Majidi in Context

Sun Children, the latest film of renowned Iranian director Majid Majidi, is easily his finest since Children of Heaven (1997). It is also his most radical work in years, taking aim at various aspects of contemporary Iranian society. It follows a group of underclass boys who enrol in school after Ali, the leader of the gang, is tipped off by a local crime boss that there is treasure buried beneath the school building. The children search for it while trying not to arouse the suspicions of the school authorities, yet the precarity of their home lives continually threatens to undermine their project. Drug rackets and addiction have torn their families apart. The parents are mostly absent; when they appear, it is to lambast the children for not working full-time. The school itself is the only institution in the area that caters to children from such backgrounds. Condemned to haggle for pennies from its small circle of donors, at one point the school is temporarily shut down for late rent payments. Like its students, it exists on society’s fringes.

The film’s depiction of Tehran’s poor however avoids didacticism. Instead, it provides an expansive portrait of the city that sheds light on its neglected corners. To find his protagonists, Majidi auditioned almost four thousand children from the city’s poor neighbourhoods – those selected give authentic, heart-rending performances. The narrative is fast-paced, aided by a stylistic trait of regular jump cuts, but the film widens its scope beyond the protagonists to broader political questions: society’s treatment of children, the effects of privatized education on the poor, the exclusion of migrants from the nation’s welfare system. One of Ali’s closest friends is an Afghan boy doubly oppressed by this configuration. Often employed as peddlers and hawkers, Afghan children receive low wages and face periodic police crackdowns in Iran. By attending school, the boy does not realize that he is committing an illegal act which may result in his family being deported.

This is one of several moments where Majidi contrasts the innocence of his child protagonists with the brutal world of politics, which is portrayed as corrupt and exploitative. When the school director signals his intention to run in the city council elections, his colleague tells him that he is bound to become ‘just like the rest of them’. The film is no less sparing in its depiction of the police: when a young girl is caught selling goods on the metro, they shave her head in an act of cruelty. But for Majidi this conflict between child and adult worlds runs both ways. In one of Sun Children’s most ecstatic scenes, the students climb the school gates to reclaim the building from the landlord who has locked them out. The children’s games, and the social ties which they engender, provide a bulwark against the practices of the adults around them.

Given Sun Children’s critical depiction of state authorities and rent-seekers, many western viewers will likely interpret it as a critique of the Iranian regime as such. Yet this is far from the director’s intention. Within Tehran’s predominantly secular and liberal film circles, Majidi is one of the few prominent figures with impeccable Islamic revolutionary credentials. He defends the Islamic Republic at every opportunity, describing the 1979 revolution as an attempt to realise spiritual ideals through political action. At the 2020 Venice Film Festival, he remarked that if the socio-economic situation in Iran compares unfavourably to that of other countries in the region, this was not because of the government, but rather the crippling sanctions imposed by the United States. Majidi is also one of the few directors who has made multiple high-profile visits to the Supreme Leader. It is believed that some of his productions have received financial and logistical support from the Revolutionary Guards.

How, then, should we locate his most recent film politically? It is not a straightforward question, for Majidi does not fit neatly into either reformist or conservative camps. In the 2009 presidential elections he voted for the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, yet he later cooperated closely with the conservative government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His films stand apart from the social realism of reformist directors like Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi or Mohammad Rasoulof, who are primarily interested in exploring gender roles and family dynamics among the middle classes. Yet they also diverge from conservative directors like Saeed Roustayi or Narges Abyar, who treat spiritual themes of sin and salvation through glorified depictions of the police, military and judiciary.

What most distinguishes Sun Children from both these traditions is its emphasis on issues of labour and working conditions. Child labour plays a pivotal role throughout the film, often in subtle and oblique ways. The protagonists make a living by recycling car parts and tires, while their friends sell cheap Chinese imports to commuters on public transport. Majidi foregrounds the arduous manual work of the treasure hunt, with Ali digging a long tunnel under the school over the course of several days. Work and play for the children often overlap, and although adults occasionally exploit this for their own benefit, they also allow the protagonists to forge bonds of solidarity which seem to bridge ethnic, national and gender differences.

Such themes align the film with the heterogenous ‘justice-seeking’ (edalatkhah) movement, which has become increasingly active in Iran in recent years. Like Majidi, this movement is religious and nostalgic. It campaigns for a return to the egalitarian values of 1979, demanding increased popular political participation and democratic accountability. Led by a cohort of young activists, many of them from poor backgrounds, the justice-seeking movement fills a void left by the defeat of earlier reformist tendencies. As Western sanctions have deepened inequality and intensified state repression, middle-class liberal activism has been beaten back. In its place, this more provincial, religious and working-class formation has emerged. Although the movement remains fragmented, localized and without strong national leadership, justice-seekers have won popularity in part thanks to their strong stance against economic sanctions and American imperialism.

Over the past decade, this coalition has developed through close interaction with Iran’s growing labour movement – itself an outcome of widespread discontent with economic liberalization and the sanctions regime. Students and even clerics have stood alongside a newly mobilized cadre of workers, occasionally joining them in demonstrations and sit-ins. Supportive activists frequently write for provincial and national news outlets, and, through their ties to local government institutions and police forces, are often able to negotiate the release of workers arrested during protests. In the disastrous final years of the Rouhani presidency, they often received the support of Ebrahim Raisi himself – at the time head of the judiciary and, with his eyes fixed on the elections, clearly intent on discrediting the government.

It is perhaps in this nexus between labour, religion and rights that Majidi’s latest work can be best understood. While justice-seeking activists typically marshal only limited support, and while their relation to the incoming Raisi government remains unclear, Sun Children has brought their concerns to the big screen. If Majidi has gained his respected status and political connections by defending the Islamic Republic against its foreign critics, he may now have become an important ally of those seeking to change it from within.

Zep Kalb & Masoumeh Hashemi, ‘Tehran’s Universal Studios’, NLR 121.