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The Discreet Charm of the Underclass

13 Nov 2008 18:10No Comments


[Tehran Bureau] Despite the many obstacles of visas and security officials, renowned Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi made it to Boston in time for the screening of his newest movie, "The Song of the Sparrows." His film didn't.

Lost in transit.

Nevertheless, the Iranian film festival kicked off at the Museum of Fine Arts last week with what looked like a slightly-enhanced DVD copy. It was a shame because cinematography is one of the most beautiful aspects of Majidi's films. "I suffered throughout the screening," the director told the audience afterward. Majidi was present to receive the ILEX Foundation Award for Excellence in Iranian Cinema. The sold-out crowd seemed unfazed, perhaps a testament to the overall strength of his work.

Majidi is the only Iranian director who has been nominated for an Oscar. This was back in 1997 for "Children of Heaven," a movie about a boy from a poor family who loses his sister's shoes. In the "The Song of the Sparrows," Iran's Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film this year, we follow the story of another of life's unsung heroes, Karim, played by Reza Naji, an ostrich farm worker who finds himself out a job when one of the birds in his care escapes and he is unable to find it. He tries everything, even disguising himself as an ostrich roaming the desert.

A trip to Tehran to see if he can have his daughter's hearing-aid repaired accidentally lands him a job ferrying passengers. Navigating the capital's highly-chaotic traffic on a dingy motorbike with an array of characters and objects provide some of the best-executed scenes of the film, in my opinion.

Another Majidi film, "Baran" -- or rain (also the name of the heroine) - was screened Tuesday night at MIT by the Iranian Student Association. The film is as much a love story as it is an excellent commentary on the plight of Afghan refugees in Iran. "Fortunately, the film played some part in improving the way Iranians view Afghans," he said during a question-and-answer session afterward. "With all the difficulties, Afghans are better off living illegally than in refugee camps," he said. "I have visited those refugee camps. They are in a sorry state. No one cares about Afghanistan. These international organizations are just full of mottos. Nothing else."

Furthermore, the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had done little, if anything, to curb the cultivation of poppy, he continued. Iran is the main path for the Afghan opium trade, he said. And Iran paid dearly, both in terms of resources to fight traffickers and also because of the young victims who fall prey to heroin.

Questions put to Majidi revolved around the recurring themes in his movies. Why, for example, did he focus so much on children? In "Sparrows," the young pack is led by Karim's son who wants to become a millionaire selling goldfish. He is not dissuaded from this goal by practicalities or any other concern, including the occasional beating from his father. "We are a nation of young people," Majidi responded, referring to the post-revolutionary baby boom, a population under 30 years of age that now accounts for 70 percent of Iranians living in the country. Majidi said he hoped to see more investment in youth-centered films and programs. "They are the future of our country," he said.

Both at the museum and at MIT, he was told by a member of the audience that he cast Iran in a negative light by choosing to portray those in the lower social strata. Majidi disagreed. "These people may be invisible to most, but they are no less grand," he said. "Like sparrows, they are a source of great adoration, even though they may lack the most beautiful song." Majidi said more people relate to his movies because they are about ordinary people. "I too was born and grew up in that class," he added.

"There was a time when Iran was known only for rugs and pistachios," he said. "Now we are known for the humanity portrayed in our films." In "Sparrows," when Karim is unable to earn a living after an accident, it is not only his wife and children who pitch in, but the entire community. "What's your idea of beautiful? Walls and skyscrapers? With today's technology you can get on the internet and see whatever you want. Besides, we do show parts of North Tehran in our films," he said, referring to the more affluent part of the capital.

It's true, and when he does - as when Latif, the hero in Baran, catches a glimpse of a bourgeois couple flirting - it serves only to deepen the existing gulf between the haves and have-nots.

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