The Song of Sparrows
Iranian Filmmaker Delivers Another Eloquent Tale of Everyday Life
Friday, May 22, 2009
Film Club segment on Majid Majidi's The Song of Sparrows
Iran has been consistently exporting high caliber films for more than a decade. And while George Bush may have included Iran in his Axis of evil, Iran's filmmakers have been serving as goodwill ambassadors displaying an eloquent humanity in their filmmaking. The latest entry to arrive is Majid Majidi's The Song of Sparrows (opening May 22 at Landmark's Ken Cinema). As with his earlier films (Baran, Children of Heaven, The Color of Paradise), Majidi's latest offers a simple slice of life that ends up being about so much more. As with Children of Heaven, The Song of Sparrows begins with loss. In Children of Heaven, the loss of a pair of shoes sends a pair of young children off on an adventure to replace them. In The Song of Sparrows, it is a dual loss: a young girl loses her hearing aid and her father Karim (Reza Najie) loses one of his boss' ostriches. The hearing aid proves excessively expensive for the family to replace and Karim needs to seek new employment after letting the ostrich he was responsible for escape. Almost by accident, Karim falls into a new job. On a visit to the city someone jumps on his motorcycle and pays for a ride. Karim suddenly finds himself taxiing people on his motorcycle. In addition, he discovers that city folk throw away items that he can either re-sell or use. So Karim begins earning money and stockpiling all sorts of odd items. Meanwhile, Karim's son dreams of making millions by raising fish in the nearby well where his sister had initially lost her hearing aid.
Through a series of simple vignettes, Majidi spins a compelling tale about ordinary life. But the little moments end up adding up to a larger statement about contemporary life in Iran and anywhere really. There's a contrast set up between the country and the city but Majidi resists making it as obvious as the country is good and the city is bad – they are merely different and the key Majidi seems to be saying has more to do with understanding and appreciating where you come from before you assume values from somewhere else. The city represents advances and technology, like the hearing aid, can be a good thing. So too can an antenna that brings TV to Karim's home. But as Karim becomes consumed by collecting items from the city, that's when things start to go wrong and Karim has to re-center himself.
In the beginning, The Song of Sparrows recalls the neorealism of something like The Bicycle Thief as Karim seeks to replace the lost hearing aid that seems vital to his daughter as she heads towards exams. But Majidi develops a visual style that goes beyond neorealism as his images go beyond mere realism to find a stunning beauty in the simplest of things. So Majidi conveys with the utmost realism the way that Karim tries to track down the missing ostrich (including dressing up like one). But then later, when the son's dream goes awry and a bucket of his fish spill on the concrete, Majidi serves up an image of glistening beauty mixed with tragedy as the golden fish make a glittering mosaic on the ground as the boy frantically tries to pick them up. The image proves to be both breathtaking and heartbreaking.
Similarly, Majidi shows us what we think is a starry sky and then has hands enter the frame to remove the "stars" that turn out to be sequences or beads on dark fabric that the women are working with. It's such a simple yet mesmerizing shot that asks us to readjust our perspective and see our place in this larger universe just as Karim must ultimately do.
The Song of Sparrows (in Persian with English subtitles and rated PG for brief mild language) is another exquisite work from Majidi. Unlike fellow Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, Majidi makes less self-consciously reflexive cinema and calls less attention to the filmmaking process itself. He tends toward a more naturalistic approach. Yet like those other filmmakers, he resists trying to tell the viewer what to think. He prefers to simply tell his story at hand and let viewers draw whatever conclusions they might want.
I'm including an excerpt from an interview I did with him in 2001 when he came to San Diego to promote Baran. His comments then still pertain to his work now.
Companion viewing: Children of Heaven, The Bicycle Thief, A Taste of Cherry
Here's the excerpt from my 2001 interview.
Your films are deceptively simple. Talk about your approach to filmmaking.
MAJID MAJIDI: Yes they are deceptively simple. Simplicity is only the surface of the film there are a lot of layers to it, you go through a lot of complexity to get to that simplicity it's like a mathematical paradigm that you have to go through to reach that easy solution at the end… What you see in my movies and in most Iranian movies is you have to have an eye to realism in whatever you do and if you add something you have to make it look realistic, your mise en scene has to feel realistic even though the mere fact you’re making a film is a sort of fabrication. But you can’t look at it as fabrication. Also my non-actors, some think they just show up in front of the camera and by the virtue of their presence you get a performance out of them, but I can assure you it’s not that simple. You have to work hard with them.
Have you had to deal with censorship?
MAJID MAJIDI: It depends on how you define censorship -- censorship from a western point of view or censorship from within? While it appears as censorship to a western eye it’s accepted to us like a scarf to cover a woman’s head. Filmmakers are not concerned about showing women without headscarf. If you are talking about unlimited freedom that you have in some western societies, they may have gone too far. Last night I was watching TV in New York and saw a program on sex education and it was so explicit and I thought of small children and how they would react and I don’t know if people here share that moral concern. I believe artists should be free to create but at the same time we have to define what censorship is. Does censorship mean lack of any boundaries?
You seem to enjoy telling stories more through gestures than through words.
MAJID MAJIDI: You have right interpretation of my movies. As far as I can, I try to avoid dialogue. I use the language of images. Sometimes I feel people talk too much in movies and engage in dialogue that doesn’t do much. I am very stingy with my dialogue. I only use the dialogue, which is completely necessary and when there’s something that I can’t convey with images. I like to have as many people as possible watch my movies, and they come from all walks of society – old, young, literate, illiterate -- and it's important for me that they understand it well and that’s why I use the language of images.
Your films don’t tackle political issues head but in dealing with aspects of daily life your films comment more broadly on social issues.
MAJID MAJIDI: Well I’m concerned with two layers: the top layer is the story that unfolds on the surface of the film, and the second is the layer below, which is concerned with human beings and their true nature and their human qualities. I am not concerned with dealing with political issues because they have an expiration date. You know something that is considered good today could be bad later; a politician who is good today could be bad tomorrow. It’s the social aspects of my films that I would like to focus on and in any film you also have a depiction of a collection of problems. In Baran you see how government agents are after Afghanis but that’s not what film is about; in Children of Heaven it’s about class differences but it’s just a layer that’s there, my main concern is dealing with people. In Children of Heaven I was concerned with showing dignified poverty. But their human qualities and dignity is not diminished by poverty.