This 37 year-old black and white gem from Kiarostami is tucked away as an extra on the Criterion release of Close-Up, a documentary which I blogged about yesterday. The only information we get prior to watching the relatively unknown film is from Criterion's quick blurb:
At one point in Close-Up, the main figure, Hossein Sabzian, says, "I am the child from the film The Traveler who's left behind." Made in 1974, Abbas Kiarostami's The Traveler tells the story of a young boy who goes to great lengths to take a bus trip to see his favorite soccer team. Kiarostami has said that he considers the film to be his first authentic feature.
It makes sense then, that the story opens with the boy, Qassem, in a scene that lasts over a minute, late for school playing soccer with his friends. Another kid reminds him of where he is supposed to be, and he collects his small soccer goals and the ball and heads to school. When he shows up for class, he's got the excuse planned out but the teacher has heard his excuses before. "Where the hell have you been?" asks the man, perturbed that the kid is late for school once again. "I had a toothache," says Qassem, his head wrapped like he's been to a cartoon dentist. "Toothache my foot!" cries the teacher. "It's infected," says Qassem. He's allowed to sit in the class, but it doesn't last long anyway. He's kicked out in less than five minutes for reading a soccer magazine instead of the book the class is studying.
The film is about obsession, specifically childhood obsession, and in this case Qassem's unhealthy obsession with the sport. He daydreams about it, buys soccer magazines he can't afford, skips school, and rather than doing his homework he sneaks out on his mom to play. But what do you know when you're a kid? Qassem's mental faculties aren't developed to the point where he understands the idea of an unhealthy obsession. When his illiterate mom nags him to keep up his schoolwork, or when his teacher gets upset to the point of spanking his hands with a switch, all Qassem knows is the difference between the adult world and his, that there are things adults expect that don't top his list of priorities.
Some kids, no matter what you do as a parent or teacher, simply don't get it. Qassem is even more obsessed with soccer than the kids from this year's Colombian film, The Colors of the Mountain. He finds out about a professional game taking place in Tehran, and though he'd have to raise money for a bus ride and a ticket to the event, and though he'd be skipping school and lying to mom and dad in the process, and though he might lose a few of his friends in the way he procures his funding, he sets his sights on the game, on being there to see it live, on hanging out with the men and rooting and jeering and cheering his team to a win.
The results of the trip to Tehran will be tragic, but I don't know if this kid will learn his lesson. There is a definite moral of the story in The Traveler -- that unhealthy obsession gets you nowhere.
I did have to laugh early on in the tale. When mom shows up at the school to discuss Qassem with his teacher, the conversation that takes place is so foreign to how we deal with kids today. I wonder if just a tad of the abrasive way the man confronts Qassem's mom (and later Qassem) might be something worth looking into for handling some kids today:
Mom: Sir, I'm Qassem Julayi's mother.
Teacher: Well, well. What brings you here?
Mom: He goes to bed every night without doing his homework. When I ask, he says he's done it. I'm here to find out if he's doing his schoolwork and coming to school. I can't read or write...
Teacher: (Heated) You come once a year to see if the little vagrant is coming to school? He's made my life hell and turned the whole school upside down. He's not a child - he's a monster.
Mom: What can I do? I ask if he's done all his homework, and he says yes. He goes to bed early and gets up early. He leaves for school before the other kids. I ask him, "Where's your homework?" He says he did it at school, or on the way, or out in the yard, or on the roof. How am I to know? I can't read... Then the neighbor's child tells me Qassem's not coming to school. So I've come to see you to find out if he's doing his schoolwork. You're in charge here...
Teacher: (Angry) That's right! If a chicken snuck out of your yard, you'd follow it halfway across town. In all these years have you ever come to see what he's up to? Have you even come to see what the school looks like? Now you come and say, "You're in charge."
Mom: (Quietly, frustrated) Just last night he acquired a new habit I don't like one bit. Last night I put five tomans under the rug. This morning I served their breakfast and gave him the five rials he'd asked for. After he left, I tidied up, and when I went to get the five tomans, they were gone. No one else goes in that room. What do I do about this new habit of his?
Teacher: What do you expect from such an ill-bred boy with parents like you? What am I supposed to do with him?
What we're witnessing here is a single conversation depicting the eternal struggle in parenting, teaching, mentoring and the like. There is never a guarantee. No birth is ever gift wrapped. You try to do the right things to raise a child, but two plus two doesn't always equal four. The teacher blames the parent, the parent requests more help from the teacher, but that kid will still be on the bus to Tehran to check out a game instead of getting on the right road for his life. In the process, he'll let everyone down and feel like a fool, and I'll bet he gets the spanking of his life. I just hope he learns from the tragedy that is about to take place and finds some balance with his unhealthy obsession.