A mostly pleasant surprise in a year that has produced a lack of stellar animated outings.
This man directs such gentle films to be an artist from the evil axis.
Majid Majidi, from Iran, guards his words, because he knows they may be scrutinized carefully both here and at home, but look at his movies and you can see his good heart. We sit in a Chicago hotel and talk about the cinema, and I sense that in his land there is more at stake than in Hollywood--that the risks are of a different order.
His new film "Baran" involves Afghan refugees in Iran, and the role of women in a Muslim society, and yet it is, as nearly as it can be, non-political. It is just about the people involved.
A construction boss employs Afghans illegally, because they will work cheaply, and when one is injured he agrees to hire the man's son. An Iranian worker, who has the soft job of tea boy, is angered when the son, who is not strong, is given the job. The former tea-boy makes things tough for the new one, until he discovers one day that the boy...is a girl. Thus commences a love story that makes the problems of Romeo and Juliet look like a walk in the park. Majidi is 43, and started acting and directing when he was 22. His "Children Of Heaven" (1999) grossed more than $1 million in America, a record for an Iranian film. I showed it at my 2000 Overlooked Film Festival at the free family matinee, telling the bigger kids it was all right to read the subtitles to the smaller ones--but there was not a sound, because the images held them spellbound. It tells the story of a boy who takes his sister's shoes to be mended and loses them through no fault of his own. The two are afraid to admit this to their parents, so they devise a deception. It is a film with the universality of Chaplin, and shows the two Tehrans, rich and poor.
In 2000, Majidi made "The Color of Paradise," about a blind boy who is raised by his father after his mother dies. The boy is smart and quick, and excels at a school for the blind, but his father fears an imperfect child will hurt his own chances in the remarriage market. It is another deeply-felt film. Now comes "Baran."
One seeks messages in these works: Is there some buried commentary on Iranian society under the strict religious laws of recent years? Majidi thinks not. The stories are simply what they are. We talk about two kinds of censorship--censorship of the government, over there, and of the box office, over here, where a story like "Children of Heaven" could not be made because it lacks special effects, gags, quick pacing.
Majidi tells me through his interpreter "I don't want to only tell their stories, not my stories. I also don't want to be part of a system where I can only work if it makes money. So it's like a purgatory."
It took him three years to finance "Children of Heaven," he said: "The commercial investors told me that the film had no commercial potential. The government agencies had problems because they thought the film was too bitter and dark. They'd say 'We're constructing a new society. Why do you want to project such a negative image of us, in which a pair of shoes make a family fall into despair?'
"They didn't understand that the pair of shoes was just the plot device. I wanted to make a film about the greatness of the spirits of two little kids and how they can go beyond their small world through their sacrifice and altruism."
Finally he found financing from an Iranian cultural organization for children. The irony is that people all over the world did want to see "Children of Heaven," and it did make money.
In that film he had a character of a blind peddler, and in researching the blind he found the boarding school that's shown early in "The Color of Paradise."
"There were two students standing in front of one another in kung-fu postures," he said, "but how can you attack someone you can't see? They were relying on the noise coming from their clothing. Looking around the school, I saw them managing, going through books, getting organized, you know, check their clothing, like any other students would do.
"I would go and visit them two or three times a week. And once on a school break I took three to the northern part of Iran, which is gorgeous. There are a lot of trees, a lot of birds flying by and making noises, and there's the Caspian Sea. These children had never experienced water. That trip became the basis of 'The Color of Paradise.' When they were in the water they would pick up the petals and read them as if they were Braille."
Although "Baran" is not about children, the protagonists are adolescents, naive about the ways of the world. Through them it reflects on the millions of Afghans illegally in Iran.
"The protagonist is called Lateef," Majidi said. "Lateef in Farsi means gentle, but in the beginning he is anything but gentle. Baran, the girl's name, means rain, and could be like a shower that brings out his real core under all the roughness and toughness."
His decision to become an actor was taken in opposition to his father: "I rehearsed with a small theatre group, but I had to sneak out under the pretext of going to a remedial class; My father told us how hard he was working so me and my four brothers could make somebody of ourselves, become physicians, engineers. For several years I acted in a secret way. My mother knew, but I would bribe her by doing a lot of chores around the home. I got into the Department of Fine Arts, but I told my father that was in Department of Engineering. He gave candies and sweets to his colleagues to let them know how proud he was of me.
"Unfortunately, he died of a stroke right around the same time and that gave me great guilt because of the lies that I had told. I remember going to his grave and apologizing to him, saying that I did this for my heart, and didn't mean to break his heart. I figured that he wanted me to be of some service. And I decided, okay, I can do that through acting. When I made 'Children of Heaven,' I did it for my father."
"Baran" opens Friday (May 3). "The Children of Heaven" and "The Color of Paradise," both recommended for families, are available on VHS and DVD.
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