The 1997 Iranian film Children of Heaven, directed by Majid Majidi, is the portrayal of bonding between siblings and childhood memories. Majidi gives us a reflection of our awakening spiritual lives; immature in its understanding of the world, but profoundly rich in its emotional experience of it, reviews Arafat-Al-Yeasin
WE HAVE seen many films about children over the years, but there is one that I believe perfectly captures the absolute essence of childhood, one that is all the more special because it is set in a completely different culture than our own and that is the 1997 Iranian film Children of Heaven. The film is directed by Majid Majidi, who has received international accolades for making films.
His signature touch to his films is that the movies seem to tell simple stories, and yet prove to be profoundly meaningful and poetic experiences for the viewers. Children of Heaven presents a similarly simple narration which possesses the ability to touch everyone’s hear irrespective of culture and age.
The story begins with Ali running errands for his family. His journey starts at a shoemaker’s shop who repairs the shoes of his little sister Zahra. When he goes to get some potatoes, he leaves the shoes outside where they are mistaken for trash and taken away. As Ali goes home, we see the tremendous guilt he carries over losing his sister’s shoes, and it becomes clear that their relationship is one based on love devoid of any materialistic goals.
It sets a precedent for the rest of the film, as a gesture of their bonding and mutual understanding, they decide to keep their problem a secret from their parents as they worry their father can’t afford a new pair of shoes and they don’t want to burden their mother, who is struggling with an illness, with any more stress. Instead, they come up with a solution of their own; since they don’t go to school at the same time, Zahra will wear Ali’s sneakers in the morning and then give them back to him as he goes to school in the afternoon. Smart solution from little minds.
This, of course, leads to a series of obstacles for the young children, such as Zahra being ashamed to wear her brother’s oversized sneakers, and Ali fearing repercussions for being late at school. While such troubles may seem trivial to us now, they mean the world to a child, and this is exactly what makes Children of Heaven so special.
Majidi never undermines the struggles of his main characters, never frames them as insignificant rather constructs the narrative around their challenges. It stays true to the children’s perspective and really lets us empathise with them, thereby creating an honest reflection of childhood that reveals an important message. As Maria Garcia writes in her review of the film, ‘For all our expressed concern about the lives of children, we still fail to accept the fact that they have spiritual lives not very different from our own, and that they suffer as profoundly and as deeply as we do.’
Throughout the film, the guilt that Ali experiences for losing the shoes of his sister feels as tangible and complex as that of an adult. And his efforts to make amends to her, such as giving her a pen which he received from his teacher for doing well on a test, carry the weight of a much bigger gesture. Zahra as well tries her best to return Ali’s shoes on time and keep him out of trouble, a clear sign that she cares as much about him, as he does about her.
But aside from the obvious strength of their connection to each other, we must not overlook that, as children, they are still vulnerable, and rely heavily on the presence and support of caring adults. Majidi demonstrates this in two instances where both Ali and Zahra feel they’re at a loss. When Zahra trips and loses one of the shoes, two strangers help her out and manage to retrieve it. When Ali expelled for being late, he runs into his teacher, who gives him a second chance.
In both cases, we get a sense of the great importance we can have in the lives of children. Even if it doesn’t seem obvious to us, a simple act of kindness can make all the difference. It is a subtle suggestion that perhaps we should not approach the experiences of children through the judgmental eyes of adulthood, but look at them in their own right. We might even learn a thing a two them. This also shows us how children thrive where adults stumble.
When Ali and his father go uptown to find gardening work, Ali’s father is so intimated by the wealth and status of their potential employers, that he fails to get a foot at the door. Ali, however, has no such reservations. When he connects to another boy, he sees, above all, just another child, and subsequently succeeds at getting his father a job. The scene shows us the simple purity of connecting to another human being, a reminder of something that for many of us was once the easiest thing in the world, but seems much more difficult now.
Towards the end of the film, a running contest is organised among the children of various schools. The third price is a pair of sneakers for the competition and perfect prize to repair Ali and Zahra’s situation. It is the ultimate chance for Ali to make things right. A final showcase of the incredible lengths he is willing to go through for the sister he cares so much for. However, Ali is so focused on coming in third and perhaps boosted by the training he gives himself running to school, that he accidentally comes in first. He goes home defeated.
The ending is far from a tragic one, for if only they knew that all their troubles would soon disappear, and their goodness would be rewarded, as it should be.
Majidi gives us a reflection of our awakening spiritual lives; immature in its understanding of the world, but profoundly rich in its emotional experience of it. And beautifully captures the qualities and struggles present in every child; their intuitive awareness and sensitivity to serious issues like poverty and illness, their great capacity for joy, love and compassion, their vulnerability and resilience.
Above all, he shows the life of a child with the inherent dignity it deserves, and that, to me, is what makes Children of Heaven the best film about childhood.
Arafat-Al-Yeasin is a student of University of Dhaka.
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