Director / Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami
By Roderick Heath
Tehran-born Abbas Kiarostami first dabbled in painting as a teenager in the 1950s, won a competition that got him to his home town’s School of Fine Arts, and supported himself during his studies by working as a traffic cop. Kiarostami soon vaulted into a successful career in advertising in the 1960s, gaining filmmaking experience shooting TV commercials and creating titles for movies. Iranian cinema grew rapidly in terms of films produced in the 1960s, and a New Wave movement began to gather steam, sparked by films like Davoud Mollapour’s Shohare Ahoo Khanoom (1968), Masoud Kimiai’s Qeysar, and Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (both 1969), with a stringently realistic, neorealist-influenced approach and resolutely earthy and immediate subject matter. The Ayatollah Khomeini was reportedly so impressed by The Cow that it convinced him not to ban cinema in Iran after the Revolution of 1979. Inspired by the burgeoning New Wave, Kiarostami and some other new directors set up the Kanoon Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, to make movies for and about young people, and it soon became a notable production outfit for a string of important films. Kiarostami made his first film for it with the 12-minute short The Bread and Alley, leaving behind his schooling in the slickness of commercials for a more boldly original and experimental approach as he infuriated his crew by insisting on shooting a key scene without cuts, testing out his early conviction that he could generate greater intensity and conviction by reducing shots and edits to a minimum.
Kiarostami officially made his feature-length debut with 1973’s The Experience, but he considered his true debut film to be his follow-up The Traveller. In the late 1980s Kiarostami rose to international prominence, cemented when he captured the 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, and helped other Iranian directors like Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf present a vanguard reintroducing the country’s culture to the world at large. Unlike many other Iranian filmmakers, Kiarostami weathered the Revolution, in part because his sense of parochial identity was a deep vein in his art, even liking to weave classical Persian poetry into his films, although his two late masterpieces released before his death in 2016, Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone In Love (2012), were made outside the country. Kiarostami’s mature cinema was equally acclaimed and derided for his peculiar approach to narrative cinema, often eliding seemingly crucial details and dialogue, utilising stringent long takes and a minimalist but beguilingly flexible visual style. The Traveller, an adaptation of a story by Hassan Rafi’i, has many hallmarks of a debut feature, emerging from the earnest zeitgeist of the era’s emergent national and regional film movements, counting the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves (1948), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) as immediate ancestors, and looks forward to subsequent independent films like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), in making a truthful-feeling study of the theme of a young person on an odyssey negotiating a world filled with indifferent if not actively hostile adults.
Yet The Traveller is also something quite individual, a brief (73 minute) but vigorously expressive statement of intent from a director soon to become a major creative force. Wrought in the starkest production fashion with its lingering shots and cheap, black-and-white cinema verité-style photography, it’s also touched throughout with qualities of humour and flashes of dreamlike wistfulness. Kiarostami opens with images of boys playing street soccer in an alley in of some well-weathered corner of the town of Malayer. The passion of the boys for the game soon becomes quite apparent. There’s not much else for them to do in this place where a lot of them drop out of school and get into trades, and the older boys are already holding down jobs like bicycle repairmen. Kiarostami’s renegade antihero is Qassem Julayi (Hassan Darabi), a scallywag whose obsession with the sport, and the Persepolis football team in particular, is clearly linked with a sense of frustration and ambition he cannot otherwise articulate. The son of a carpenter, Lar, Qassem is becoming increasingly alienated from his family and schooling and pouring himself into his soccer obsession. After playing in the street match witnessed at the outset, he turns up to school with a bandage around his head and jaw claiming to have been delayed by a toothache and a trip to the dentist when he was actually playing, much to a teacher’s deeply sceptical response: “I hope it rots.”
Qassem spends what little money he has buying a magazine for a photo of one of his player heroes, managing to use his father’s name to get a little credit to make up the shortfall, but he’s later sprung reading the magazine in class, the teacher prowling around behind the class and launching his sneak attack, and it’s clearly the most exciting thing that’s happened all day. His English teacher seems just as distracted by the outside world as his students, like Qassem silently doing sums over costs during class, as Qassem tries to work out how much money he’ll need to catch a bus to Tehran and see a big match live. Meanwhile at home Qassem faces constant pestering from his unceasingly critical and complaining mother (Pare Gol Atashjameh) who berates him for failing to study and pushes for him to quit school and get into a trade too. There’s a note of deadpan humour as her complaints continue all during dinner whilst his father doesn’t speak a word, seemingly having resigned himself both to her talk and Qassem’s errant nature: “It’s all in one ear and out the other,” she decries his lack of attention before asking for money to attend a mourning ceremony. Meanwhile Qassem seems to have trouble doing his studies by the dim lamplight in his house.
Qassem irritably criticises his friends for playing badly during one of their street matches, but then admits that he didn’t play so well either, because he was too distracted by thoughts of going to Tehran to catch a big league game. His mother comes to school soon after and whinges to the school principal (Mostafa Tari), repeatedly commenting that she doesn’t know how to read and write whilst asking what should be done about Qassem’s bad behaviour, which has taken a new turn as she believes, correctly, Qassem has stolen five tomans she had squirrelled away. “You come once a year to see if the little vagrant is coming to school?” the principal demands, and declares: “He is not a child, he is a monster.” After a continuing dialogue of theatrically desperate appeal and contempt, as the principal sighs that he can’t punish the students without risking parental complaints, the mother gives him permission to do what he sees fit, so the principal calls Qassem in and begins caning his hands, the increasingly distressed Qassem nonetheless insisting all the while that he did not steal the money. Kiarostami cuts, with a sense of both dark humour and pathos, to one of the neighbouring classrooms, where the teacher is instructing his class on the workings of the heart whilst trying to ignore the sounds of Qassem’s punishment.
In keeping with the Kanoon project’s avowed purpose, The Traveller is a film relevant to the kind of young person it’s about, but lacking any kind of pandering or patronising glaze. It’s a rigorously unsentimental, entirely convincing portrait of a boy, doing things many a boy has done regardless of cultural background, allowing the brat to be a brat whilst also understanding him. Whilst the film regards many of the adults around Qassem as vaguely absurd, there’s still a touch of sympathy for his mother, who really does work constantly whilst she complains about his bad attitude. Many films about childhood and adolescence take on a similar shape to The Traveller in depicting a youth engaged in an obsessive quest to realise a personal dream, often taking tentative steps towards adulthood in the process. It’s the sort of storyline that can generally be relied upon to touch a fond chord of memory in grown-ups, if also perhaps one of aggravation in parents. But where many stories of that type are nostalgic in cast, The Traveller is the very opposite, charged with anxious energy as it contemplates a budding antihero whose immediate future is bearing down upon him. Making Qassem a soccer fanatic roots him securely in his world, signalling his desire to join a crowd rather than follow some esoteric path, although his desires and impulses mark him as an outsider.
Early in the film one boy leads his fellow students at Qassem’s school in a group prayer, a brief spasm of rhapsodic communal inclusion, although of course in their midst Qassem shows to Akbar the pilfered five toman note, his own private religion something rather distinct. The subtle joke about football being something like a secular religion in Iran seems not to have dated, as the theme of trying to attend a soccer match as an expression of both individual will and communal engagement would later be taken up, with obvious shifts in emphasis, by Panahi’s Offside (2006). The attitude of institutional cynicism displayed by the teachers is one of Kiarostami’s targets here, perceiving school in mid-1970s Iran as something like a prison for teachers and students alike, all sharing a penurious, demoralised distaste for their lot. Kiarostami is bitingly sceptical about the efficacy of the corporal punishment constantly turned on the kids, which he sees more as an outlet for adult frustration and aggression than as a cure for bad behaviour. “He will just hit us – forget about Math,” Qassem comments when debating whether to go to class or get down to his more pressing business.
As unscrupulous as Qassem’s behaviour becomes at points, the clarity and direction of his passion is singularly lacking in everyone else he knows. With his friend Akbar, Qassem begins looking for ways to add to the five purloined tomans, figuring he’ll need about forty to make the journey. He tries to sell his fountain pen to a storekeeper who coolly rebuffs Qassem’s forceful sales tactics (“You sell to kids but you won’t buy them from them?” Akbar queries incredulously) and calmly explains whilst never breaking from his menial tasks how buying from a wholesaler works to the pushy lads, who then moves on to trying to offload a stamp collection. Akbar steals a broken camera from his grandfather’s shed and the duo try to sell that: one potential buyer notices the camera is missing parts, but offers five tomans for it, but Qassem is angered by such a low offer. Instead, he comes up with a scheme: he and Akbar start pretending to take photos of their schoolmates, affecting a vaguely official mandate to charge them five rials apiece.
The imprint of neorealism is vital with The Traveller, in the way Kiarostami shoots locations in artful but unpretty fashion and elicits immediate performances from a mostly non-professional cast, and some anticipation of the way he would regularly blur the boundaries between fiction and documentray. Qassem and Akbar run through the streets and bazaars of Malayer, a place that seems perched somewhere between ancient and modern worlds, pungent and ghost-ridden at the same time. Historic town architecture is recorded for posterity by Kiarostami’s camera along with oddities of the moment like the wall in a shop festooned with professionally modelled photos. But there are hints throughout of the unusual blend of impulses that would eventually define Kiarostami’s cinema. The visual texture and language changes during Qassem’s fake photography session, taking on a lyrical quality reminiscent of Truffaut in moving into montage, wielding rhythmic editing with some sprightly music now on the soundtrack, as Kiarostami matches Qassem’s cheeky wit with his own cinematic variety. He notes Qassem tucking his accumulating cash in his back pocket whilst lining up his shots of the other kids, and moves in from regarding the kids in distant poses to close studies that capture the children in all their alternate individuality, some fierce, some friendly, some humorous, some bovine.
This allows Kiarostami to use Qassem’s eyes in capturing his generational fellows in all their collective and individual qualities, whilst Qassem play-acts something like a movie director as he instructs his subjects in their poses. The first hint here of the kind of meta-narrative play Kiarostami would often return to his movies, like the revelation of the moviemakers at the end of Taste of Cherry and the choose-your-own-narrative-truth of Certified Copy. Where in his later films Kiarostami would often feature loquacious and intelligent adult characters who work to verbalise their worldviews or play games with them in long, rolling conversations, The Traveller is more familiar to a certain extent as a social realist study in dealing with a boy whose age precludes him being able to articulate his problems. His actions are his expressions, but Qassem nonetheless has a certain quick-witted pugnacity in his interactions when he’s trying to gain something, cajoling insistently in his attempts to sell things of no value whilst insisting they do. “I’ve taken thousands of pictures with it,” he protests to the man he tries to sell the camera to, and, when he offers too little, “I passed up a better off last week.” Qassem definitely seems to have the stuff of a businessman in him.
The problem with the inspired con trick at the school is it just doesn’t bring in anything like enough money. Depressed, Qassem and Akbar try to study for a vocabulary test, filmed in a tableau that becomes for the boys an unconscious lampoon of their school experience: Qassem testily waves a stick whilst Akbar stumbles through an array of thematically appropriate words: “Outlaw – it means a rebel…Discipline, obedience…Ambition, the desire to make progress.” Qassem suddenly has another brainwave to save his project, and sells his street team’s nets and gear, despite the whole team having pooled money to buy them. Qassem justifies himself because as the captain he’s always stuck with the job of lugging it around, and nimbly talks a member of another team into buying them, netting 25 tomans. Finally able to buy his bus ticket, Qassem hitches a ride back towards home from the station on the back of a horse-drawn buggy, perched with dangling feet above the road. This sequence presents Qassem at his height, having actually proven he can, by hook and by crook, affect his own destiny with the gift of the gab and unscrupulous manipulation if with little thought of inevitable consequences, now rejoicing if in bumpy manner in a sense of liberating motion, Kambiz Roshanravan’s sprightly traditional score matched to the whirling wheels of the buggy.
The very title of The Traveller establishes Kiarostami’s preoccupation with characters whose physical wanderings, their incessant seeking, are matched to their attempts to understand themselves, to strain at the limits of their personal universes with all their small insults and frictions, whether seeking to enter others or even nullify themselves to end the questioning. Kiarostami’s film would later become famously preoccupied by characters driving and the things they do when nominally going someplace, culminating notably in the suicidal central character and his argumentative passenger of Taste of Cherry, their fierce verbal arguments matched to restless voyaging. Qassem is defined specifically as a boy in motion, shark-like in his need for constant forward movement, driven on by a specific motive to try and get something done before a looming psychological hammer, one he doesn’t quite understand, drops. Upon returning home and hiding his ticket in a schoolbook, Qassem faces a long, anxious wait and can’t risk falling asleep and missing the bus which comes through at near midnight. Akbar tosses stones at his window and keeps calling pathetically from the street, his loyal helpmate now unable to follow any further on his grand odyssey. Finally, when the appointed hour comes, Qassem sneaks out of his house. Where earlier in the film Kiarostami noted the streets of Malayer busy with merchants and artisans, now Qassem runs through a silent and deserted labyrinth. He only just manages to catch up with the bus and get aboard, and rides off into the great Iranian night.
As Qassem’s bus arrives in Tehran, Kiarostami lingers on a shot of a man walking along the roadside as bus after bus arrives, each one presumably packed with travellers who, like Qassem, have their own little odysseys to enact, whilst connecting the heart of Tehran to the body that is the rest of the nation. Kiarostami avoids passing any overt judgement on Qassem’s amorality, perceiving his spurs and his neediness shading into desperation, which registers all the more plainly on his face as the film unfolds: the closer Qassem comes to his goal, the greater the ease and risk of losing it, a principal Kiarostami illustrates with bittersweet clarity. Of course, it’s tempting to link Kiarostami’s sidelong sociological observations and recording with the transformation that would come upon the country a few years later. Even with the pervasive gentle humour, it’s not hard at all to register a miasma of frustration and simmering disquiet, an air of recessive and backward testiness where the illiterate and entrenched incompetently rear the sort-of educated who confront a lack of outlets for their raised expectations. When Qassem does finally reach the football stadium, militaristic-looking policemen maintain a heavy-handed presence to stop any shows of wrath when the tickets sell out, which, of course, they do just as Qassem reaches the vendor.
As the cops urge away the luckless, Qassem manages to still procure a ticket from a scalper and enters the stadium. Sitting in the bleachers with the adults attending the game, he gets into conversation with a weaver. After all his seemingly selfish and unscrupulous actions throughout the film Qassem is nonetheless generous, even insistent, in offering to share his food with the weaver, and the older man seems to embody something appealing to Qassem, who notes that as an independent worker he’s relatively free in his life. When Qassem furtively asks the weaver if he thinks Tehran kids would be his friends, the weaver replies that he does, but Qassem then recounts how he tried to befriend some who moved to Mayafer only to be rebuffed, and he irritably describes them as snobs: the weaver can only silently muse on this anecdote. When he learns the game isn’t going to start for three hours yet – sitting and waiting and chatting with other fans is something the weaver and everyone else takes to be part of the ritual – Qassem eventually decides to roam around for a while, exploring the environs near the stadium.
The climactic scenes wield stinging irony as Qassem’s restlessness, having brought him this far, leads him away from his cherished goal, clambering over scaffolding in an arena being renovated and gazing in through the window of an indoor swimming pool. He knocks on the glass to attract the attention of a kid within, and tries to ask him how deep the water is, but the other kid can’t hear him and irritably turns away. This brief vignette that’s perfectly naturalistic and yet contains symbolic force, crystallising something deeper about Qassem and his journey, his solitude, unable to make himself heard, cut off from the world he seeks and his luckier doppelganger within, the infrastructure of that world a window and also a wall. Tired because he didn’t sleep at all the night before, Qassem sees a number of men sprawled on a grass verge under trees taking a nap before the game, and he lies down to join them.
Qassem sleeps as the other men awaken and head off, and has disturbing dreams of being hounded and punished, of being caught cheating in class. His school fellows chase him down and take him captive, and then he’s suspended upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet, the other kids and his mother looming around him as sentries of judgement whilst he wails in pain, but without sound. Here Kiarostami confirms at least on a subconscious level Qassem knows he’s going to pay for everything he’s done, and it might even be said to finally offer a degree of imminent moral satisfaction. But Kiarostami maintains sympathy for the lad, inverting a usual method in showing us his dreamscape is no place of escape but rather where the things he quells during the day hatch out, with awareness of how all too often people elect to proceed in spite of physical threats with transgressive behaviour because otherwise they’ll kill some part of themselves, and the imagery of punishment is distressing.
There’s a hint of the underlying influence of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), another classic about needy youth with its patina of surrealism mixed in with the harsh realism. Qassem lying down to sleep with the grown men contains a hint of political as well as personal parable, as if he’s performing an act of surrender. The punchline, of course, is that Qassem finally awakens late in the day, and runs up into the stadium only to find the match over and the crowd gone, leaving behind only their rubbish flitting on the breeze as if he’s the sole survivor of a slovenly apocalypse. Qassem, the boy in motion, lost in finally surrendering to immobility what he tried so hard to obtain, cheated by his own weak flesh. A lovely tragicomic ending, one that also sees Kiarostami perhaps deliberately reversing the cinematic device at the climax of The 400 Blows. Where Truffaut arrested his young runaway in an eternal frieze, poised between past and present, youth and adulthood, Kiarostami’s lingering long shot watches as Qassem starts running again, arcing away out of sight along the rim of the stadium. Qassem can only dash on to meet his fate, at loose and trapped, travelling without moving. For a film as short and straightforward as The Traveller seems at first to be, it’s a work entirely alive with promise.