Children of the revolution
By Jonathan Jones
July 14, 2000
From the pimply, sweaty miseries of Todd Solondz's Happiness to Harmony
Korine filming himself being beaten up, realist film has returned to contemporary
cinema with a vengeance. Nowhere is this more evident and more successful
than in the new Iranian cinema with the triumph at western film festivals
of films like The White Balloon and The Apple.
In fact there has never been a national school of film that so exclusively
staked its appeal on reality as contemporary Iranian cinema not since the
heyday of Italian neo-realism anyway. The films from Iran that reach the
west are drastically lacking in fantasy. They are fixated on the small-scale,
the intimate and the inconsequential. Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, with
its potential suicide driving around meeting people, is about as eventful
as it gets.
Other recent Iranian films that have won awards and been shown successfully
in the west include Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven nominated for a best
foreign film Oscar last year about a boy who loses his sister's shoes on
his way back from the cobbler's; the same director's forthcoming The Colour
of Paradise, about a blind boy's summer holiday; and the Kiarostami-scripted
The White Balloon, directed by Jafar Panahi, about a girl who loses her
money on her way to buy a goldfish.
The world of Iranian cinema is centred on courtyards off narrow Tehran
backstreets, with gates and pools of fresh water and several flats where
families live close together. The natural heroes of this small world, defined
by family and immediate locale, are children. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran's
outstanding talent, has moved on from his early children's films of the
70s and 80s, including Where is My Friend's House?, an elementary story
of a boy trying to return a notebook to a school friend from which all
the recent child-centred Iranian films are derived. But he has said that
his entire sense of cinema is shaped by his experience with children: I
try to look at the world from a child's point of view.'
In one scene in Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven, a brother and sister
sit at the pool in the courtyard over which they live in a small flat.
They blow bubbles which float out over the pool in a scene that might make
you think of the European realist painter Chardin's Boy Blowing Bubbles.
It might also make you wonder why it is always children that film-makers
turn to when they try to depict reality.
One obvious reason is because they behave in a spontaneous way before
the camera and children tend to be less self- conscious than adults. Ever
since Italian neo-realist film-makers started working with untrained actors
in the 40s, children have been the stars of the everyday. They are naturals
at being natural. Think of Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves in which
the young boy played by Enzo Staiola steals every scene he is in; or the
performance by David Bradley in Ken Loach's Kes.
Iranian film-makers are now coaxing this calibre of performance from
child actors. It's harder with adults. Majid Majidi has recalled that when
he filmed The Colour of Paradise, the old villager he cast as the grandmother
had trouble remembering her lines; Mohsen Ramezani, the equally untrained
actor who plays the film's eight-year-old blind hero, had to coach her.
The two girls in Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple who have been locked in
the house for years and are let out, grinning and loping about the streets
of Tehran, are re-enacting their own experiences. But Iranian film-makers
are not only interested in children for their acting or anti-acting abilities.
Children have a different sense of time to adults. Time is more elastic,
more flexible, less subject to the rational world of the clock. It's one
of the ways we define childhood and it's the essence of children's play.
Play stretches time, like the boy blowing the bubble. It holds the everyday
in suspension. Film can do that too.
The most popular Iranian hit of the 90s, Panahi's The White Balloon
(1995) with a script by Abbas Kiarostami, makes time's passing explicit.
At the beginning, and at intervals throughout the film, we hear a radio
announcer counting down to the Islamic new year. But for the seven-year-old
heroine of the film, this time means nothing; her mother tells her off
for wanting to receive and give away her presents before new year and the
day only has meaning to her as a chance to buy a goldfish. We get caught
up in her sense of what is important; the child actress perfectly suggests
the right kind of self-absorption and when she loses her money down a grid
in the road we and she think only of how she can get it back before the
pet shop closes.
The White Balloon is a primer in cinema. The perfect, very pure state
of suspense it causes is worthy of Hitchcock. It dramatises the passivity
and powerlessness of the spectator; it makes you feel like a child. Francois
Truffaut teased out of Hitchcock in his interviews with the director that
his cinema had its roots in his Catholic childhood. The White Balloon may
be a sweet film, but it is also a highly self-conscious one which implies
that all cinema is about being put in the situation as a child, watching
the world but having no control over it. Adults are an immovable force
in contemporary Iranian films.
This makes them very different from Europe's child-revolution films;
there is no equivalent for Vigo's Zero de Conduite or Melville's Les Enfants
Terribles, no chil dren living in a utopia free of adults. The distant,
sometimes cruel, sometimes merciful, always unquestionable authority of
adults in these films is a given. The suspense of The White Balloon arises
from our empathy with the girl's terror of having to tell her mother she
has lost her money while In The Colour of Paradise, a blind boy's desire
to be loved by his father pervades everything.
This depiction of adult power has, consciously or unconsciously, a political
content. Made in a country with an authoritarian religious government,
Iranian child films are at one level a way of getting through the strict
censorship that limits the way film-makers can deal with adult subjects.
Making us identify with the powerlessness of children is a profound way
of engaging with the nature of life in such a society; a world where everyone
feels as helpless as a child.
Samira Makhmalbaf, director of The Apple, explicitly interpreted the
youthfulness of Iranian cinema as politically subversive when she spoke
at Cannes this year after getting the jury award for her second film. She
dedicated her award to a young generation of hope' involved in a struggle
for democracy and a better life in Iran'. The daughter of the Islamic film-maker
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, she made The Apple when she was just 17. It has a rough-and-ready
spontaneous look. The children begin by groaning and growling instead of
talking, and we see their gradual liberation as they play in the street
for the first time, make friends and eat ice cream.
Censorship in Iran since the 1979 revolution has severely limited the
depiction of adult' subjects particularly the lives of women. Time magazine,
in a feature on children in the new Iranian cinema, saw The Apple as a
thinly-veiled attack on the mullahs, with the children representing young
Iran rejecting religious oppression. But if these films get under the net
of censorship at home, they get under the net of our prejudices too. We
can watch them without having to engage with their being thoroughly Islamic.
The difference in what we see and what an Iranian audience might is
demonstrated by The Colour of Paradise, Majid Majidi's follow-up to Children
of Heaven. Things that appear universal are constantly colliding with those
that are culturally specific. The Colour of Paradise is about a boy, played
by blind child actor Mohsen Ramenazi, whose father cannot see past his
disability to love his son. We see Mohsen's passion for life, his physical
engagement with the world, and recognise that he sees' the beauty of existence
far more than his father.
The pleasure of this film for a western audience is entirely to do with
Mohsen's performance, his amazing vitality, his playfulness, his wit. As
a result, most of the symbolism in the film goes right over our heads.
The Colour of Paradise is deeply theological; it's an Islamic tract. The
film's Iranian title is The Colour of God,' the director has explained,
which alludes to the intervention of God at the end. God changes the father
and touches the son.'
Iranian film-makers now lead the way in world cinema. And they are doing
it, as Europeans once did, by showing that you can make a film by simply
pointing a camera at a child walking down the street. The Colour of Paradise
is out on August 4.