Children of Heaven: Appreciating the sound of silence

Courtesy Wikipedia

What’s it with children and shoes? Those who have none dream of owning their first pair. Those who have one, or some, still dream about a better, or perfect, pair. Shoes are worth dreaming about, crying (even fighting?) over, and running races for.

Like Ali did, in Majid Majidi’s superbly crafted 1997 movie Children of Heaven. For 90 minutes this afternoon, my team and I ran the race with little boy Ali, sharing his dreams, sorrows and eventual (albeit bitter-sweet) triumph.

I had seen this film before, but this time around, the experience felt even better than I remembered it. I already knew the story, but I was spell-bound by the film’s culmination – the children’s race where Ali wanted to come third, but ended up winning. I followed the last few minutes with tears in my eyes and the heart beating faster.

This is what good story telling is all about.

Read Children of Heaven synopsis on Wikipedia

Of course, Majid Majidi didn’t work this miracle alone. The superb cinematography of Parviz Malekzaade was well packaged by its editor Hassan Hassandoost. His work is uncluttered and elegant: the story flows in a simple, linear manner with no flashbacks or flash-forwards; no special effects to jazz things up; and the scenes are so seamlessly meshed together with hardly a second being wasted.

And the soundtrack played a vital part in shaping the whole experience. It’s not just the music. As my colleague Buddhini remarked, it also made clever, strategic use of silence.

We might call it the sound of silence – and never underestimate its power in the right place.

All this reminded me of what our Australian film-maker colleague Bruce Moir often said when we worked with him: “We’ve got to remember that film appeals to people’s hearts more than their minds. The way to people’s heads is through their hearts, from the chest upwards — and not the other way round.”

A year ago, I invited him as my special guest to a talk I gave at the University of Western Sydney in Australia – in his home city. There, he once again made the point: “Our fundamental job is to tell a story – one that holds an audience’s interest and moves their heart, regardless of language, cultural context or subject….I have always believed that film achieves its optimal impact by aiming to ‘get at the audience’s head via their heart’…”

April 2007 blog post: Moving images moving heart first, mind next

As I then wrote, I hope this was an ‘Aha!’ moment to some in our largely academic and activist audience. Many who commission films or even a few who make films tend to overlook this. Especially when they set out trying to ‘communicate messages’.

Bruce never tires of saying: “Film is a lousy medium to communicate information. It works best at the emotional level.”

Children of Heaven is living proof of this. It has no lofty agenda to deliver information or communicate messages of any kind. Yet, by telling a universal story set in modern day Iran, it brings up a whole lot of development related issues that can trigger hours of discussion: not just the rich/poor or rural/urban disparities, but other concerns like how a country like Iran is portrayed in the western news media.

As a colleague remarked after today’s film, she had no idea of this aspect of life in Iran — the version we constantly hear is of an oil-rich, nuke-happy, terror-sponsoring theocracy that, to the incumbent US president at least, is part of the ‘axis of evil‘. And the Al Jazeera International channel, packed with BBC discards or defectors, has done little to change this popular perception.

We watched the movie as part of our monthly screening of a feature film. We are lining up critically acclaimed films from different cinematic traditions of the world. And then we discuss its artistic, technical and editorial aspects.

As for me, I totally agree with the famous movie critic Roger Ebert, who wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times at the time of the movie’s first US release: “Children of Heaven is very nearly a perfect movie for children, and of course that means adults will like it, too. It lacks the cynicism and smart-mouth attitudes of so much American entertainment for kids and glows with a kind of good-hearted purity. To see this movie is to be reminded of a time when the children in movies were children and not miniature stand-up comics.”

As he summed it up: “Children of Heaven is about a home without unhappiness. About a brother and sister who love one another, instead of fighting. About situations any child can identify with. In this film from Iran, I found a sweetness and innocence that shames the land of Mutant Turtles, Power Rangers and violent video games. Why do we teach our kids to see through things, before they even learn to see them?”

Note: The film, originally made in Persian, was named Bacheha-Ye aseman . It was nominated for an Academy (Oscar) Award for the best foreign film in 1998, but lost out to a worthy competitor, Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.