The Criterion Shelf: Abbas Kiarostami’s Childhood Films

Bil Antoniou takes a look at the early works of Iran's late master filmmaker.

“The poor lack everything except children,” says a tailor in Abbas Kiarostami’s 1976 film A Wedding Suit. The film is one of the director’s many titles to focus on the wonders and challenges childhood. Iranian cinema reached worldwide fame in the late 1990s with stories that focused on young people, like Majid Majidi’s Children of Paradise, which earned Iran’s first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, The White Balloon (co-written by Kiarostami), and Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses took arthouses by storm around the time that Kiarostami had mostly moved on from the subject. Achieving his own international reputation with the success of Through The Olive Trees, his Palme d’Or winner A Taste of Cherry and the acclaimed The Wind Will Carry Us, he became known for ruminations on the ephemeral nature of morality.  His films called attention to the nature of cinema itself through self-reflection and multiple layers of reality.

Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiarostami won a prize at a painting competition when he was eighteen before studying at the University of Tehran School of Fine Arts. He spent the 1960sin the advertising industry before moving on to designing opening credits for feature films and illustrating children’s books. In 1970, he helped set up a filmmaking department at the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon), which provided a seamless transition from his commercials that primarily featured children. Kiarostami moved on to making shorts and features with children as subject matter and his target demographic. Kiarostami loved working with non-professional actors, particularly kids, as he said it connected him to his feelings for his own two sons. After twenty years with Kanoon, he continued to work with non-professionals even when treading on more mature themes, always with the playful, exploratory spirit of youth.

As explained by film critic Godfrey Cheshire in his informative introduction to Criterion’s collection of the director’s “Childhood” films, journeys and quests, which figure largely in Iranian literature, take up a great deal of space in Kiarostami’s oeuvre, as do binary choices that lead to the explorations of their varying results. Cheshire developed a friendship with the filmmaker from interviewing him over the years and provides context for the films in the collection. Many of these films are unfamiliar to the director’s international fans and, actually, weren’t given that much attention in Iran until he hit the world stage in the 1990s.  The selections are a rich combination of fiction, documentary, features and shorts. While his later films see a stable repetition of style and theme, the works included here display varied experiments with form, content, and length. Many of them bear, as Cheshire puts it, no trace of commercial or ideological pressure (some have been interpreted politically but never in direct ways).

At his height, Kiarostami would become one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world. Three of his films, Where Is the Friend’s Home, Close-Up, and The Wind Will Carry Us were ranked among the 100 best foreign films in a 2018 BBC Culture critics’ poll. Close-Up was also ranked one of the fifty greatest movies of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. Two international critics’ polls voted him the most important Iranian film director of the 1990s and four of his films were in the Cinematheque Ontario Best of the Nineties poll. Michael Haneke declared that Kiarostami “represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” This collection represents the origins of that artistry, which his very first film reveals did not need to go through an awkward stage to establish his strengths.

Kiarostami died of gastrointestinal cancer in 2016 at the age of seventy-six, leaving behind a rich filmography that is still well regarded and a legacy that will likely be complicated going forward. Allegations of rape and plagiarism made against him by actor Mania Akbari (who starred in his 2002 film Ten) have not really gained headline traction in the west, but it remains to be seen what space they will take up in future retrospectives and screenings.

Films are separated between shorts and features and are listed in chronological order. All are recommended.





The Bread and Alley (1970)

Kiarostami called his debut “the mother of all my films.” One can already see his style in its deceptively formless structure, establishing his penchant for making art out of everyday life. A little boy walks home through the various alleys of the city with bread in his hands, at one point following an old man and at another, making the acquaintance of a questionably friendly dog.


Breaktime (1972)

Much like Bread and Alley, this film continues Kiarostami’s hypnotic talent for elevating spontaneity to something captivating, following the moments after a little boy is disciplined at school for breaking a window because he was playing ball in the corridor. He leaves with his schoolmates to go home but then veers off on his own, taking another ball from a soccer game.


So Can I (1975)

For five minutes, we watch a child’s reactions to gentle animations of the activities of various animals, asserting that whatever they, do he can do just as well. His last challenge is the one you think will be his undoing, but one should never underestimate the confident resourcefulness of children. Beautifully shot in colour, and very charming.


Two Solutions for One Problem (1975)

Two schoolmates are good friends until one returns the other’s book to him damaged and it prompts two scenarios. In one, they one-up each other with vengeful destruction of each other’s property. In the other, they learn to cooperate. The lesson is spelled out clearly, but not simply. It’s a lovely tale of interrelation put across through effective closeups of two delightfully charismatic performers. Kiarostami would make many films to follow, both shorts and features, that would also explore the varying results of sharply defined choices.


The Colors (1976)

This children’s film has Kiarostami experimenting with form as he explores the world of colour through gorgeous images and a funky musical soundtrack. Everyday objects, natural phenomena, and members of the plant and animal kingdom are pulled into the director’s taxonomy of hues that provoke wonder at the many ways there are to look at the world around us.


Tribute To Teachers (1977)

Teachers are interviewed about their jobs, while other citizens are asked about their opinions on the noble profession in this straightforward, investigative documentary. The instructors seem satisfied that what they do is important, but there’s a subtle undercurrent of pressure apparent in how they describe the ways in which they are making a difference.


Toothache (1980)

Made for children to promote dental health, this film has its pint-sized hero suffer the consequences of refusing to keep up with brushing. As he writhes in pain in the chair, the good dentist explains with the aid of simple animation the methods of brushing and the harsh reality of cavities. This one is among the least artistically motivated of the films in this collection. It really is all about getting the message across and, in relaying much of its information numerous times, is determined to get that message across to the youngest minds out there.


Orderly or Disorderly (1981)

Commonplace situations are filmed twice, one in which people behave in an orderly fashion and one in which they don’t. The choices begin with children exiting their school and end with the wonders of heavy traffic. The message is, of course, that human cooperation is better for all. Kiarostami delivers the message through rigorous experiments in framing that feel profound in their simplicity.





Experience (1973)

This exquisitely minimalist drama shows Kiarostami flirting with neorealism in its almost wordless tale of a young man coming of age under harsh circumstances. Barely fourteen and trying his hand at making it in the big city of Tehran on his own, the protagonist sweeps, cleans and helps run the business of a photographer who prefers to spend his time drunk and abusing the boy. Between the boss’s constant threats, the young man catches the eye of a beautiful middle class girl in the neighbourhood and spends a few tomans at the local movie theatre, attempting to break into adulthood’s trappings but finding very little generosity coming back at him. Without ever lifting a finger to pull our heartstrings, Kiarostami draws us into a very tender sympathy with his subject and makes for one of his emotionally devastating films.


The Traveler (1974)

Kiarostami’s first full-length feature immediately establishes his gift for capturing the inventive mischief of children while placing them within the context of life’s bittersweet realities. A little boy in a small village can’t get on the right side of his parents or teacher. His obsession with soccer sees him scheme any way that he can raise the fare to take a ride to Tehran to attend a live match in person. Fate has other things in store for him, but nothing too dire (at least not for anyone older than a child).


A Wedding Suit (1976)

A simple situation has a devastating effect in another brilliant exploration of the simple life of a complex soul. A young man training as a tailor’s apprentice is rushing to help get a teenager’s suit done in time for the customer to wear it to a wedding, and risks his livelihood and his boss’s business when he agrees to lend it to two friends who want to wear it and hit the town. The cultural expression of tensions about coming of age and masculinity are expressed through sidewalk arguments and a magic show. The final sequence is a torturous exercise in suspense, in which the pieces fall into place with remarkably undetectable ease.


First Case, Second Case (1979)

A teacher is annoyed by disruptive noises that his students make whenever he turns back. He decides to deal with it by suspending a group of students and telling them they can only return if one of them admits who the guilty party is. In the first pass at this scenario, one of the boys comes back and rats on a fellow student. In the second, none of them spill the beans and they all serve out their sentence in full. Between these two presentations, we get interviews from administrators, educators, and politicians who spare no details in telling us their opinions of not only what the boys should have done, but also the teacher” responsibility for the problem arising in the beginning . Filmed not long after the overthrow of the Shah, Kiarostami slyly uses an innocuous situation to capture the different ways in which the revolutionary spirit has blossomed in men’s hearts without ever broaching the subject directly. Like most of his films, it plays with layers of reality and ideas of multiple possibilities. It’s clever and astute, but also dry and the least entertaining film in this collection.


First Graders (1984)

Kiarostami’s early career focus on children naturally brought him to the subject of education on a regular basis. In this collection are two features and a short specifically dedicated to this theme. He takes his camera to a school superintendent’s office where we see a series of negotiations between one sympathetic and stern adult and the various children under his care, mediating conflict resolution between growing souls that have yet to conquer their emotional impulses. As with all his other films on children, there is, to us liberal modern westerners, an unfortunate exclusion of female students that speaks to the time and place in which the film is made. However, the constant strain of trying to find a way to teach these kids to respect one another without dampening their own sense of self is one that speaks to the universality of Kiarostami’s cinema.


Where Is the Friend’s House (1987)

The first film in Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy is one of the most endearing in his filmography. It takes on the rhythms of Ermanno Olmi’s sacred simplicity, but with an even more concentrated perspective on its main character. A little boy pities a fellow student who is chastised in their schoolroom for not doing his homework properly. He is devastated when he realizes that he accidentally took his friend’s notebook home as well as his own. Knowing that the boy will be punished in the morning, he spends the evening wandering to a nearby village to look for his schoolmate’s house but has difficulty finding it. He’s constantly frustrated by the unwillingness of the adults around him to see his pure-hearted intentions because of their obsessive need to emphasize their authority. The irony of his moral sense of responsibility being mistaken for disobedience is one that Kiarostami never loses hold of. Despite having a narrative with a clear and uncomplicated a goal, it’s gripping to watch the drama and see if things will play out in the boy’s favour.


Homework (1989)

Kiarostami concerned himself a great deal with education as a way to explore societal issues without ruffling political feathers. He followed First Graders with another look at the experiences of young children’s learning. Inspired by his own dealing with his children’s homework, he interviews a series of first and second graders (all boys) directly on camera. He sits behind a desk wearing his trademark sunglasses and asks them about their balance of work and play. How much time they spend doing their homework, how much more they like watching cartoons and whether or not they are diligent are among Kiarostami’s most common inquiries. Questions about their family backgrounds also reveal something telling about generation gaps that will affect the country’s future: many of these students’ parents cannot read or write. They have acquainted them intimately with all forms of corporal punishment but very little in the way of encouragement. It’s impossible not to take all these kids into your heart. Their candour makes the film a very quick watch despite its containing little more than on-camera testimonies.


And Life Goes on (1992)

After telling a film festival audience about his attempt to find out if his Where Is the Friend’s Home star Babak Ahmadpour survived Iran’s devastating 1990 earthquake, Kiarostami was advised that the experience would make a great film and he agreed. Casting non-professional actors to take the place of himself and his son, he sets much of it in a moving car (a milieu familiar to his audience) as a director tries to get to Koker to find Ahmadpour, but is constantly rerouted by roads that have been destroyed by natural disaster. Along the way, the protagonist witnesses the essence of what Kiarostami’s films always aim for: the sense that life isn’t just the absence of death, but a defiance of it. As always, setting the tale on the knife-edge between real footage and fictional recreation, Kiarostami gets up close with people’s pain. He then pulls back to lyrical long shots of awe-inspiring natural beauty that give the viewer the opportunity to meditate on his deeper themes.


ABC Africa (2001)

Kiarostami’s first film made outside Iran is comprised of footage from ten days he spent in Uganda, observing the AIDS crisis on commission from the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development. Not atypical for him, he doesn’t so much focus on devastation as he does on optimism. There are images of illness and death but even more so, Kiarostami finds the pulse of life in dancing children and nursing mothers that celebrates a community carrying on in the face of such unrelenting difficulty. This one doesn’t have that sense of ominous atmosphere created by his more conceptual documentaries. As a result, is not as artistically powerful, but it bears his philosophical signature all the same.