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17 August 2007 — Episode 004 Podcast

Kiarostami in Berkeley BART Station
Berkeley BART Station

On this edition of the podcast, J. Robert Parks and I talk about Abbas Kiarostami's Homework, an Iranian film made in 1989. The film has played recently in Toronto, New York, and San Francisco as part of an extensive Kiarostami retrospective, but it's playing in a severely edited version that's quite different from Kiarostami's original. How different? Well, that takes some explaining.

But, otherwise, the retrospective has been a rare opportunity to see some great movies, and the Pacific Film Archive has gone to great lengths to show all of Kiarostami's films, including early shorts and features that aren't subtitled and therefore require a makeshift solution for displaying English translations. I've caught up with some features that I'd only seen on video and some others that I'd never seen at all.

My favorite of the shorts is Orderly or Disorderly?, a film that begins like a children's instructional message seeking to demonstrate proper, and improper, behavior in various situations: getting a drink from the fountain, boarding the school bus, exiting a building via the stairway. But eventually the orderly structure of the film completely breaks down. "This isn't orderly," says Kiarostami's voice behind the camera, perched over a chaotic traffic intersection.

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Duration: 47:33

Further Reading

J. Robert Parks, James Quandt, and Peter Matthews on Homework
Girish on Kiarostami's early shorts (with a video)
Acquarello on Kiarostami's later films
Posted by davis | Link | Other Episodes
Listener Comments
August 24, 2007, 06:34 AM

Is it true that Steven Spielberg plans to make a film of the book Leonardo's Shadow?

August 24, 2007, 11:37 AM

Finally listened to this excellent discussion. I really liked First-Graders (and yes, watching it I thought of the Apple and American Beauty as well, but not Trouble Every Day until you mentioned it). It's interesting to consider that there might have been segments of that film withheld from us by censors.

I missed Homework but am considering going back tomorrow night and catching it, even a cut version. I don't suppose there's been any word from the PFA or elsewhere about the cuts since this discussion?

August 24, 2007, 11:57 AM

I was tempted to go to the second screening of Homework to ask someone at the PFA about it. I'm not going to make it, but if you do, you should ask 'em! I bet you know them better than I do, anyway.

First-Graders is definitely the simpler of the two films, and I liked it a lot, but J. Robert's description of the full version of Homework has made me eager to see it someday.

Oh, also: the plastic bag in First-Graders that freely-associated with American Beauty and Trouble Every Day may also resemble a moment in a Nathaniel Dorsky short! (I discovered this after the podcast. Is it in Variations?)

After the screening of Dorsky's Threnody and Triste the other day -- and after hearing him say such interesting things about film -- I picked up his book Devotional Cinema. I love it.

August 24, 2007, 06:17 PM

I should get a copy of that myself. I think I read the whole thing in a bookstore once, but it's the kind of thing worth being able to refer to often.

I'd read, and then forgotten until you just mentioned it, that Variations contained a plastic bag moment that inspired the one in American Beauty. Here is what's probably the definitive link on the topic. These SF Camerawork screenings have been my first viewings of Dorsky's films. You can bet my appetite is whetted for more. Variations being at the top of my wish-list right now.

September 11, 2007, 02:48 AM

Great conversation about the film, like at the ciné-club. You've got me really interested. Now I have to see it. There is a Kiarostami retrospective opening in Paris soon, Homework is noted at 86', but if it's like at Berkeley and they didn't timed it themselves it's useless. I do hope it's a complete version!
A DVD boxset will be published for the occasion (Les Films du Paradoxe) for autumn 2007, including Homework. And they will also be released on new prints in theatres February 2008 (except Homework, the only one of the lot!)
Something fishy about this film...

But what Kiarostami says about this? Did he approve it? Why can't he sneak out his own reels? That's what the chinese directors do when they go to Cannes without authorisations.
If it's edited like you say, the curator would warn before the screening, or after if he didn't preview it...

September 11, 2007, 11:30 PM

Good questions, Harry, and I don't have any answers. The PFA would surely have mentioned something about the print if they'd known about it. As I mentioned above, I almost went to the second screening to see what they said.

I'll try to find out more. And definitely report back after the screenings in Paris. I'm really curious about the DVD set, too.

September 12, 2007, 12:04 AM

It's great that you guys mention this issue of religious censorship. That means the cinephiles are on the watch and that films will not be butchered in the general indifference.
The boxset is not mentionned on their website yet apparently, it will include, as the Centre Pompidou mentions : The Chorus, The Wedding Suit, Two solutions for one problem, Homework, And Life goes on, The Experience, The Bread and Alley, The Traveler, The Breaktime, Where is the house of my friend? And they will be released in individual DVDs too (except The Wedding Suit and The Experience).

September 12, 2007, 12:20 AM

Very nice. That'll be a great set.

Until recently I considered Close-Up to be my favorite Kiarostami, but I think I now prefer And Life Goes On (aka Life and Nothing More). It's really a beautiful, meandering movie. (It's important to see Where is the Friend's House? first, since it's a reconsideration of the earlier film.)

I wish I'd caught The Wedding Suit. By the way, Two Solutions For One Problem is on YouTube. It's typical of his early didactic films for kids.

[Also, here's a link to Harry's post about the upcoming series in Paris.]

October 16, 2007, 07:06 AM

Hey guys, back to you, I finally got to see Homework. And I'm sorry to report, they projected the censored print in Paris too! This should realy be investigated... Could this be that Kiarostami approved or was convinced at least to revise his cut? Where did you get to see the director's cut? And when did the censorship occure?

The original version does sound much more experimental and appealing. I can't say I was overwhelmed by what I saw. He did better documentaries. First Case, Second Case, for instance is outstanding.

A couple thoughts:

It's funny that the question you asked "Where are the girls?" is one asked by the teacher in one of Victor Erice's video-letter to AK, where a classroom discuss Where is the freind's Home?

The ostentatious camera setting reminded me of Godard's TV series France/tour/detour/deux/enfants from 1978, it is possible Kiarostami might have seen it, since his work was dealing with children education at the time. Kiarostami shows more empathy with the kids, and follows the kids digressions, while Godard just keep the kids within his own intellectual framework. Though, there are missed opportunities, maybe left in the outtakes, where Kiarostami only keeps a punchline from the kid and doesn't explore the problem with more questions (except for the one kid in the last sequence). So the observation of kids behavior is not entirely satisfactory, to me.

October 16, 2007, 10:08 PM

The plot thickens. Thanks for reporting back, Harry. Maybe J. Robert will chime in to tell us where he saw the original version, but I believe it was at a retrospective in Chicago several years ago.

That is an odd coincidence about the question I asked about the girls, or maybe it's an obvious question.

First Case, Second Case is one of the shorts that I missed. I'll have to track it down. I looked for it on YouTube, since a few of his are there, but I don't see it.

I haven't seen the Godard film, either, but I know what you mean about Homework. However it's hard to judge the film in its current state. Is the retro in Paris still going on? Is there someone you can ask about the print?

October 17, 2007, 01:59 AM

First Case, Second Case is nearly 1h, falling short of the feature-length.

Yes it's going till January. I've sent a couple of email to ask the question.

October 17, 2007, 02:32 PM

Harry, your Godard comparison is fascinating and one I'd be interested in pursuing. But since I'm brain dead after six hours of teaching, I won't pretend to be coherent.

I've seen the "original" cut of Homework three or four times. The first was at a retro in '96 (I believe), then a couple years later when I convinced a local programmer to show it, and then again at our local Chicago version of the Cinematheque a few years back when they did a mini Kiarostami retro. I feel like I've seen it a fourth time, but I can't recall where, so I might just be mis-remembering.

But each of those 3-4 viewings were of the full version. And my review of Homework, which is up at my site (sorry for the plug) is based on that. It was only at the recent Berkeley screening that I saw the censored version. I have no idea if Kiarostami was involved, but I would suspect not. The movie is so much less interesting without the political subtext, and this new cut smacks of religious censorship. Unfortunately, I know nothing beyond what I've seen, so I'm only speculating.

But if you look at what other people have written about Homework, they have also clearly seen the longer version (everyone comments on the audio dropping out during the recitations--it's such a Kiarostami moment--and that's not part of this "new" print). I also had a brief conversation with Rosenbaum who remarked he was surprised it took the Iranian authorities so long to figure out what the movie is about. He laughed, but I'm sure he doesn't think the censorship is funny. I remember he wrote a long review praising Homework as one of Kiarostami's best--a position I agree with if we're talking about the "original" version.

October 18, 2007, 05:11 AM

Thanks for the details J Robert. Yes it's funny that they didn't censor it earlier. I'm wondering if this unannounced cut coincides with the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005)...
But I find it odd above all that nobody aknowledges it officialy. Is it so unsignificant to show a different version at a retrospective officialy endorsed by the auteur himself? Film curators used to be more watchful about it... especially if it alters the film (and perverts the auteur's vision) so dramatically.
I mean, if it's the only version available from now on, fine, but they should at least tell the audience that the film projected is not the same as the one that has been reviewed and praised until now.

October 28, 2007, 03:45 PM

Still no news from Bergala and the Centre Pompidou... The reply from the website of Pompidou's (before passing on my questions to the curators) said the film hasn't been censored in Iran (!) and that the missing parts have nothing to do with politics. Implying that Kiarostami wanted it that way.
I'd really like to know the end of that story!

December 3, 2007, 03:34 AM

Breaking News : the director's cut has never existed.
I just received a reply from Le Centre Pompidou. They did their researches and contacted distributors in France and in Iran. The 86' version has never been shown, in Iran or abroad. It was cut to 74' right away. All prints (film or BETA video) existing in France are 74'.

So now we'd need hard evidences. Do you have the articles that mention the missing scenes in the press? I'll check out the articles in French if I can find some.

December 3, 2007, 01:00 PM

OK, first, about the length of the film: I did not precisely time the version we saw at the PFA before we recorded this podcast, so I can't say for sure exactly how long it was. It seemed shorter than the number of minutes shown in the PFA program, based on my watch, but let's move to something more concrete, namely the missing scenes.

Many, many discussions of this film refer to a scene in which Kiarostami shows the boys assembled in the school yard as they are supposed to be hearing and reciting slogans but are also horsing around. Kiarostami, the reports say, cuts the sound and in effect highlights the horseplay. This detail is mentioned often because it seems like an act of subversion and also because it's something of a Kiarostami trademark: he lost the sound at the climax of Close-Up, he lost his lights in ABC Africa, he can't get an orderly shot of the traffic in Orderly or Disorderly?, etc.

This scene was certainly not in the version shown at the PFA unless I and the two people I was with (J. Robert and my wife) slept through it. :-) Can you say whether it was in the version you saw at Le Centre Pompidou?


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.)

- "A Little Learning," 2002, Peter Matthews, Sight & Sound

I've gradually come to think that these disagreements revolve mainly around the issue of why what seems to be essential information in Kiarostami's narratives is missing. Parts of the sound track in some of the latter portions of Homework and Close-up, for instance, have been suppressed (openly in the first case, and surreptitiously — by faking a technical glitch — in the second).

- "Fill In the Blanks," 1998, Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Near the end of Homework, Kiarostami films pupils standing in serried ranks in a playground chanting a prayer, which breaks down as the increasingly distracted children start playing around while continuing to recite, thereby undermining the massed display of religiosity. Kiarostami cut the soundtrack to this scene after complaints from religious groups angered that the recital of the prayer was robotic and ultimately not very devout.

- "911. Mashgh-e Shab / Homework (1989, Abbas Kiarostami)," 2007, Kevin B. Lee, Shooting Down Pictures

Curiously, Lee's piece coincides with the Kiarostami retrospective in March 2007 at MOMA, but I'm not sure if he's referring specifically to that screening of Homework.

As the virtues of the Shiite saints are being recited to them, the children evince a restless, jubilant, and fidgety resistance, which at one point becomes so pronounced that the Islamic censor forces Kiarostami to cut off the sound, at which point the subversive power becomes even more evident.

- page 66, Hamid Dabashi, 2001, Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future

All of this, of course, fits J. Robert's account in the podcast and here on his blog:

The children neither pay attention to nor respect what’s handed down–do their parents? should they? In the Iran of 1989 (when the film was made), those sorts of questions would’ve been genuinely subversive. Kiarostami ups the ante even more when he intentionally cuts out the soundtrack (the voiceover cheekily claims so as not to offend religious sensibilities), and all we see are children . . . being children.
- "Homework review," J. Robert Parks, framingdevice

It's also fun to read the various explanations for why Kiarostami cut the sound from that scene. They differ, but of course they all agree that it was done.

December 3, 2007, 01:25 PM

Another, from Variety in 1990. Note that the final paragraph is about the scene in question, and they list the running time as 89 minutes.

The PFA calendar showed the same running time, which is why I was surprised when the lights came up.

December 3, 2007, 01:48 PM

Thanks for the precious links Rob, I will transmit them. I'm afraid the people who answered me didn't see the film, or they would know the issue I'm talking about. It's insane.
I didn't sleep through the screening, and since I heard you guys talking about it, I was cautious about every details. I'm positive the sound drop is not in the version I saw. And there are only 2 crosscuttings to the outdoor shots in the yard (no horsing around).

So the print being shown in Paris now is clearly amputed, just like you described in the podcast. And I can't believe nobody in charge of this retrospective had knowledge of this "uncut version". For me it was the first time seeing the film, but I would hope some French critics who reviewed it when it came out in France (1991 I believe) could tell the difference. Apparently nobody complained so far...

December 3, 2007, 01:51 PM

It's quite astounding that this has happened with almost no one noticing after multiple retrospectives in cine-savvy cities!

December 4, 2007, 01:19 PM

An important addition: Kevin of Shooting Down Pictures reports that the print shown in March 2007 at the MOMA retrospective in New York also lacked the scene we're using as a litmus test in this discussion.

So the edited print played this year in New York, Berkeley/San Francisco, and Paris. I'm not sure about Toronto.

December 10, 2007, 01:54 PM

I ran into Brian at the video store and he had an interesting comment that I hope he doesn't mind my paraphrasing here. He bets that if a DVD of Homework were released that was missing these scenes, there'd be a much bigger outcry.

I agree. I think the folks at DVD Beaver, Masters of Cinema, and even the New York TImes (Dave Kehr) would be making a stink. Public exhibition of films, even among cinephiles, is not valued the way it used to be.

DVDs are certainly a great equalizer, taking obscure films to places they never could have gone before, but it's not a substitute for watching film itself, especially if it breeds laziness, inattentiveness, or a sense of being so overwhelmed by the volume of available material that no one movie warrants scrutiny.

December 16, 2007, 09:17 AM

What Brian says is probably true, unfortunately, since without prints there will be no DVDs. On this note, it seems Les Films du Paradoxe will not release the French DVD of Homework as previously announced. Because there is no good master-print available for a clean transfert. Which means investing in restoration.
Still no sound of this affair. Film critics cannot rely on whatever DVD distributors make available to them. What DVD-driven criticism needs today is a new Langlois, who would track down what exists and what is going on before DVD companies market a film...

December 16, 2007, 04:32 PM

Here's a brief update. I received word from a curator at the PFA with a few details: they did not realize they were showing an edited print, they did indeed get the print from MOMA (although it originated with Kanoon in Tehran), and Pompidou may have shown the same print although there's a Kanoon office in Paris that they may have worked with instead.

They say they are going to check with the projectionist, the box office, and their own technical notes, and then contact Kanoon to see what they have to say.

Stay tuned.

December 16, 2007, 04:37 PM

By the way, Harry, that's an interesting bit of news about the DVD set. You know, one possible explanation for the whole thing is that MOMA (or perhaps the Cinematheque Ontario before them) asked Kanoon for a good print of Homework and inadvertently got a good quality -- but edited -- print. And the clerical error or misunderstanding has now spread from city to city.

I can say that the print I saw was quite clean.

December 17, 2007, 06:46 PM

Yes, the print was clean. I was surprised at how good it looked, as the last time I had seen Homework the print was in rough shape. Interesting theory, Rob, about the potential clerical error. Still, it wouldn't quite explain how the film was edited in the first place.

October 20, 2008, 06:22 AM

What about asking Abbas himself on his facebook page?

I have seen the movie at Pompidou retrospective, i dont remember any scenes of horseplays ...

November 17, 2008, 04:22 PM

i managed to get a vhs copy of "homework" about a year ago......subtitled ....but from the descriptions given here it was a cut version
i've just got another copy (86 minutes/subtitles/full version?)this time from neil at ""
this includes the shorts "breaktime/two solutions to one problem/the chorus"
this version is longer than my first copy....but whether it is a full version...?......if there is such a thing?.....