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International Herald Tribune (Neuilly-sur-Seine, France)

October 2, 1999, Saturday

Majidiís Careful Magic Takes Iran to the World

By Mishi Saran; International Herald Tribune

FUKUOKA, Japan

Majid Majidi entered the Fukuoka cinema to warm applause and the flashes of cameras, minutes before his film "Color of Paradise" opened this cityís international film festival last month.

"Iím so relieved to have my feet on the ground," the Iranian director said. "Iíve been flying for three days." A crew of interpreters translated his words into Japanese, English, Vietnamese, Korean, Turkish and Mongolian.

The Montreal film festivalís organizers had delayed Majidi - to award him its Grand Prix for "Color of Paradise."

"Of course I care about prizes," Majidi, 40, said a few days later "But at the beginning, when I saw the expressions of the people in Montreal watching my film, when I saw that they were interested in the film, that they understood it, it was quite enough for me. I thought O.K., I did it."

"Color of Paradise" follows a blind boyís journey from a special education school in Tehran to his doting grandmother and sisters in a mountain village. Mohammadís father sees the boy as a hindrance to his second marriage and brings him to a blind carpenter so the boy can learn the trade.

The film grew out of an encounter between Majidi and two blind boys, when he was shooting his earlier film, "Children of Heaven," the story of impoverished siblings in Tehran - which also won the Grand Prix at Montreal, in 1997.

The filmmaker was looking for a blind man to play one of the secondary characters and visited a special education center. "When I was passing through the yard to go to the building," he said, "I found two small blind boys fighting. They had had a quarrel and the way they were fighting was so interesting that I stood and watched them for over half an hour."

The boys struck with their fists and listened to the sound of moving air as they punched and kicked emptiness. They looked like samurai, Majidi said, and he could not forget them. He returned again and again to the center to try to unravel how the blind perceive the world. Majidi befriended the teacher, who plays himself in "Children of Heaven."

Majidiís visits also helped him begin to understand the perspective of Mohsen Ramezani, who became the 8-year-old star of "Color of Paradise."

Those who have the use of their eyes see things only superficially, they forget how to see and feel in the true sense, Majidi realized through his growing bond with the boy. In this film the line between life and art is a fine one. Occasionally it smudges and disappears.

"Once," Majidi said, "I took Mohsen to my friendís office and suddenly found him in tears. I asked him, ĎWhy are you crying?í And Mohsen said the exact dialogue that appears in the film. So when I say I wrote the scenario together with him, itís like that, it moved me a lot when he said that."

The dialogue features in a key scene, filmed at the blind carpenterís wood cabin. The blind boy, having held back his grief at being sent away by his father, finally sobs out his sense of abandonment to the carpenter, who has knelt to indicate the texture of wood. The older man feels a drop of moisture on the back of his hand as the boy weeps.

"My teacher told me, ĎGod loves you blind people more than us, because you are blind,"" the boy says. "But I say if he loved us he would give us eyes to see him."

Through his tears, the boy talks about how he feels unloved, even by his grandmother, how much he wants to belong to the normal school in the mountain village, how the Tehran school feels as though it was at the end of the world. He says he will search till his hands can see God.

The film is set in lush countryside in the northern parts of Iran near the Caspian Sea. Majidi scoured the area, picked several unconnected locations and linked them in the film to create a single backdrop for the story. He waited for spring to come to obtain the scenes he wanted. The film has fields filled with flowers, thickly wooded mountain sides, a saintís shrine by a stream, a swollen river for the movieís final scene.

Majidi screened hundreds of old village women when casting for the role of the grandmother. "It took me three months before I found her, on top of a mountain."

The shoot took four-and-a-half months. With some pride, Majidi told the Fukuoka audience that he did not have any complicated systems or devices like they did in Hollywood. He just used whatever was available in the region. The river scene alone took almost three weeks. The circumstances meant he could only film one or two takes a day.

"After shooting the film, I realized the will of the people could overcome the difficulties of technique," he said.

Majidi grew up in central Teheran, the second of five boys.

"When I was about 17, I lost my father. My elder brother and I had to work and take care of the whole family and the responsibility of the family was on our shoulders," he said.

Majidi sold sweets and ice cream during vacations to pay his junior high school fees, and later worked in factories to earn money. "When I was 12, I was selling ice cream in the summertime in Tehran and I have a very bad memory of one day when it was very hot and all my ice cream melted and I went home crying and my mother felt so sorry for me she paid me the money."

He watched his mother struggle to raise the five boys, and it filled him with awe. "I love my mother like my eyes," he said. "More than my eyes."

"Children of Heaven" was hewed from his memories of that time. As well as winning the 1997 Grand Prix in Montreal, it was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film.

He says when universities in Iran invite him to lecture, he warns them of his beliefs: Majidi would have all students work for two years with different kinds of people before learning theory. "I think life is a big university for us and what you can gain in this big university you can never learn anywhere else."

Majidi is largely self-taught. His studies at the dramatic arts faculty in Tehran were interrupted by the 1979 revolution. Universities closed, strikes and demonstrations erupted against the shah.

"We were students. Of course we attended the demonstrations, we did not go to class at all. With my friends, we helped people, gave them food, helped the wounded and carried them to hospital. We had special student meetings at the university and so on," Majidi said. "The sort of things people do during revolutions."

After the revolution Majidi joined the art bureau of the Islamic Propagation Organization and acted in a number of their productions. He made his first film, "Baduk," in 1992, the story of a brother and sister after the death of their father. "The Father," 1996, won awards in Iran, Spain, Malaysia and Italy. But film festivals make Majidi uneasy. "Besides my profession, I am a very ordinary husband and a very ordinary father and we have a very ordinary life," he said. He is happiest with a budding scenario in his mind, on the road in Iran, in search of the right location and the right actors. Mishi Saran is a writer in Hong Kong.