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Children of the revolution

From the pimply miseries of Todd Solondz’s

Happiness to Harmony Korine filming himself being

beaten up, realist film has returned to contemporary

cinema. Nowhere is this more evident than in new

Iranian cinema, with the triumph at 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

Iranian cinema – not since the heyday of Italian neo-

realism. The Iranian films are lacking in fantasy. They

are fixated on the small-scale, the intimate and the

inconsequential. Abbas Kiaro-stami’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; the same director’s forthcoming The

Colour of Paradise, about a blind boy’s holiday; and

the Kiarostami-scripted The White Balloon, 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 flats where families live close

together. The natural heroes of this small world,

defined by family and immediate locale, are children.

Kiarostami, Iran’s outstanding talent, has moved on

from his early children’s films of the 1970s and

1980s, including Where Is My Friend’s House?, a

story of a boy trying to return a book to a friend from

which all the recent child-centred Iranian films are

derived. But he has said that his 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 Majidi’s Children of Heaven, a brother and sister

sit at the pool blowing bubbles – a scene that might

make you think of the 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 reason is because they behave in a spontaneous

way before the camera and tend to be less self-

conscious than adults. Ever since Italian neo-realist

film-makers started working with untrained actors in

the 1940s, children have been the stars of the

everyday. They are naturals at being natural.

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, less subject to the 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 1990s, The White

Balloon (1995), with a script by Kiarostami, makes

time’s passing explicit. At intervals throughout the

film, we hear a radio announcer counting down to the

Islamic new year. But for the seven-year-old heroine,

this 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 suggests the right kind of self-absorption and

when she loses her money we think only of how she

can get it back before the shop closes.

The White Balloon is a primer in cinema. The perfect,

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. The White Balloon may be a sweet film, but it

is also a 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.

The unquestionable authority of adults 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.

This depiction of adult power is, consciously or

unconsciously, political content. Made in a country

with an authoritarian government, Iranian child films

are a way of getting through the censorship that limits

the way film-makers can deal with adult subjects.

Censorship in Iran since the 1979 revolution has

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. Things that appear universal collide with

those that are culturally specific. The film is about a

blind boy whose father cannot see past his disability to

love his son. We see the boy’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 the child actor’s performance. As a

result, the symbolism goes over our heads.

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.

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