The BBC reports that film maker Majid Majidi is the producer of a 30-minute campaign film supporting the candidacy of Mir Hossein Mousavi in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections. Artists and film makers have thrown their weight behind Mousavi, a moderate opposing hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the closely watched and fiercely contested elections–a contest in which, according to 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, “human rights in Iran are at stake.” The political film includes archival footage, scenes from the campaign (Mousavi visiting a hospital), excerpts of speeches and statements from ordinary people, including one woman who says: “Our people are not looking for bread, water …Our people are looking for human dignity.”
That might be the tag line of Majidi’s Song of Sparrows, which opens Friday in Washington. The poor, who are looking not just to survive, but to survive with dignity, are a recurring subject of Majidi’s work. At his best, Majidi captures the desperate precariousness of poverty. He shows how easily plans for a better life are thwarted, how happenstance can tip the poor into destitution.
Children are a fixture of his work, as they are for so many Iranian directors dodging the strictures of censorship, which fall more heavily on films with adult themes. In Song of Sparrows, the daughter of Karim has lost her hearing aid. His desperate efforts to replace it draw Karim to Tehran, where he accidentally falls into work as a motorcycle courier and livery driver. It is humiliating and exhausting work, but it earns him a regular though small income. By the standards of the country village to which he returns each night, the money is a Godsend.
This is not Majidi’s best film, and the themes are familiar from his earlier work. Colors of Paradise was about a blind boy, not a deaf girl, but a physical difficulty was at the center of the drama, and a source of trauma for the parent. In Children of Heaven, it was a lost pair of shoes that set the misadventures underway. The material world is always failing the human one, and adults often feel helpless in Majidi’s films, rendered impotent by poverty or social rules. When an accident renders Karim bedridden for a few weeks, Majidi shows the rough edges of patriarchal society, not by focusing on the humiliation of women, but on the shame of men when displaced from their role as sole provider, arbiter and emotional locus of family life.
I would love to know if Iranians find these films, which celebrate traditional values, family life and cooperation, as treacly (and charming) as they seem to jaded American viewers. It’s easy to enjoy (or forgive) sentimentality when it’s coming from another culture. But how does a film such as Song of Sparrows play with a sophisticated audience in Tehran?
It’s an especially relevant question given that elections often cleave people along rural and urban lines. But Majidi, who has lined up behind the more progressive candidate (Mousavi is an architect and artist), plays very subtly with the urban/rural divide. It’s too easy, as some critics have done, to see his film as a straightforward critique of urban life.
Particluarly because we never know how far away Tehran is. Karim’s country village seems to be in the midst of a sublime and empty landscape, albeit one occasionally marked by agriculture (and ostrich farming, a suggestion of the absurdity at all corners of the animal kingdom). When Karim drives to the city, Majidi purposely gives us little information about the length of the drive. We assume he’s doing it daily, given the rapid accumulation of valuable scrap he brings back—old pots and doors and broken appliances, to be fixed and resold. But perhaps it’s a shorter drive than it seems. One scene shows his children selling flowers on the roadside as Karim returns. They seem to be catering to suburban traffic, but scamper off home as if it’s just across the fields.
This sense that Tehran is close and far at the same time helps undermine a clear distinction between the values of the city and the values of the country. Tehran, to be sure, is no easy place to earn a living. One man refuses to pay Karim a proper fare, and then accuses the driver of being the thief. And after getting lost in traffic, Karim himself is tempted to abscond with a refrigerator that he has promised to deliver. In one very touching scene, Karim tries to find some change small enough to pay a street urchin—but the traffic light changes and he is compelled to drive on. The city catches one up in a world of exploitation, not always intentional. Tehran is a harsh world, but a rich one too, filled with opportunity and money and temptation.
But the countryside is too poor to be idyllic. Tehran may be cruel, but it is also where the hearing aid comes from. Its wealth, if carefully tapped and transported, can transform a poor farmer’s life. And village poverty renders Karim a lesser man than he would be, corrupting his relationship with his wife and his children. In the end, Majidi seems to come down on the side of village life if only because there is a greater fund of dignity there. It is a hard won dignity, and it comes more through acceptance of one’s weakness than through struggle or toil or success in life. In the midst of a combative election, with Majidi’s man vying to unseat a combative man, Song of Sparrows is a film that quietly celebrates a life of less struggle.