Directed by Majid Majidi (2020)
Reviewed by Shara Atashi
Sun Children is a concert of juxtapositions: the soul-destroying life of child hustlers and a classic treasure hunt. Majidi is known for shedding light on the plight of children living unseen under the lowest layers of society where the sun of their souls is obscured by ill fate. He dedicates this film ‘to the 152 million children forced into child labour and all those who fight for their rights’. This figure was updated by UNICEF to 160 million on 9 June 2021, one year after the film was released.
Twelve-year-old Ali is the leader of three boys working for a gang of car thieves and pigeon traders. His boss, ‘uncle’ Hashem, tells him of a treasure hidden in the catacombs of a cemetery; the only access to it is through the cistern under the neighbouring ‘Sun School’, an institution for street boys funded by private donations. The boys must enrol at the school in order to secretly bore an underground tunnel to the treasure.
The story begins with zigzagging jump cuts and staccato sound effects in a tight frame: badges of luxury cars, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes Benz. But our heroes are down below, unscrewing the wheel caps. A guard arrives. We begin to worry, feeling the peril they are in. This introductory sequence is the liquor of the film. We take a sip of lives marked by permanent distress. Hiding, stealing, being chased by the police. But Ali is also in love with Zahra, a little Afghan pedlar who sells trinkets in the subway. The life of these street kids bubbles within a triangle of fear, young love and joy.
Ali has got himself into trouble. He has stolen one of Hashem’s pigeons, a symbol of the child’s innocence. But Hashem doesn’t punish him. He speaks to him in a fatherly tone, offers him sweets and promises to reward him if he finds the treasure – and he allows him to keep the pigeon.
As the kids set out to work on the treasure, they are bright, inventive and skilful. Ali, the diligent mini-boss, is the best liar of all, because here lying is a life-skill. The treasure hunt requires convincing the headmaster that their only desire is to learn. Once the obstacle of enrolling is overcome, they must steal into the cellars. As the digging begins, mostly done by Ali alone, sweating and in permanent fear of discovery, we sense that his efforts are futile. Driven by the glittery dream of an unspecified treasure and Hashem’s deceit, he holds on to a desire to get his mother out of a mental asylum where she has been since their house burnt down and his sister died in the flames.
There are whimsical moments, too. Mr Rafei, the archetype of a dedicated teacher, marvels at Ali’s skill in headbutting and asks to be taught the technique. As Rafei bails Zahra out of jail (after she is caught for selling trinkets in the underground), he head-butts the officer and breaks his nose.
The school is under-funded and must close. But Ali finds his way under the building and keeps pushing through rock and mortar. Having now reached the cistern, he moves tirelessly through a muddy channel at the end of which he finds an opening in the ceiling; it is a gutter. By this time we know that the ‘treasure’ is something Hashem has thrown into the gutter while escaping from the police. But he encourages Ali to continue breaking another wall of the cistern. You have to find out what happens.
The most remarkable quality of the film is its cast of real child labourers. Far too old for their age, their tears and their joy are real, their calmness turns easily into a mountain of uncontrolled anger. Ruhollah Zamani (Ali) won the Marcello Mastroianni award at the 77th Venice International Film Festival. It is also remarkable that Majidi managed to outflank the Iranian censor even though he makes a political statement right from the start and unmasks the most shameful visage of his society.
Shara Atashi is an author and translator based in Aberystwyth in Wales.