing that in America, there is no homework. But if Where is the Friend’s Home? was a tale to which American children could easily relate, the culture documented here may well horrify American children and adults alike.
Apart from group shots at the beginning and near the end of the film, Homework consists of interviews with schoolchildren about homework: how much they get and why they may have trouble doing it. Diligent students in the first and second grade lament that that they are hard at work long past the time cartoons are over, sometimes studying till midnight. But the film’s most touching moments come not from specifics about homework but from a general observation about Iranian parents.
The theme of punishment runs throughout the film. One student after another explains that their parents regularly use a belt to punish them. While one boy seems emotionally unscathed by this, most students speak about punishment with the cowed presence of the defeated. Praise seems like a tragically foreign concept to some of the boys. More than one student, when asked, “What is encouragement?” answers, “I don’t know.”
The interviews for Homework were conducted at a public school in an impoverished area of Tehran where 37% of the students’ parents were illiterate. We see Kiarostami conducting interviews with schoolchildren who may have been intimidated by the director’s signature dark glasses. In fact, near the end of the film one of the boys interviewed is so terrified of reprisals that he can barely stand still for the filmmaker.
This child is afraid of getting the answers wrong in religious class. The film’s group shots show children chanting Islamic recitation, but one such scene near the end of the film demonstrates why the film was banned in Iran. Despite the strict religious discipline required of these children, as a group, they do not fall in line so easily, and authorities asked that Kiarostami not show what happens as their prayerful gestures fail to unite in lockstep with each other. Homework was, after all, made for the Kanun, the state education agency that produced many of his early films.
Instead of cutting the footage outright, the director simply cut the audio, which may have made the children’s lack of discipline seem even worse. The film was banned anyway. But more chilling than that may be the final act of that terrified child. Kiarostami asks the boy to recite one of his prayers, and his perfectly acceptable response ends the film. What kind of educational system instills such fear in a good student?