Sun Children (Iran, 2020) [SDAFF Spring Showcase 2021]

Sun Children attempts to make a whole statement on the vulnerability of children to be exploited. Writer-director Majid Majidi considers this in a very nuanced sense: to expose how this exploitation is not in anyway sourced from evil people, but rather from a whole complex of situations that force children to take things on their own hands. The film is dedicated to 152 million children forced to child labor, which the film responds to by trying to expand its range to expose different conditions of how children enter (and at times, exit) exploitation through a thrilling heist narrative.

We follow Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) who works for a car repair shop while running his gang who steal car parts or pigeons. After a day of hustling, Ali is hunted by Hashem (Ali Nassirian), owner of a big pigeon-pen looking for one of his birds that was stolen by one of Ali’s boys. Hashem then makes a deal with Ali: he promises a home for his ill-stricken mother (Tannaz Tabatagaei) in exchange for excavating a treasure found in the sewers of a cemetery.

But there is no entrance from the cemetery to the sewers. They can only reach it by burrowing a tunnel from the basement of a school for street children named Sun School. Hashem makes Ali and his gang – Abolfazl the Afghan immigrant (Abolfazl Shirzad), Mamad (Mahdi Mousavi) and Reza (Mani Ghafouri) –  enroll at the school to work into digging from the basement. Although initially rejected by the school principal, Amani (Babak Lofti Khajepasha), the Vice Principal, Mr. Rafie (Javad Ezati), takes them in.

The film is a mix of this school-slice-of-life, Dickensian social realism, and heist narrative with a really careful focus on the children’s predicaments. The enrollment of the children seems to play a more comedic role in their story as it is placed initially as a subplot for the treasure hunt. This balance between thriller and comedy establishes the nuance Sun Children places in tackling child labor. In the opening sequence, we are to the children doing petty criminal activities, and this contextualizes how child labor in Iran exists side by side with juvenile delinquency.

School, in the context of our protagonists, seem more or less an option for convenience, as they do not really see it as relevant to learn anything. In quite heartbreaking manner, Sun Children validates, in a roundabout way, that knowledge can be learned through labor. In one of the scenes at a math classes, Abolfazl is commended by a teacher for his excellence in fractions. When asked where he learned to do it, Abolfazl mentioned that cutting up shapes in a chalkboard is just like cutting up floor tiles at work. This is part of the nuance that exposes the source of vulnerability of the children. In the contexts of the kids in the film, whatever they know is learned from their exposure to work and this gives the children a quite peculiar sense of confidence about their knowledge, whether they are correct or not.

In another sense, the school also becomes a space for correction, as exhibited by the scene where Ali mistakes the question about physical substance or states of matter to talking about drugs. In this space, however, it is exposed how a child’s knowledge from labor can be very limiting and is what exactly can place them into danger. Abolfazl and Ali are two faces of child labor that expose knowledge and criminality.

At its core, it is Ali, as the leader of the gang, who we follow in the film. Ali is the bridge between hope and despair: between the school and the street crimes. What we see in Ali as one caught between the two worlds, is the very vulnerability of his being: how he acts at school is seen by Mr. Rafie as one that is genuine hard work, while on the other end, he wears off his mask to continue his treasure hunting activities. Majidi depicted this in a manner that the film shifts its point of view quickly and that made quite a balance in the film: Mr Rafie’s softness is often contrasted by Ali’s edge and street smarts. There may have been a chance to just depict Rafie’s story exclusively as one that depicts learning from both teachers and students, but this is not Good Will Hunting (1997), and moreover, not about adults rehabilitating street children. The path that Sun Children is going leads towards more bleak and unsettling conclusions. There is only much an adult can do in the world that Ali have sunk in, and this adds to the vulnerability of his situation: he can’t rely on other people.

What started off as a jumpy school drama leads to a more interrogative and patient exposition of the conditions of children brought to labor very early in their lives. Sun Children depicts how much of child labor has more to do with structural neglect and social insecurity than it is with organized crime, without discounting the role of crime syndicates in exploiting an already vulnerable sector of society. Its focus on the predicaments of the children depicted in the film shows not just the care it has for them, but also its understanding how much of the vulnerability comes from the loneliness of their place a world where adults are either absent or abusive and state apparatuses destroy the few places where they can learn and play.

Sun Children was shown as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase 2021.

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