“I believe the right to basic education is a fundamental human right for all children, and I believe that when people learn more about this problem, they will be willing to help.” Majid Majidi.
For Majidi, a giant of Iranian cinema, the plight of impoverished children has always been front of mind—and often the subject of his internationally-acclaimed films. His most famous is perhaps 1997’s Children of Heaven, which earned Iran its first-ever Academy Award nomination in the since-renamed Best Foreign film category.
With Sun Children, Majidi is once again using his platform to bring attention, and hopefully much-needed aid, to some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens—child laborers.
“The official count is that there are roughly 152 million child laborers in the world. In my view, that number is actually much higher,” Majidi said. “These children live and work all over the world— including in America. Of course, children from economically-disadvantaged countries are more vulnerable. But our hope in creating this campaign is that it will lead to a better life for all child laborers regardless of where they live— whether in places like India, European nations, America, or here in Iran.”
Sun Children follows Ali [Rouhollah Zamani] and three of his friends, who are forced to work in the streets and commit petty crimes in order to make the money they need to survive. Under the influence of a local crime boss [Ali Nassirian], Ali is tasked with gaining access to a supposed treasure buried under a local school.
What follows is in equal parts a riveting crime drama, a touching coming-of-age story, and above all a damning exposé about the exploitation of children. Majidi has cemented his place as a true maestro of international cinema with a film that impresses on nearly every level, the cinematography and score, vivid and lush, being particularly noteworthy. The children seen in these roles were child laborers discovered by Majidi and his team—a fact that makes their incredible performances even more impressive, their raw talent striking and undeniable. These are real children. Their pain, their hardship, their joy— it’s all real. And devastating to watch. And as Majidi points out, there are millions of other children, around the world, just like them, still suffering.
Writer’s Note: The following interview with Majid Majidi was conducted in Farsi and later translated to English. I hope that in my translation I have been able to convey the urgency of this film and Majidi’s message.
Awards Daily: You co-wrote and directed Sun Children. What can you tell us about the film and the inspiration behind it?
Majid Majidi: Yes. Sun Children is a movie for and about child laborers. There are currently an estimated 152 million child laborers worldwide. This is a global problem, and in my view, one of the most urgent issues that we face as a people. It is the youth that is responsible for building a nation’s future. Children are any nation’s greatest investment and hope for the future.
These child laborers are vulnerable for any number of reasons—whether it be because of financial or familial circumstances out of their control. They are not given the support that they need and are forced into work to support themselves and their families—this labor at a young age has physical and emotional consequences that will impact them throughout the rest of their lives. These children find themselves in dire situations where they are often taken advantage of and abused. We owe it to them to pay attention and offer help.
Child labor is an issue I have been following closely for years. I came across a non-profit school in Iran whose mission was to help get these children off the streets and educate them. It’s also important to understand that many of these young children are also Afghan immigrants who have come to Iran to escape the hardships in their own country.
What I learned from this school, and what I tried to show in Sun Children, is how imperative it is to provide these kids with an education, how much that can improve their circumstances, and lay a foundation for their future.
My great hope for this film is that it draws the attention of international audiences, charities, NGOs, and interested parties to the problems these children face. Providing them an education might be the best way to help them.
AD: You’ve chronicled the hardships of underprivileged children in many of your films, including 1997’s Children of Heaven. What led you to become so passionate about this subject and use your platform as a filmmaker to aid these children?
MM: It’s the vulnerability of the children. They can’t defend themselves. In any society, they are the ones who are most in need of the support of others. Fighting for these vulnerable children has always been, and will continue to be, my mission. I have always tried to be a voice, and support system, for these children and draw attention to their hardships in any way that I can. Not only does the abuse that they are subjected to have long-lasting consequences for their lives, but also are negative consequences for society at large.,
Awards Daily: Tell me more about the children in the film? I’ve heard that they are not actors, but child laborers living and working in Tehran. You’ve described the casting process as long and difficult—How did you choose the children we see in the film? What drew you to them?
MM: Yes, the children in the film were child laborers before being cast in the movie. Rouhollah Zamani, Abolfaz Shirzad, and Shamila Shirzad, who play brother and sister in the movie, they were all working in the streets when we met them. The Afghani siblings in the film, Abolfazl and Shamila Shirzad, are siblings in real-life. They have been working in the metro since they were six or seven years old.
They were both so naturally talented. Yes, it’s true that we spent time searching for children who were good actors and would be able to fulfill these roles, but throughout the casting process we met so many of these child laborers who were each gifted in their own right.
Rouhollah Zamani, who plays Ali, the film’s lead, won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice Film Festival. This prize, which recognizes emerging young talent, has gone to actors who have grown up to become the biggest stars in Hollywood. This is a child we found in the street, who many people had written off. And yet, Rouhollah had this incredible gift. I’m confident that if his talent is nurtured, he can go on to become a superstar in the acting world. And there are so many kids just like him.
These kids that you see working on any intersection in any major city—they all have hidden gifts. Each one of them could go on to become a source of pride for their countries if only someone took the time to pay attention to them.
In my opinion, we can’t rely solely on the government to help. The people have to take responsibility, help these kids, and treat them like members of their own family.
AD: As you mentioned, Sun Children touches on the difficulties that many Afghani children and their families face as immigrants in Iran. In my opinion, the specific hardships of immigrants are not known about or discussed often enough in Iranian society. Why was it important for you to include this subplot in the film?
MM: It’s important to recognize that roughly 60-65 percent of child laborers in Iran are Afghani children. Many of them, like Abolfazl and Shamila Shirzad, who you see in the film, were born in Iran and were forced into child labor because of their family’s financial hardship. Unfortunately, the countries surrounding Iran —Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, are all suffering from political and economic crises. This has created a humanitarian crisis in Iran. And, of course, we must remember that Iran is under tremendous economic pressure because of the imposed sanctions, with our most vulnerable citizens being hurt the most. Medicine, in particular, is hard to find; our pharmacies are empty. Something must be done to help this grave situation.
AD: If I may ask, is there a plan in place to help the children featured in your film? What’s going to happen to them?
MM: Yes, as a result of this film, there is much attention being paid to these children. They are being celebrated. A plan has been put in place to care for their immediate needs, improve their quality of life, and their futures.
I hope to bring all child laborers of the world similar attention. We have heard from many NGOs and charities ready to join our campaign to aid these children, both here in Iran and abroad. I hope that this will come to fruition after the pandemic. We are planning to build schools and aid these children in building their skills and provide a safe pathway for them to improve their long-term circumstances.
AD: I know that working with children can be particularly challenging for a director. And much of this film was shot in the streets of Southern Tehran, in the city’s most impoverished region. Can you tell me more about those specific challenges?
MM: Yes, working with children always provides challenges for a director, particularly when you consider that these are kids who have never acted before. They are not professionals. At times, it was difficult for them to follow directions. Of course, it was exciting for them at first. But after a while, they grew tired, and many of them wanted to leave.
Many of them would say, ‘I need to go. I found farm work in the countryside. We can finish the rest of the movie when I get back.’ And I would say, ‘I’m so sorry, kiddo, that’s not how this works!’ [Laughs].
So yes, working with kids is always tricky, but this movie was more challenging than most. These kids were very rambunctious. Rouhollah Zamani, Ali in the film, broke his leg during filming and dislocated his shoulder. He broke his leg on the first day of filming. Those scenes where he’s digging a tunnel, he basically had to crawl. Any scene where you see him standing was tough to get because of his leg. Even with his broken leg, it wasn’t easy to get him to sit still. Abolfazl Shirzad broke his leg twice during filming! We had to extend our filming schedule by two-and-a-half months as a result.