The Iranian


email us

US Transcom
US Transcom

Sehaty Foreign Exchange

    News & views

The kids are all right
Don't tell the clerics, but Iranian films sparkle with wisdom, ambiguity and movie magic

TIME magazine
MARCH 15, 1999

A child's arm stretches out, as far as it can, to pour water from a cup onto a scruffy potted plant. This, the first image in Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple, introduces with poetic clarity the film's strange, true story: of 12-year-old twin girls imprisoned by their father in their Tehran home, away from sunlight, from the friendship of other kids, from the smallest ecstasies and exasperations of childhood. This wise, poignant film was made under unusual circumstances. The father and the girls were persuaded to play themselves, and Makhmalbaf was only 17 when she shot it. But extraordinary Iranian films have been almost...ordinary. Savvy cinephiles know that Iran is the place where movie miracles happen all the time.

Iran is today's one great national cinema. Not since the Czech New Wave of the mid-'60s has a country made such a lovely noise at the big festivals and in Western capitals where the term foreign film doesn't evoke a yawn. Directors Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry), Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon) and Samira's father Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh) are as revered in the world film community as they are anonymous at American 'plexes.

To most Americans, the Islamic Republic of Iran is known for denouncing the Great Satan U.S., swearing out fatwas on any renegade soul and defining women's rights as the privilege of wearing a chador. For two decades, Iran has been, notoriously, fascism with a cleric's face. So it is a conundrum and a wonder that the republic has allowed the production of highly sophisticated films that are both touching, in the style of Italian postwar neorealism, and at least implicitly critical of aspects of the ruling theocracy. How do Iran's auteurs pull off this double feat? Frequently, by cloaking grownup stories in toddler raiment. For Iran is not only a leader in world film; it is the leader in children's films. This is Iran's cinema spirit: humanism with a kid's face.

Children's films--by which is meant movies about the young but not necessarily for them--have an honorable pedigree in Iran. The Shahrina sponsored a children's film festival for a dozen or so years before her husband was overthrown in 1979. Under the Ayatullah, as in the Pahlavi regime, Iranian films proved a valuable cultural export. Last month Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven became the first Iranian movie nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign film.

Children's stories are often tales of desperate travels through far-off lands. In Iranian films, the terrain is typically the child's own hometown. And the potential tragedy can be as simple as being left alone at school, as in Panahi's deliciously devious The Mirror. Or, as in Children of Heaven, the loss of your sister's shoes.

Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) leaves them outside a grocer's, where a blind trashman spirits them off. Fearful of their father's wrath, the boy and his kid sister Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi) agree to share Ali's sneakers; Zahra will wear them to her school each morning, Ali to his in the afternoon. Complications ensue, vitalized by the boy's heroic goodwill and the girl's frantic fretting--her petulance is comically magisterial. When Ali enters a 4-km race, the film gets a case of slo-mo sentimentality; it becomes a sort of Chariots of Farsi. But Majidi can show family love among the poor without finger wagging. Ali and his clan have the affection of an ideal movie family. American kids and their parents ought to love them.

The Naderi family, in The Apple, is far more troubling. Neighbors petition the authorities about the girls' confinement; Zahra and Massoumeh are removed for haircuts and a good scrubbing, then sent home. But the old father keeps them locked in. His blind wife can't keep an eye on them, and there are boys living nearby. If anyone touched the girls, he says, "I'd be dishonored."

The girls yearn to see growing things; they make a painting of a flower by splatting two sooty handprints on a wall. Finally they do get out and play with two other girls, in a meeting as sweet and spooky as the one between E.T. and little Drew Barrymore. Massoumeh smacks an apple against one girl's face, then hands her the fruit. Baffled but beguiled, the girl kisses Massoumeh--who, inferring that this was a reward for aggression, hits the girl again!

The Apple, like the best Iranian films, is full of such privileged moments. But it is no simple fable of the Wild Child civilized. For two girls and their blind mother thrust into the light, a cave has its security, and the world its perils. The film can only wish the Naderi family the success that Iranian cinema had when it emerged from the shadow of the imams and into the glare of the world screen. END


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

 MIS Internet Services

Web Site Design by
Multimedia Internet Services, Inc

 GPG Internet server

Internet server by
Global Publishing Group.