Thursday, April 2, 2015

Bag of Rice (1998)

From my programme notes for the Cinema of Childhood season in the UK, April 2014.

Bag of Rice [Kiseye Berendj] Director: Mohammad Ali Talebi.
Iran, 1998. With Jairan Abadzade. 80 mins. Cert. U.

The moment that Jeyran, the unflagging young protagonist of Bag of Rice, sets out on her urban odyssey across south Tehran with her partially-sighted neighbour Masoumeh Khanoom, two children – one of whom is lugging a gas cylinder with difficulty– are seen walking towards the camera. The scene takes place in a narrow, brick-walled alley; it is representative of director Mohammad Ali Talebi’s film style and contains the essence of his view of the lives of children in his home city. It expresses the responsibilities, or rather the burdens, that their circumstances demand they bear, and which force them to mature early in their lives. Children in Talebi’s films, especially in Bag of Rice, are not guided by adults, but rather they are the guiding force through the unexpected surprises of everyday life, on journeys of self-determination.

This perspective on youth in Tehran is found not only in the cinema of Talebi, but also in other films produced by the Institute for Intellectual Education of Children and Young Adults – where Talebi and numerous contemporaries, including Abbas Kiarostami, started out as working directors. It is an outlook that owes much to the second “author” of the film, screenwriter Houshang Moradi-Kermani, the leading proponent of literature focusing on children and teenagers in Iran.

Born in 1933, Moradi-Kermani rose to prominence with a televised serial produced in the late 1980s, based on his book Majid’s Stories. The popularity of the show made him a household name. Any Iranian born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution will see aspects of their life reflected in Moradi-Kermani’s witty, honest and authentic stories, in which children and teens learn how to survive in the streets of the big cities. The writer brilliantly shows how painful it is not to be old, but to grow old before your time.
Bag of Rice bears obvious traces of Moradi-Kermani’s voice. Even the character of Masoumeh Khanoom (Masoumeh Eskandari) is reminiscent of the stubborn grandmother of Majid’s Stories, who almost became a national heroine when the series was broadcast. Yet the film differs from Moradi-Kermani’s other works in a significant way, by focusing on a young girl, portrayed here by Jeyran Abedzadeh – who gives an astonishing performance – rather than a teenage boy.

Also somewhat unusual is Mohammad Reza Darvishi’s music for the film, which has something of a Far Eastern flavor rather than a traditional Iranian sensibility. The reason for this no doubt has something to do with the fact that the film is an Iranian-Japanese co-production. This fact might also explain why Farhad Saba, the director of photography (who also worked for Kiarostami, on Where Is the Friend’s House? and Through the Olive Trees) provides a tourist’s view of the architecture of southern Tehran, while following Jeyran and Masoumeh. Even rice, the MacGuffin of the film, is the staple foodstuff of both countries.

Bag of Rice wonderfully marries a sort of leftist cinema with clear religious symbolism. According to the idealized image of people in the film, citizens are eager and ready to help each other and demonstrate a kind of hidden unity. But there is a real dignity and honor there, and the film aptly avoids over sentimentalizing these moments or turning them into mere propaganda.

In the last sequence of the film, when, thanks to Tehran’s citizens, the bag of rice has finally reached its destination, we see that it has been used to make Shole Zard, a saffron rice pudding which is cooked and served for religious purposes and shared with neighbors and the poor. Jeyran, wearing a chador (a symbol of religious puberty), goes from door to door distributing the Shole Zard. Having gone through all sorts of troubles in the city to find her bag of rice, she now shares it with those around her.

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