Written by Nima Javidi, Majid Majidi
Directed by Majid Majidi
Starring Rouhollah Zamani, Mahdi Mousavi, Shamila Shirzad, Abolfazl Shirzad, Reza Mani Ghafouri
Streaming on SBS on demand until May 31, 2023
Review by Harry Otten
Sun Children (released in 2020), the most recent film by celebrated Iranian director Majid Majidi, is one of the most engaging movies of recent years.
Like much of Majidi’s earlier work, Sun Children has its roots in Italian Neorealism (1943-1952) which explored the conditions and struggles of the poor and working class and which often showed the world through the eyes of children. Unlike Italian Neorealism Sun Children doesn’t feature children as passive observers but as the characters that drive the story.
The movie is set in Tehran, Iran and is centered around 12-year old Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) and his three friends who work small jobs in a garage supplemented by petty crimes.
The beginning of the film is full of tense and fast-paced scenes in which Ali and his gang are getting chased by security guards for stealing parts of expensive cars. As they run, the camera shows the contrasting realities of Iranian life: luxury shopping malls and ramshackle, poor neighbourhoods.
A conflict between Ali and a local crime boss turns into a dream opportunity for Ali. He is given the chance to find a ‘treasure’ that is lost somewhere in a tunnel system that runs near the Sun School. The school is a charity aimed at giving children who live on the streets and child laborers an education.
Ali dreams of being set for life and to be able to get a home where he can live with his mother who is committed to a psychiatric institution.
Thus, Ali enrols at Sun School with his friends to gain access to where the treasure is hidden. Like Ali, his friends find the idea of gold at the end of a tunnel feeds fantasies of escaping the reality of their existence.
The boys lead a double life of digging for gold while pretending to participate in the school’s activities. But what happens if the real-life prospects offered by the school’s programs compete with the dream of treasure? Can the solidarity of the kids’ gang survive genuine engagement with the world?
The film, which is ‘dedicated to the 152 million children forced into child labor’, is very rich in its portrayal of precarious life in Tehran uses several subplots that contribute to the central story.
One subplot revolves around one of Ali’s friends, Abolfazl, who is an Afghan refugee. His younger, smart sister Zahra is alert to the dangerous consequences for her and her brother if the hunt for gold goes wrong.
Majid Majidi explains in an interview that it was important for him to include this plotline in the movie because “roughly 60-65 percent of child laborers in Iran are Afghani children”.
Since the US-backed Mujahedin counter-revolution in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and the subsequent American invasion in 2001, millions of Afghans have fled the country, many of them to Iran which, Majidi stresses, is itself “under tremendous economic pressure because of the imposed sanctions, with our most vulnerable citizens being hurt the most”.
Another subplot is that, while the children are tunnelling underneath, the school above is in financial danger. Will the children respond as dreamers or as rebels?
Sun Children offers a tense and moving humane story about a bleak reality. There are no easy or magical solutions but there are glimmers of hope in the camaraderie among the children and the volunteer teachers who try to stand with them.
The movie recalls the work of British socialist director Ken Loach who also focusses on the struggle and solidarity between those who seek ways to survive in precarious circumstances. Like the characters in Loach’s films Ali and his friends are not just suffering but have plenty of resilience and humour.
One funny scene shows Ali demonstrating ro one of the teachers a brutal, street-kid’s survival skill that later comes in useful.
The film has won several international prices, among them the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best young actor for Rouhollah Zamani’s intense and poignant portrayal of Ali.