Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven is the latest in a string of acclaimed Iranian films whose protagonists are prepubescent children. But though the story of Ali, the film’s hero, reflects some of Majidi’s childhood experiences, he can hardly be seen as a stand-in for his creator. Like most of the Iranian filmmakers known for making such films, the writer-director is not a kid. He is 40 years old and has salt-and-pepper hair, and explains, through a translator, that he began his career some 20 years ago as an actor, appearing in three early films by his friend and colleague, director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
“Makhmalbaf and I actually started our careers together,” he recalls. “We would come up with ideas together. Then when he started making his own films, I acted in them.”
In recent years, Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, the two most celebrated contemporary Iranian directors, have explored a Brechtian style that undercuts conventional narrative. In Kiarostami’s remarkable Close Up, for example, he reconstructs the story of a man who infiltrated affluent Tehran by posing as Makhmalbaf. The film parallels Children of Heaven in a way, since in the latter Ali finds his way from his own poor neighborhood to the city’s affluent Uptown district.
Majidi doesn’t much like the comparison. “I really don’t see that film as one that depicts class differences,” he says of Close Up. “You’re right in seeing that in the film, but to me the film is about this passion that a lot of people have for becoming an actor or doing something that has to do with filmmaking. That’s how I see that film. I’m sure that Kiarostami had good reasons for being attracted to that subject, but I couldn’t relate to it.
“I don’t think he has influenced me,” Majidi says of Kiarostami, “but I admire some of his films.
“I really love storytelling,” he adds. “That’s my style. I would never make a documentary. Kiarostami loves the documentary style. That’s why I can’t relate to a movie like Close Up. It’s not my kind of material. I would have made a story out of the film, more of
Despite this difference, Children of Heaven resembles such early Kiarostami films as Where Is the Friends’ House? as well as the more recent The White Balloon, directed by Jafar Panahi from a Kiarostami script. Like those movies, Majidi’s is based on an actual incidenttwo siblings have to share one pair of sneakers after the boy loses the girl’s shoes on the way back from having them repairedand was cast with nonprofessional actors.
“When you use nonactors, it enhances the realism of the film,” says Majidi. “I wanted to work with people who had no ideas about the process of filmmaking. That creates a sort of innocence on their part, which is what I needed. Professional actors are too conscious of what they’re doing. I think that disrupts the normal flow of life in a film.”
Although Majidi rejects the interweaving of fiction and documentary, Children of Heaven is also rooted in realitythat of his own life. “The background was quite familiar to me, and had some resemblances to my own childhood,” he says. “There were a lot of things I could really understand within that background. I experienced it myself.”
Like other Iranian films with youthful protagonists, Children of Heaven was financed by the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, a government agency. At first, however, the script was rejected. “Their concern was that the poverty depicted in the film might be too bleak for the children,” explains Majidi. “My response was that when you read the script, you only see the surface of the film. The film really is not about a bleak or dirty kind of poverty.”
Ultimately, the director says, the movie “was received tremendously by the people. Although films for children are generally not box-office hits, this one was. The kids in Iran loved the film. But people from different age groups like the film.”
For those familiar with recent Iranian movies about children, Majidi’s film provides two surprises. The first is when Ali travels to the Uptown neighborhood, revealing the vast gap between Tehran’s poor and wealthy. (“In Iran also, it was shocking to the audience to see the contrast,” notes the director.) The other comes when Ali enters a foot race and the film briefly becomes a sports movie.
“I’m not really that familiar with American sports movies,” says Majidi. “I wasn’t drawn to them. This is the first time that anyone has suggested that the film turns into a sports movie at the end.”
The film’s final sequence, however, is anything but Hollywood. Its open-ended quality is much more characteristic of the work of Kiarostami and Makhmalbafmuch more Iranian, it’s suggested. “That’s why I made it that way,” agrees Majidi. “I wanted to make an Iranian film.”
Still, the director emphasizes, foreign audiences are unaware of the diversity of contemporary Iranian cinema. “We make about 60 to 70 movies a year, and only about six or seven of them are about children,” he declares. “It just so happens that our movies about kids have had much more international exposure and success. That has created the belief that maybe we are only making films for children. We do have a lot of top-notch filmmakers who’ve never made films for children, including Dariush Mehrjui and Makhmalbaf himself.
“There’s more variety to Iranian films than you might have seen here,” he continues. “There are movies about the affluent lifestyles as well. But the ones that have been more successful abroad, or even shown there, are the ones that depict poverty.”
Majidi is not arguing that Westerners should see examples of more commercial Iranian movies, “but the majority of Iranian films do end with happy endings,” he says. “In some films, you have the hero being riddled with bullets, but somehow he rises again, and he says, ‘I’m alive,’ and he beats the villains. Mainstream Iranian films could be even more notorious for their happy endings than Hollywood ones.”
Americans don’t see those films, Majidi is told.
“You’re lucky not to see them,”
he says, and both he and the translator laugh.Mark Jenkins