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
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
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
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.