In 1959, François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) presented delinquent childhood in a manner that allowed for its lead actor, the 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, to become a star seemingly overnight. While Léaud’s character of Antoine Doinel is certainly someone that audiences of all ages can identify with, Doinel is just that – a character. 15 years later, Abbas Kiarostami approaches the idea of the delinquent youth with markedly different dramatic intentions in The Traveller (1974). Produced by the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (aka Kānoon), Kiarostami’s The Traveller is more akin to a parable than it is an expressly character-driven work.
Qassem (Hassan Darabi), the child at the centre of this tale of boyish obsession, lives in the Iranian city of Malayer with his illiterate parents. Ideally, he will grow to become a carpenter like his father, but what interest does a child, well outside the responsibilities of adulthood, have with a respectable trade? School attendance waning, it is his affinity for soccer that has become a reprieve from the monotony of disappointing both his parents and teachers alike. Beyond entertainment, the object of his obsession does not have a specific function for the people of Malayer, so he feels like an outsider in his own hometown. However, it is not his zeal for the sport that is the true source of his alienation, but simply that he is a child in an unimaginative adult world. With his favourite team, Persepolis Football Club, preparing for a tournament in Tehran, the chance to see them play at Azadi Stadium is an attractive alternative to life as usual.
“Neither of us know the lesson. [Our teacher] will just hit us,” says Qassem to his neighbourhood friend in an effort to convince him to play hooky from school with him so that they can gather enough money for him to purchase a bus ticket to Tehran. It is in the methods utilised by Qassem and his selfless friend to raise the necessary funds for this trip that the divide between adults and children shifts from the circumstantial to the universal. Unless provided an allowance or gifted cash, children have few options for earning money, but Qassem arrives at a scam that Kiarostami imbues with malicious joy.
Staging a photoshoot with a broken camera outside of a school before dismissal, Qassem pretends to take a photo of his friend just as the school doors burst open with ecstatic children. One curious kid approaches Qassem, thus initiating the con. Kids empty their pockets of change and pay Qassem to have their photo taken with the promise that the film will be developed overnight and ready the next day. Like the hands in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Kiarostami isolates the most important moments of these transactions between consumers and the service they’re paying for. The repetition in the framing of actions, such as money being handed to Qassem followed by a shot of his hand sliding the coins into his pocket, contributes to the feeling of ease in the success of this scam.
Within the gesture of his closed fist around the coins is his desperation to escape. Earlier in the film, these hands are hit with a switch by his teacher while his mother watches in silence. Later, for nearly every strike against his open palm, he collects a coin that will contribute to his escape for a day.
Upon receiving payment, each child poses for the broken camera, and through the lens we see the images Qassem would have taken… he might be better at photography than soccer! This sequence is elevated from feeling cruel and instead becomes a celebration of childhood as Kiarostami relishes in their radiant smiles while also alluding to all of Qassem’s untapped potential.
Wisely, Kiarostami presents us with this ethical dilemma merely as a means to an end, and any repercussions that may follow when the children of Malayer don’t receive their portraits are never shown. The Traveller is not concerned with something as dramatic as the committing of a crime and the punishment that inevitably will follow. Instead, being an outsider rises to the foreground as Qassem arrives in Tehran the next day for the soccer match.
Framed at Qassem’s eye level, we experience his anxiety of waiting in line for a ticket after having travelled so far. The faces of the adults on either side of him in line cannot be seen, so we feel that our titular traveller is set apart. Upon arriving at the box office and being told that the game is sold out, Kiarostami’s camera rises to the height of adults and looks down upon Qassem from behind as he feverishly wanders the streets in search of an affordable alternative from ticket scalpers. With the back of Qassem’s head as the centre of our attention as he passes through crowds of strangers in a city foreign to him, Qassem is again presented as a dramatic figure beyond basic notions of character. Separated by age and the physical characteristics that accompany his youth, the dejection of this brief failure is relieved when he surrenders the money he intended to use for his bus ride back home to instead purchase an overpriced ticket to the game.
Much like the unseen aftermath of the ploy with the broken camera, the soccer game begins to fade from Kiarostami’s priorities in The Traveller. Our protagonist can breathe easy, in spite of no longer having a plan for his return home. In the hours leading up to the game, he explores the city entirely aware of his status as an outsider, and he sees possibilities where there were none at home. Stumbling upon a shaded area where some older boys are napping, Qassem rests in the comfort of the unknown. His palms are soothed by the grass, and it’s there that he’s given a space to dream, so long as the nightmares of his past don’t keep him out.
. . .
The Traveller (Abbas Kiarostami, 1974)
Prod. Co: Kanun parvaresh fekri Prod: Abbas Kiarostami Dir: Abbas Kiarostami Scr: Abbas Kiarostami, Hassan Rafi’i Phot: Firooz Malekzadeh Ed: Amir Hossein Hami Mus: Kambiz Roshanravan
Cast: Hassan Darabi, Pare Gol Atashjameh, Masud Zandbegleh, Mostafa Tari