A Little Learning

Film still for A Little Learning

How can a sequence of head-on interviews with small children constitute great cinema? Abbas Kiarostami's Homework is the latest in our provocations for the All-Time Top Ten list. Peter Matthews is its champion

The first time Sight and Sound ran its international critics' poll of the top-ten films in 1952, Louisiana Story, Robert Flaherty's 1948 documentary about oil exploration, tied for the number-five slot with D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Yet by 1962 it had slipped out of the winners' circle, and no documentary has figured on any subsequent list. If such polls offer an informal snapshot of changing critical tastes, there would appear to be a consistent bias against documentary film - the more surprising perhaps in that the whole complex genealogy of cinema descends from humble actualités. But here we have already hit on the answer. Prosaic scenes of workers leaving a factory or waves crashing against the shore were enough to enthral the earliest audiences because they bore witness to a modern miracle - the world itself uncannily doubled by a machine. Random fragments of reality could initially be justified on the grounds of spectacle alone, but soon wore out their welcome. For film to exceed its limited shelf life as a curiosity, that pristine reality must be sifted, condensed and organised meaningfully. Cinema had to cease to be mere technology and become art.

All art is lies, Plato warns us - rightly in the sense that representation is always a kind of fiction. Once cinema began representing instead of simply showing, it inevitably chose storytelling as its dominant mode and thereby instituted a fundamental schism. The same stroke that produced fiction film also called forth its documentary other - and instantly consigned it to the backwater of film history. For if the creative lying of fiction is art, then by an enduring syllogism, documentary is non-art. Factual film belongs to the region of truth, which may confer on it a moral superiority over fiction, but renders it for that reason aesthetically trivial. In the domain of art, the most accomplished liars are those who bend reality imperiously to their will through individual style. We dub them auteurs. But documentary remains artless and therefore authorless because it is a transparent window on the world.

If anything explains the sidelining of documentary from critical interest, it's this naive presumption that it lacks the sophistication of art. Of course, we know it isn't so. Documentary film-making too has its pantheon of stylists who put an unmistakable personal stamp on their raw material - Flaherty, Leni Riefenstahl or Humphrey Jennings, to name only the most obvious. For that matter, even Louis Lumière's pioneering shot of the train approaching the platform involved rudimentary aesthetic decisions about what to film and where to position the camera. Yet a fiction film more or less admits the game by employing actors, sets and other recognisable forms of artifice. To that extent, fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Documentary, however, shows real people in real locations, and thus asserts its freedom from fakery.

If not outright hypocrites, then, documentary practitioners must be gullible fools to deny or minimise the constructed nature of their fictions. The purported truth of documentary is in reality a catalogue of lies - or so a generation of demystifying film theorists would have us believe. Judged innocent of art on the one hand, documentary is held to be too artful on the other. Suspicion and scepticism have consequently dogged its steps and contributed to its neglect. Still a third motive may be adduced. The open-handed lying of fiction situates it on the side of imagination, play-acting, fantasy and entertainment. Specious or not, the truth claims of documentary pertain to the arena of ethics, education, work. Duty-bound to enlighten, documentary curbs or defers our primary cinematic pleasure, and on that account is clearly beyond the pale.

This stereotype of dreary edification can be seen as the legacy of John Grierson, the documentary producer and Calvinist schoolmaster's son who famously compared cinema to a pulpit. It's not that the films bearing his imprint (the 1935 Coal Face or the 1936 Night Mail) are especially dull, but they shared a mission to preach from on high that struck a template for the future. 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.

The Griersonian stance was that of a benign officialdom concerned with the public welfare, and it required a breakdown in the cultural consensus for documentary to lose that canting, bureaucratic tone. Frederick Wiseman's series of assaults on American institutions are the fruit of the 1960s counterculture, and one deserves singling out for turning documentary's pedagogic brief on its head. The masterly High School (1968) shows how society perpetuates its values at the micro-level of secondary education. We observe well-meaning teachers drilling their charges in civic virtue - a conformist grooming which Grierson might have commended, but the iconoclastic Wiseman regards with chagrin. For this is the Vietnam era, and the students are learning to be obedient cogs in the war machine. 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.

A less polemical and more profound human document also takes as its subject the education of youth. Abbas Kiarostami's Homework (Mashq-e Shab, 1990) is an unbearably poignant study that ranks with the finest in the genre - Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922), Luis Buñuel's Land without Bread (1933), Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955), Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer (1960). The last is particularly germane since Kiarostami, like Rouch, deploys the tentative, exploratory method of cinéma vérité. Now it may seem wrong to lumber an Iranian film with conceptual baggage from Europe or indeed to tag it on to a short list of western documentary classics. Yet as Gilberto Perez points out in discussing Kiarostami in his book The Material Ghost, imperialist or not, western artforms have put down roots all over the world (which isn't to say, of course, that the new soil can't enrich them).

The self-reflexivity beloved of European modernism has certainly caught fire with contemporary Iranian artists, though some have divined a more indigenous motive - strict behavioural codes (even governing eye contact) are bound to develop a heightened awareness of representation. Time and again, Kiarostami underscores his own artifice: by reconstructing a news item with the actual participants (Close-Up, 1990), by including a directorial surrogate in the story (And Life Goes On..., 1992; Through the Olive Trees, 1994), by showing the camera (A Taste of Cherry, 1997). But this is no glib postmodern prank. "We can never get close to the truth except through lying," Kiarostami has said, echoing Jean Rouch's belief in the power of film "to reveal, with doubts, a fictional part of all of us, which for me is the most real part of an individual." Truth endlessly recedes and reality is always mediated by its representations; but the striving after both continues to define us as human beings.

Capturing the on-screen lies that betray the truth is the enterprise of cinéma vérité as originally conceived by Rouch. The inaugural fiction is the director's own, and entails a cunning manipulation of the action. In the nature of an experiment, Chronicle of a Summer sets up and choreographs an artificial situation wherein hand-picked strangers are brought together and made to interact with Rouch, his accomplice Edgar Morin and each other. American Direct Cinema typically disavows the camera's presence, and thereby founds its truth on a lie. But cinéma vérité expressly rigs the events to be photographed, and from this avowed lie aims to trick out the truth. Spurred on by the camera eye, the talking heads enact versions of themselves - who they think they are or would like to be. There's no knowing where the private self ends and its public performance begins; Rouch doesn't pretend to draw firm conclusions about what we see. He purely wagers that the camera in its role as catalyst will provoke the emergence of something - which, imponderable though it may be, goes under the name of truth.

Kiarostami gambles for similar high stakes in Homework. The first sequence shows clusters of small, satchel-toting boys on the way to school, some mugging for a camera the director makes no effort to hide, others glancing at it then shyly averting their gaze. In voiceover, a passer-by asks him the theme of the film, and Kiarostami terms it a research project, adding, "You can't tell until the film's made." That's a pledge that Homework won't deliver sure answers so much as pose questions - and by this means, hopes to sneak up on the truth.

For most of the running time, Kiarostami simply interviews the pupils about the state of their homework, while keeping the camera, the technicians and himself in plain sight. As Perez remarks, the auto-referentiality here isn't gratuitous but perfectly natural, since the camera and crew are indeed actors in the reality being represented. For as the boys reply to Kiarostami's questions, they also respond to the camera, which has changed from a friendly sparring partner outside the school to a gruelling taskmaster within. Unlike the melancholy Parisians in Chronicle of a Summer, unlike even the phlegmatic suburban teenagers in High School, these working-class kids are unnerved by the incomprehensible ordeal the director has hatched for them, from which there seems no ready escape.

Sporting dark glasses and consulting reports as he sits across a table from the first-graders, Kiarostami is a disconcertingly aloof presence; but his manner remains polite and respectful throughout. On the face of it, the camera - a mere contraption after all - is just as neutral. Yet its freezing, blank stare (to which Kiarostami ritually cuts away) appears ever more malevolent as the children project on it a tyranny to match the helplessness they feel. The camera stands in for the multiple authorities - teachers, parents, siblings - who brutalise them, spiritually and physically. The evidence is before our eyes, not only in the students' dazed, panic-stricken expressions, but most alarmingly in the frequent scars and lesions that mark their skin.

Yet documentary doesn't - or doesn't simply - hold up a mirror to nature. The scenes we witness have undergone a measure of post-production tampering, though Kiarostami wants to be scrupulous about it. He doesn't, like Dziga Vertov in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), exhibit the actual assemblage of shots; but the rough, makeshift editing of Homework calls attention to itself and bespeaks a conscious ordering of data. There's a notable (and possibly fictitious) deterioration in the interviews from the first boys, smiling, confident, meeting the camera squarely, to the final ones, fidgeting and mumbling as if on the edge of collapse. Nameless for the most part, the children pass in their dozens. So it's easy to imagine them as different incarnations of the same child, gradually battered into submission by the remorseless third-degree of both camera and director. Almost experimentally, Kiarostami withholds immediate sympathy for the infants suffering under his hands, and could certainly be criticised on that score. But in making the violence visible, he is at least willing to take up the burden of guilt, and does so from belief in a greater good. By embodying an authority figure (which he is to these children, like it or not), he can manifest - palpably and without supporting comment - how authority exercises its might. We see and feel the operation of power on its victims, yet Kiarostami never once lets his dispassionate mask slip.

Homework is nowhere more classically modernist than in its allusiveness and chaste renunciation of all explicit meaning. But this aesthetic choice is equally a command. Given that he too is under scrutiny by authority (in the shape of Iran's post-revolutionary regime), Kiarostami must tread a thin line between connotation and denotation. Paradoxically, the enforced obliquity works to the film's advantage by lending it a wider metaphorical resonance. We aren't permitted the complacency of thinking that institutionalised child abuse is a problem confined to the patriarchal Middle East. Kiarostami's documentary mirror also points at us.

The questions he asks each child are elementary, almost trite; but if they suggest at the outset a catechism for toddlers, they end up resembling an inquisition. "Why don't you do your homework on time?" We hear the same monotonous litany of excuses: teachers pile on an impossibly heavy load, siblings are unavailable to help, mothers are busy cooking, fathers are illiterate. Behind the children's inarticulate apologies, we can read a whole culture of oppression where adults, themselves ground down by overwork, worry and powerlessness, visit their frustrations on the lowest in the pecking order. "Do you know what punishment is?" Unhesitatingly and with a philosophical equanimity that's chilling in itself, every child replies that it means being beaten up. Far fewer, however, are capable of defining reward - and even they must struggle to explain what form it might take for them ("A cookie? Two cookies?" one cautiously ventures).

The boys display not a flicker of resentment at Kiarostami's interrogation, and they usually answer by rote as though their spirits have been broken by long conditioning. Yet as we saw briefly at the beginning, kids are still kids in the free zone between home and classroom. So it appears that a good part of the tuition consists in learning to stifle their natural instincts and master the meek deportment officially demanded of them. These children don't lack all individuality; it only seems so. For a primary socialisation has already taught them that survival depends on gauging the distance between private desire and acceptable public face.

The question-and-answer format is Kiarostami's sly parody of an educational system that force-feeds knowledge and rules out imaginative participation. The homework comprises masses of dictation - which, the film implies, is likewise dictation to the masses. It's plausible too that this self-reflexive text is entering a caveat against documentary, whenever it suppresses art, creativity, for a bureaucratic administering of the facts. The opposition is starkly registered in Kiarostami's most tendentious question: "Which do you like best, cartoons or homework?" It's unanimous - every last child says he prefers doing homework to watching TV cartoons. The camera which, according to popular belief, never lies, has wrested lies from the children. Or if learning is on the side of truth and cartoons fiction, then the boys have fabricated a fiction about their taste for truth. Homework could stand as the perfect model of cinéma vérité in its capacity to extract the lies that reveal the truth. And the truth is that the educational system, which claims to teach the students but in reality terrorises them, is itself a lie. Until the final, devastating interview, Kiarostami leaves to our imagination the intensity of fear that would cause these children to disown their natural, childish appetite for fancy. Yet the repressed returns and truth will out in the very process of lying - as when one kid confesses to dreaming about Pinocchio, the puppet with the tattletale nose.

Perhaps, though, the children aren't entirely fibbing. Another boy protests that he likes homework better than cartoons because learning is more important. Whether or not that statement counts as a lie for him (and who is to judge?), it holds an indisputable grain of truth. The unbridled licence of pleasure and play represented by cartoons isn't enough to nourish the growth of human beings. Children must, after all, be raised - their energies channelled, sublimated into a higher sense of moral responsibility. Ostensibly, Kiarostami is only asking how this necessary training should be achieved, with the carrot or the stick. Yet between the lines of Homework, he has the boldness to imagine a whole society (ours as much as his) where alienation no longer prevails and work is pleasure.

The footage was shot in 1987 at the height of Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, and Kiarostami no less than Wiseman characterises state education as a preparatory boot camp. Two or three times, we see the complete student body assembled in the schoolyard, jumping, beating puny chests, shaking tiny fists and chanting: "The warriors are victorious... Saddam's followers are doomed." I have attended screenings of Homework where some viewers audibly cooed over these scenes as if determined to find the spectacle of baby militarism adorable. They weren't being utterly thick in that a feint of innocuous cuteness is one tactic the movie uses to throw the authorities off the scent. Moreover, the esprit de corps demonstrated by the pupils is visibly shaky - hard as the teachers try to preserve a martial discipline, stray tots repeatedly break rank. (At one point, professing outrage at the sloppily performed rites, Kiarostami shuts off the sound.)

It's a hopeful sign that the attempt to impose order on infantile anarchy ends in semi-failure. Yet to the extent that it succeeds, order is also what gives the ceremony its aesthetic beauty. Art orders the messy contingencies of life into a significant pattern (and so does the art of documentary). The question is, how much order and to what end? Harmony shouldn't be attained by violating nature, inner nature least of all. The violence wreaked on the children in Homework facilitates order - or more precisely, the taking of orders. The boys are made servile the better to be mobilised for service. But violence breeds further violence, and that too is expedient. Under Kiarostami's insistent prodding, one kid reckons that he will give any future son seven slaps for the five or six his father reliably dispenses. Another more conflicted soul can't decide whether he wants to be a doctor and heal the wounded or a pilot and kill Saddam.

The most disturbing interview is saved for the film's closing moments. This child has an identifiable name - Madjid - and he is surely meant to encompass all the rest. Confronted by the director, the camera and the authority they jointly represent, the boy cowers like a trapped animal. Palms sweating, body quaking, voice reduced to a dismal croak, he finally seeks solace in tears. Alarmed at the evil he has wrought, Kiarostami permits Madjid's best friend to stand behind him for security. "Why is he so scared?" Kiarostami asks the friend, somewhat rhetorically. For by now, he knows the answer no less than we do. As an unforgettable icon of shattered childhood, Madjid rates comparison with Edmund in Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero or Paulette in Clément's Jeux interdits. There's a crucial difference, of course. Madjid isn't just an image, but also a real person, and it's impossible not to wonder how he has turned out or whether he's even still alive. Kiarostami freezes him for all time in the attitude of a frightened child reciting a prayer to assuage his pain. "O Lord, fill our hearts with happiness and joy," he intones, and the plea reaches out to embrace the whole suffering world.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012