Quoting the statistic that 152 million children in the world are forced to work to support their families, Iranian director Majid Majidi’s Sun Children focuses on the street kids of Tehran — children of absent, addicted, or unemployed refugee parents, forced to sell trinkets on trains or buses, work in jobs that require manual labor or compelled to steal, transport drugs, and protect criminals from the police. No stranger to films about young people, Sun Children (“Khorshid”) continues in the tradition of Majidi’s films such as “Children of Heaven,” and “Color of Paradise,” the first two Iranian films nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Unlike today’s monster heavy children’s film fare, his works have a purity and innocence that allows young people to see images on the screen that have relevance to their life.
Winner of the award for best film, screenplay, and production design at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran, Sun Children is performed by non-professional actors whose real lives on Tehran’s streets mirror those of the characters. While the quality of the acting does not always rise above the level of adequate, the performances do not distract from the authenticity of the screenplay or from our understanding of the festering social problems. Scored by Ramin Kousha’s, the film is seen through the eyes of children led by Ali (Roohollah Zamani), a determined boy of about 12 who sleeps in the back of a tire factory, Mamad (Mahdi Mousavi), Reza (Mani Ghafouri), and Abolfazl (Abolfazl Shirzad) an Afghan refugee who, like other Afghans in Iran, is only authorized to be hired for specific jobs within his area of residence, mostly manual labor.
The film opens when Ali leads his young friends in an escape from an underground parking lot after being caught stealing hubcaps and tires from parked cars. After another chase that features jumping over rooftops, Ali is caught and brought to Heshem (Ali Nasirian, “A Hairy Tale”), the local crime boss cast in the image of Fagin, Dickens’ stereotyped bogeyman in “Oliver Twist.” Though expecting punishment, he is asked instead to hunt for buried treasure in the basement of the Sun School, a poor, charitable educational institution run by volunteers to help vulnerable street kids reach high school or join a local sports team.
Because of the state of the school’s finances, the boys have to plead for their enrollment but find a friend in the sympathetic Vice-Principal, Mr. Rafie (Javad Ezati, “Drown”), a low-keyed fighter for underdogs who asks the administrator to make an exception on the boys’ behalf. Impressed by Ali’s determination for an education, Rafie is unaware of the boys’ scheme to find treasure at the behest of the crime kingpin. He shows his compassion when he takes Ali and Abolfazi to bail out Abolfazi’s sister Zahra (Shamila Shurzad) after her arrest for selling trinkets in the subway. On leaving, an irate Rafie breaks the jailer’s nose, an action that will later lead to his arrest. Meanwhile, the school has problems of its own.
The Principal, Mr. Amani (Ali Ghabeshi), is concerned about paying the rent and rails against the increase in the prices of the food suppliers. Motivated by his desire to bring home his mother (Tannaz Tabatagaei, “Russian”) from confinement in a psychiatric institution, Ali is convinced by Heshem that there is treasure hidden in water tunnels under the cemetery next door to the school and is determined to find it. Sneaking down to the basement between classes or conjuring up a stomach ache in the middle of a class, Ali brings a pick axe to tunnel through the rocks, undaunted and refusing to give up even when his friends desert him.
Claustrophobic images of Ali’s distress are juxtaposed with happy children playing outside in the courtyard, calling attention to the plight of those in life who are trapped and those who can run free. As Ali moves closer to his goal, the film reaches an emotional peak with the image of the tearful Ali, struggling in the dark, damp, and dangerous conditions, desperately attempting to reach the ever elusive treasure. Sun Children has its heart in the right place and the determination of the young protagonists will touch your own heart, yet unfortunately, the film skims the surface without probing into the characters’ feelings and thoughts with any depth. Unlike “Capernaum,” a powerful film about street children in Lebanon, Majidi does not deal with the underlying issues in a way that delivers a lasting impact.
What is always clear, however, is this director’s conviction that too many children in the world suffer from neglect and exploitation, and, in a country where censorship is an ever-present danger, has the courage to use childhood as a means of conveying the flaws that exist in his society, a familiar theme in world cinema but one that bears repeating.