None so blind as those who won't see, none so
alone as those underground
dir: Majid Majidi
Life is a constant, unending struggle in the films of Majid Majidi. I haven’t seen all of them, but I’ve seen enough to know that, in his flicks, poor people struggle and struggle and get barely anything for their troubles. There is no nobility in struggling, and there is barely if any karmic reward coming down the pipeline for everything they go through.
The approach that he has taken in all his films, including here, isn’t one of trying to make grander points about inequality and Iranian society in explicit or polemic terms – you can easily infer all of that, but he doesn’t have characters come out directly and say how unfair everything is and how things should be different.
Majidi has been making movies for years, movies which get seen overseas at festivals and such, and get released in arthouse cinemas, but he’s not political, which is why he hasn’t been arrested by the Revolutionary Guard or the morality police for crimes against Iran, unlike some other directors. Directors who live there don’t have the freedom to criticize the regime, and Majidi isn’t that kind of director, unlike, say, Jafar Panahi, who spent years in jail and under house arrest, and can’t leave Iran and isn’t allowed to make movies ever again.
No, the pricks in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance probably think Majidi is perfect because he never gets political. Thing is, though, like the phrase goes, trying to be apolitical is being political.
It’s not like his films are saccharine mawkish products either. They are harsh in their depiction of what life is like for poor people in Iran, especially children. And a flick that shows how shitty life is for kids in a major city is an indictment of that city and that country, even if thankfully the authorities don’t see it that way.
Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) is a brawling, ruthless force of nature, even at twelve. His mother is institutionalised, and his father is dead. He has a crew of three other chaps, all of whom have lost a parent at least, usually to heroin addiction. I cannot imagine what it must be like as a heroin addict in Iran – a place where they hang you for looking at a picture of the Ayatollah funny or for pointing out that some beards look dumb. I can’t imagine the regime takes an empathetic, harm minimisation approach to addiction, but you never know.
That is the world these particular kids live in – hand to mouth, always looking to scam, taking orders for stuff to steal, always on the make.
The flick starts with the kids trying to steal luxury tyres from a luxury vehicle, something they’ve clearly done before, but the job goes wrong when the lookout gets busted by a security guard. When Ali sees his tiny friend at risk of being grabbed by this jerk, the jerk being a full grown-arse man, Ali takes him on and takes him down temporarily, as he and Abolfazi (Abolfazi Shirzad) abscond. The law would be tough on either of them, but Abolfazi is an Afghani refugee, and it would be even worse for him and his family.
I never thought about it, honestly, that there would be a large population of Afghani refugees in Iran because of the various wars, Taliban etc, and that they would be a shaky, oppressed minority, but the flick has a fair few scenes of Iranians acting like cruel dolts towards people of that background.
Fucking hell, who does catch a break in this world?
Ali is tightly bound to his three best buds, which also includes Reza (Mani Ghafouri) and Mamad (Seyed Mohammad Mehdi Mousavi Fard), but he is cruel to them too. They are less bound by closeness than they are by mutual need. Still, when they go for a swim together in a fountain, which sets up an incredible overhead shot for the title screen, they are briefly happy together.
Some mishap with a pigeon brings Ali to the attention of a local, I dunno, creepy old guy? Crime lord? I’m not sure what the jerk is, but he gives Ali a set of orders: go to the local Sun School with his friends, get enrolled and then find a tunnel underneath the school that runs to a cemetery, at which point they will find a treasure.
Ali, bereft of parents, far too street-smart for his tender years, always eager to lash out at anyone whenever he feels mocked or threatened, is still somehow trusting and naive. He and his friends are young enough that when they hear someone say “a buried treasure”, the only thing they can think of is actual chests or jars of coins dating back to the Persian Empire.
They don’t question it, they just get to work, and their first task is getting into the school.
As a negotiator, Ali isn’t committed to any particular style or approach. He starts off asking the principal politely to be allowed to enrol, then begging, then threatening, then cajoling, then bribing, then all approaches simultaneously, to seemingly no avail. It’s not clear to me entirely how he gets into the school, and his mates too, other than persistence, hanging around long enough, or a particular teacher seeming to take pity on them.
The Sun School is, after all, apparently for these exact kind of street kids, who the school hopes to give a better chance in life, even though its financing isn’t entirely certain. It seems to be an aspirational school in the sense that it is hoping to operate as a school for long enough to attract funding from the council or from wealthy donors, and then be a real school. The teachers are real, or at least I hope they are.
When I heard about the premise months back, of a street urchin encouraged to fake-enrol at a school in order to heist a treasure, I assumed a lot of things. I assumed, first and foremost, that the ‘treasure’ would turn out to be hardened street urchins learning that the real treasure is knowledge, and getting an education as a way out of a life of backbreaking labour and crime. Or that the gold would be the friends they made along the way, lessons learned, all that kind of bullshit.
I guess I didn’t reckon with the ethical and social realist seriousness of this director specifically and Iranian cinema in general. There’s none of that ‘American’ mawkishness lesson-learning and hugs and smiles at the end of a movie.
For ‘American’ substitute “The Great Satan” at your leisure.
Ali’s pursuit of the treasure is all consuming, and because he’s been eking out an existence as a labourer / amateur electrician / jack of all trades, he has a lot of skills and abilities with which to continue the heist. His other buddies help in different ways, but the environment of the school, at least for a couple of them, provides them with opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have. One’s skills as a football player, noticed by a teacher, gets him to the attention of a team, and that’s his ticket out of poverty (he hopes).
Ali only sees that his heist is one man down now. Another kid, the Afghani refugee Abolfazi, is a math prodigy, and a teacher encourages Ali to encourage Abolfazi to sit a particular test in order to get to an advanced school with a scholarship or the Iranian equivalent. Ali just sees that he would lose Abolfazi, and it would be that much harder to do the physical labour of finding the treasure, so he doesn’t bother to even tell him.
The little shit. Even though he’s sweet on Abolfazi’s sister Zahra (Shamila Shirzad), he doesn’t really do anything to promote his educational opportunities, because he always keeps his eyes on the prize. Though he’ll take a train guard down with extreme prejudice if they come after Zahra, who tries to sell trinkets on the subway.
Mamad, Ali’s last man standing is loyal, but the problem he faces is not that he’s lost his father to heroin, it’s that his father, who’s still on heroin, is still around, still trying to force Mamad to leave school and work as a slave for some jerk he owes money to down at the docks. Mamad resents his father and his wicked ways, but when the school sets upon him, he defends his father, ultimately, over his own friends.
The school, even though it has sympathetic teachers in it, is not the cause of, or solution to all of life’s problems for these kids. The administrator has his own agenda, the teachers though sympathetic aren’t necessarily any better at exemplifying the behaviour they claim is good and proper to the boys, being prone to violence and acting out themselves. And, ultimately, it’s not a magical place. It’s a building, there are teachers, there are books and blackboards, but it’s no more permanent than anywhere else, any place else, for these kids.
At no stage is Ali learning valuable life lessons at the school. At no stage are his horizons being expanded, or is he detecting a previously unknown love of poetry or writing or science, with which he realises that the world is bigger than the tunnel he desperately labours within.
That’s one of the images used for the poster, of Ali, toiling at what looks like the bottom of a mine shaft, in darkness, with some light coming from above, sunlight, we would guess. Ali is absolutely determined, and doesn’t stop, no matter what, no matter that everyone else is gone, that everyone, including the crime boss who tasked him is gone, that the school itself is gone, and he is left alone, long after we have determined that there probably isn’t any treasure, symbolic or otherwise. He still keeps fighting for it, because he cannot give up, even when it looks like it’s going to kill him.
It’s hard to say that much more about this extraordinary, yet ordinary flick. Ali is not a likeable main character, but that doesn’t matter that much, because the force of his personality carries us along anyway. We pity him, we get angry with him, we might sympathise with him, and his grand plan to get him mum out of the institution, and to give her a comfortable life that they have previously lacked, we might get frustrated at how he treats his friends, but we don’t want to doubt that he will somehow break through.
These kids…these poor kids. They break your heart with what few chances this world gives them. Sun Children is not an uplifting film, but neither is it utterly crushing. The dramas that happen are believable, understandable and (I assume) real for poor kids in Iran, and they’re not there to shock us into donating money to some charity or make us vote a particular way.
Even though this world seems to be one crushing disappointment after another, for some reason I feel like Ali will get through, and one day maybe thrive. The small joy he feels at the end, watching his mum play football in the rain, it at least shows he hasn’t lost everything, which includes hope.
Such a beautiful film, in its way. Beautifully shot, with a sublime score by Ramin Kousha, perfectly acted by a host of amateurs (not the teachers, I recognised Javad Ezati from one of Majidi’s previous films). Majid Majidi is truly one of the greats, of any nation. Long may he make films, and long may he stay out of jail.
8 times I would have given up after I got the first boo boo on my pinkie out of 10
"Listen carefully. Under the cemetery there is a treasure. There is no way in from the cemetery. The only way is from the school's water pipe across from it. We'll do it, step by step. First you go to enrol at the school, then you find the basement. You keep me posted, then I'll tell you what to do next." - seems pretty straight forward to me - Sun Children