Iran’s rich and persistent tradition of cinema has granted it a place among the most widely celebrated film industries in the world. It is said to have taken over the mantle of neorealism from Italian cinema, and many of its award-winning movies, such as "A Separation" and "Baran" have resulted in international praise and prestigious awards throughout the last few decades. In short, exploring Iranian films is essential and invaluable for anyone who wants to learn more about movies.
One of Iran’s most celebrated directors is Majid Majidi, who made Children of Heaven in 1997. This film was the first Iranian movie to ever be nominated by the Academy Awards (for best foreign language film).
Children of Heaven (titled Bacheha-Ye aseman in Persian) possesses a quality and style that is very rare in most films from Hollywood (or even Bollywood). When you watch this movie you will find that there is no needless drama, no amazing occurrences, no villains and heroes, and no miraculous plot-twists. Instead it has a soft, unexaggerated quality that makes it feel like you really are witnessing a vision of life.
This, however, doesn’t make the film less exciting, in fact it serves to draw you in. At times, you can find yourself completely immersed, transported and intertwined with the children who are the subjects of the movie.
The actors play their roles very naturally. The performances from the adorable young actors Amir Farrokh Hashemian (playing Ali) and Bahare Seddiqi (playing Zahra) are especially disarming. In each moment on screen, their innocence shines brightly, engaging young viewers immediately, and reminding adults about the intangible essence of childhood; when the world is flushed with free-flowing fear, wonderment, absorption and curiosity.
The camera-work and the sound-scapes in the film also serve to enhance this feeling; the angles are often taken from the childrens’ perspective, by shooting from their height and at their eye-level, making it easy to view the world like they do and from where they stand.
The story revolves around Ali and Zahra, who are brother and sister (both probably younger than 10 years of age). They are from a poor family living in a humble neighborhood in Tehran. Their father (Reza Naji) is unable to make ends meet, and their mother (Fereshte Sarabandi) is unwell. We join the family at a time when they are very short on money (they owe several months' rent to the landlord and even owe cash to the vegetable vendor) and are barely scraping by on a daily basis.
Ali is out running some errands, and has taken his sister’s pink shoes to the cobbler so that they can be mended. Unfortunately he loses these shoes at the grocers and woefully returns home to tell his little sister about the mishap, begging her to keep it a secret from their already harangued parents. And so their adventure begins.
Zahra now doesn’t have another pair of shoes to wear to school, and after Ali tries (and fails) to find the shoes again, they realise that they must both share Ali’s raggedy sneakers to school each day. Since Ali's school runs in afternoons and Zahra goes in the morning, they develop a schedule of frantically exchanging them and dashing to and from their schools in an effort to keep each other out of trouble at home or in school.
What follows is a beautiful telling of a childhood adventure, a touching portrait of sibling-hood, and among other things, an immersive portrayal of life in poverty. The film is surprisingly poignant, and quietly gives us different perspectives on the lives of others by literally putting us in their shoes.
Though Children of Heaven was essentially made for children, anyone who has seen it will tell you that it is perhaps even more enchanting to watch as an adult. This heartwarming story is great to watch with your family and also a wonderful introduction into the world of Iranian films, one that will hopefully continue to tell such stories in the years to come.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.
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