(Reprint from Asian Cinema Studies Vol 13, No 1 Spring/Summer 2002.)

Refugees in Love and Life

Interview with Majid Majidi

by Gonul Donmez-Colin ( Film Critic)


Majid Majidi, one of the distinguished names of new Iranian cinema started as an actor in amateur theatre groups and got roles in films after the Islamic revolution. His debut as a director (and screenwriter) was with Baduk (1991), a feature film that was presented at the Directors’ Fortnight of Cannes Film Festival 1992, which also won him several national awards. His second film, Pedar (The Father) (1996) received the Jury Award of San Sebastian Film Festival. He won the Grand Prix of the Americas of the Montreal World Film Festival three times in five years. The first was with Bacheha-ye aseman (Children Of Heaven) in 1997; the second was with Rang-e-Khoda (The Color of Paradise) in 1999 and the third, in 2001, with Baran, which shared the top prize with Torzok (Abandoned) by Hungarian Arpad Sopsits. Having won several awards at its own country as well, Baran has become one of the most successful films of the year having gained a special meaning after the September 11 events in New York.
The presence of the Afghani refugees is a serious socio-political problem in Iran, which has recently found its way to a number of Iranian films such as Delbaran by Abdlfazl Jalili and Kandahar by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Majid Majidi’s Baran treats the delicate issue of illegal Afghani workers in a subtle and touching fashion through the story of adolescent love.
Lateef is a brazen adolescent working on a construction site, doing easy jobs such as buying bread and serving tea. When Najaf, an Afghani worker breaks his leg, his son Rahmat is brought in by an elderly Afghani, Soltan to save the family from starvation. Lateef sees the boy as a rival, especially when he loses his comfortable job to him. His spite turns into infatuation when he discovers that the fragile boy is actually a girl (Baran).
When building inspectors kick out all illegal Afghanis, Baran returns to her village to carry stones from the riverbed to support her family. Lateef buys crutches for Baran’s injured father, trusts his wages of a whole year to the elderly Soltan to give Najaf under a pretext of disability pay. Soltan uses the money to reenter Afghanistan. This time, Lateef sells his identity papers endangering his return home, but ironically, the money he gives Najaf is used for the return of the family to Afghanistan separating him forever from his beloved. As the cart pulls away, Baran flips her mantle over her head so it becomes a burqa, the head-to-toe covering for Afghani women.

The film works on three levels: A story about an actual socio-political problem such as the burden of Afghani refugees on Iran’s shaky economy; a hopeless love story between two young people who are victims of bad politics and a parable which illustrates that the road to spiritual purity must pass through self sacrifice.
The narrative is much more intricately woven than the previous films of Majidi.
However, the rich symbolism of his previous work is also evident here with striking images of poverty and desperation in an increasingly hostile landscape, captured with remarkable talent by the director’s regular cinematographer, Mohammad Davudi.

The title has double meaning as the name of the girl and as rain in Persian, which is the symbol for springtime when Baran leaves Iran and Lateef, reaches spiritual maturity. At the moment of their parting, rain shower fills Baran’s footprint in the mud before Lateef heads back to Iran to begin again. The soft sound of the wings of the pigeons heard earlier when Baran was feeding the pigeons is repeated as she wraps herself up in her burqa. Lateef will never see her again, but her memory will stay with him as a spiritual guiding light.

(The following interview took place in Montreal in August 2001. The interpreter was Montreal based Fouad Nahas, the co-producer of the film.)

Gonul Domrez-Colin: Baran is quite different from your previous work The protagonists are older. It takes place in the city and only at the end, the scenery moves to the country. Furthermore, the rhythm is faster. Firstly, why did you choose older children? Jafar Panahi also made two films with children but in his latest film, The Circle he focused on grown-up girls. He mentioned that the problems of his characters also grew as they grew older. What is your reason for focusing on adolescents?

Majid Majidi: In my films, I try to build a bridge between the past and the future. I move toward the truth and reality of life through past experiences that I have lived, touched and learned from. I am always searching for the purest feelings and the most beautiful gifts such as kindness. In this respect, no other world is more simple, pure and magnificent than the child’s world. I take the child’s world seriously because it is closer to reality. When you look at The Children of Heaven, there are the children but also the father and the mother. The same goes for Color of Paradise. Baran is a story about adolescents.

I did not have a pre-determined idea to make a film about this or that, it just happened that way. It is a story about love and so I have adolescents. Furthermore, children and adolescents, same as all non-professional actors, have no preconceived notions about how they should be acting in front of the camera. Therefore, the result is much more authentic. Sixty to seventy films are made each year in han and only four or five are about children. Since these go to film festivals, the West has been having the impression that most of our films are about children.

When I asked the question regarding the maturity of the protagonists, I was thinking that perhaps the recent relaxation of the laws of censorship had something to do with the emergence of more mature protagonists (and especially women) in Iranian films.

It is true that since President Khatami took over, it is more acceptable to make films on various subjects and it is more acceptable to make a film about love. Love stories happen to all of us. These things are in Iran as elsewhere but the form is different.

What are the subjects that are still ‘difficult?’ One of your colleagues, Tahmineh Milani has been jailed on grounds that her last film, The Hidden Half is portraying a favorable picture of the counter-revolutionaries.

Some subjects are still not looked upon favourably but I cannot pinpoint which ones. I had problems earlier on in my career particularly with my first film, Baduk because of the grim picture I presented of the child abuse among refugees. As for the arrest of Tahmineh Milani, Iranian artistic community has reacted strongly to this unacceptable event. I do not think there should be limits to artistic freedom. But I believe that artists express themselves best through their art and not through direct political action.

The second new element in your film is the city landscape. In one of the earlier episodes, Lateef looks totally out of place when he goes inside the city to buy bread. As he is fixing his hair on a glass door, a well-dressed man comes out and gives him a condescending look as if he told him that he does not belong there. Then the camera moves to the outskirts of the city, to the construction site where the Afghanis are complete strangers. I had the impression that you were looking at the alienation of people from a larger perspective rather than solely a refugee issue.

Many workers come from eastern provinces and they do pot belong in Tehran, they are looked upon that way. They are all ‘refugees’ even those who are Iranian citizens.

In the construction sight, many languages are spoken among the workers, which augments the sense of alienation.

Yes, I used different languages, accents and cultures- Turks, Azeris, Kurds and Lors (or Lours of Louristan)- to stress the hardships facing these people, but also to show that people from different cultures can live together even in hard situations. Different accents are not a problem in Iran, the public can tell the difference, but sub-titling caused us a big problem.

The theme of lack of communication is very strong in your film. Not only that the female protagonist, Baran never speaks, and Lateef who is in love with her can never express his feelings. I was wondering why he does not go and ask her father for her hand.

The cultural environment makes it very difficult for people to communicate, particularly on a private level. This is even harder for rural people. Lateef would never ask the father.

In your previous film, Rang-e-Khoda (The Color of Paradise), the boy was blind. Here the girl does not speak. In fact, it seems that the young are somewhat handicapped, by society or whatever. Is that your belief?

Baran symbolises Afghanistan who cannot express itself. Afghani people cannot speak. In The Color of Paradise, both the father and the son are handicapped.

The boy is physically handicapped but the father is mentally handicapped.

What about the rhythm of Baran which is faster than the other films?

The theme of Baran is a slow theme; he is looking at her, the gaze is slow. I wanted to have a contrast that would make the rhythm go faster. This way, despite the fact that the story seems to be moving at a slow pace, you can feel that a lot is happening.

How did the idea for the script come about?

The idea of Afghanistan was always at the back of my mind since I made my first feature film, Baduk in 1992 about the Baluchi boys. When we were shooting at the border between Afghanistan and Baluchistan, we saw many Afghanis crossing the border illegally during the night. Trucks that were smuggling illegal items would drive without lights not to be seen and in the morning, we would find dead Afghanis. I was very impressed by the idea of facing death to escape from Afghanistan to come to Iran. I noticed some little girls would dress up like boys to shoeshine on the streets because they had no other way. The idea came from that.

Now there are more and more Afghanis leaving their country to come to Iran. That is a bigger problem. In 1979, Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviet Union. Their withdrawal in 1989 was followed by the eruption of internal conflicts, which forced many Afghanis to flee their country. We had many Afghanis before the Islamic revolution but many more after. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, Iran hosts the largest population of refugees in the world. Most of the young generation were born in Iran and have never been to Afghanistan.

You have been quoted as saying that Baran is about the mercy and compassion of the Iranian people. Yet, the film shows how miserable their lives are.

What I wanted to show was that the hardship of the lives of the Afghanis is not only peculiar to them. The Iranians go through hardships as well. Officially, there are one and a half million Afghanis working in Iran, but another one and a half million work like in the film, unofficially in a country where work is already scarce. There is not much attention paid to that. I wanted to focus on these problems.

At the end of the film, after the departure of Baran, Lateef is looking for the shoe repairman he saw earlier, but cannot find him. Then he enters a mausoleum. Could you explain the significance of this scene?

Lateef has lost everything. To see the tombs in the graveyard gives him a sense of death. The curtain that sways with the breeze is symbolically calling him to death. He hears sounds—voices of prayer or voices of the dead people—and he surrenders. In a way, he renounces Baran. He leaves his cap behind, which is an indication that he goes beyond material things and becomes a spirit.

The film was shot near Tehran, but under difficult conditions...

Yes, it was extremely cold. The building had no windows with wind and smoke coming from everywhere. It was practically a real setting. Yes, the workers were actually working in the building.

When you start shooting do you improvise your scenario and change it according to situations?

I work very much on the script. I like to follow it strictly. There have been some changes, but nothing major.

Do you choose your actors after you write your script?

That depends. I had Lateef in mind when I wrote the script for Baran. The other actors were found after the script was written. It took a long time, especially to find Baran. She was living in a camp near Mashad for fifteen years and was in the eighth grade of the high school there. The first time she got out of the camp was for the shooting of the film.

With the money the family got from the film, they bought a house. As for Lateef, it is the second time that he worked with me. The first time was in Pedar (The Father). He was a twelve-year-old kid who quit school to work in a fruit shop. After the success he had with Pedar, I encouraged him to continue studying. He is in the tenth grade but still works in the fruit shop. I remember an episode. Lateef was very happy with the success of the film Pedar, not because he was famous but because people would come and buy his watermelons because he was famous.

For Baran, it was very difficult to work with non-professional actors, especially with the Afghanis that were not familiar with cinema or acting. To get what we wanted we worked three months with them and altogether it took eight or nine months. My approach of working with non-professionals is as time consuming as any other approach, but I feel that non-professionals can act their real life, instead of learning to act someone else’s life. I crave for this authenticity.

In Iranian cinema, is there a director you consider as a model? Someone who influenced you when you were young?

I have great admiration for several Iranian directors. For the American cinema, John Ford is the one. Presently, I do not have much interest in following current cinematic trends of the West. I do not want to be influenced that way. What interests me is to watch daily life, the lives of simple people.

What was it that made you to decide to become a filmmaker?

I began to act in theatre when I was thirteen or fourteen. I was fascinated by acting, but I was also making short films. I liked acting but making movies fascinated me more. Finally, the chance came up and I made my first feature, Baduk. In Iran, there is a big tradition of performing arts, theatre as well as cinema. Last year, we celebrated the hundred years of Iranian cinema, which was imported by Mozaffar. Eddine Shah, the big dignitary of the Qadjars who ruled the country before the Pahlavi dynasty. He brought a camera from Paris and filming never stopped.

Gönül Dönmez-Colin was born in Istambul and has lived much of her life in Montreal. For 15 years she taught in Montreal. another year in Hong Kong. For the last 14 years, she has been travelling to Asian countries, researching and writing on Asian cinema. Author of book on cinema, her work is published in eight languages.