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Children of the revolution

By Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
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.


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