Give us the luxuries of life, and we will dispense with the necessities.
– G.K. Chesterton, 1920
Children of Heaven is an introspective film. Directed by Majid Majidi, Children of Heaven was the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it secured an American box office release two years after its 1997 premiere. Given its international success, one might expect the film to depict an epic conflict or create a grand narrative of sweeping proportions. Instead, Children of Heaven is the virtual opposite: it depicts a boy who loses his sister’s shoes.
When Ali (the film’s eleven-year-old protagonist) accidently misplaces the recently repaired shoes while picking up groceries, an entire plot is set in motion. To go to school, Ali’s sister must now borrow his shoes; Ali must consequently sprint to his afternoon classes to (unsuccessfully) avoid being late; the family cannot afford new shoes because they are poor; they cannot earn more money because the mother is ill, and even if they could the family is already behind on rent payments. What seems a small mishap snowballs into a calamity as the studious Ali is almost thrown out of school, an action that would effectively consign him to an inescapable life of poverty—all because he a lost pair of shoes.
By depicting life in the slums of south Tehran in this way, the film accurately captures how one small event can trigger a catastrophic descent into extreme poverty for many of the world’s poor. As the WYA White Paper on Sustainable Development shows, this sort of societal structuring not only deprives persons of “the right to education… directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity” (UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, 2011), but also makes no sense in terms of economic development.
Children of Heaven demonstrates how seemingly impossible problems can often be overcome by relying on human ingenuity, community, and family.
Be that as it may, Children of Heaven offers far more than a straightforward critique of the poverty trap by also showing how many of poverty’s challenges can be met by person-centered solutions. Ali employs his creativity by entering a footrace in which the third place prize is a new pair of shoes. The community supports Ali and his family again and again: his teacher intervenes to prevent his expulsion, a family friend lends gardening equipment to Ali’s father, and a kind neighbor saves Ali’s sister from losing another shoe in a drainage channel.
Perhaps most of all, the family relies on each other. Ali selflessly offers his own shoes to his sister and helps her clean them. His father invites him to go gardening with him, and in turn Ali helps secure a new client so his father can make extra money. In all these ways, Children of Heaven demonstrates how seemingly impossible problems can often be overcome by relying on human ingenuity, community, and family.
What made the deepest impression on me, however, were not the events of the film per se, but the way in which they were shown. The camera frequently lingers on seemingly unimportant background objects like vegetation, schools, fountains, feet, and, most of all, shoes. By forcing the viewer’s gaze upon these mundane objects, the film invites the audience to contemplate the vital role such things play—we cannot breathe without plants, learn without education, or even do so much as walk without our feet and shoes.
Like Ali bereft of his shoes, the lack of family cripples individuals and societies from being able to realize their full potential.
In a similar way, we often ignore the foundational supports of our societies. As an American, I immediately thought of the manifold ways in which my culture discards the family as irrelevant or unnecessary for personal and societal fulfillment. Yet, as Chesterton says, the “family is the factory that manufactures mankind,” and without it we are destined for failure. Like Ali bereft of his shoes, the lack of family cripples individuals and societies from being able to realize their full potential; we exchange the necessities of life—support, love, solidarity—for its luxuries. In short, Children of Heaven’s true genius resides in its ability to make us question whether we truly are better off with more riches and fewer relations.
Randall Fowler is an Intern for WYA Headquarters and a member of WYA North America.
For even more information on what we’re watching, check out our Recommended Film List or join a WYA discussion group.