To wholly understand this film, we must assess what we mean by children's cinema. Where can the possibilities that can be explored by the genre be limited? Further, is it cinema meant for children, or cinema made by children? The clues to these we shall find as the journey wears on. Till then, keep your head clean.
Bahman Ghobadi lends the film its colours from, among many things, a variety of well-drawn characters. There is Satellite - so called for his fame throughout the Turkey-Iraq border, where the film is set, as a proponent and installation-expert of dish-television. But Satellite has a more important role as well: he is able organiser of boys in the refugee camps. He divides, supervises and directs the large group, which includes several handicapped boys, to nearby fields for combing landmines. These are sold off for money - much needed and equally missed, if not more, in the war-ravaged country. There is a disconcerting ease and dexterity about this affair - the little boys hesitate little while toying with death or, worse, crippling injury. The whole unthinking simplicity of it, almost petty errand-like, takes us close to the human tragedy of war-torn people. If one must embrace fatal peril to live a day more, so will he! This queer coexistence of life and decay is also quietly evident in the village landscape, where many of the homes are abandoned battered battle-tanks and missile launchers. Satellite is not immune from the snobbery of being a leader, neither can he help being smitten by Agrin. This young girl has a beautiful face, unassuming and quiet; the pall of gloom and pain only helps accentuate her personality. Agrin is remarkable in her silence, her intense eyes are ever on the look for some saving grace: a purpose to justify her existence. Silence shields away her torrid past - she was raped in early childhood and her family was eaten up by war - the first fact no one but her brother Henkov and herself is aware of. She is burdened with a relic of that sad incident, a physical reminder of what she wants to forget: a little child Riga. Riga is blind - possibly God's wish to keep him oblivious of and untainted by the ugliness of this world. As he gleefully rends the skies with his bubbling peals of laughter and innocent weeping, there is no way that one can stop the tears rolling down. Riga speaks to humanity's conscience, consistently posing our minds the crucial and difficult question - why some people must go through such terrible oppression and injustice - and at the same time appealing to our heart through his ironic innocence. His father is some cruel beast unknown to him, one whom even his mother does not possibly remember! Yet how different the river is from the source. When Riga goes plaintively crying out to his parents amidst war-debris, silence answers him back. For he is a child of severed circumstances. Silence is Henkov's shield too: behind it he holds a pained empathetic heart, at times brimming with rage, but unfailingly humane. Even optimistic - which is a difficult quality in someone whose consciousness has been marred at every stage by terrifying incidents. He wants to live, whereas Agrin wants to escape into the soothing skies. She cannot make peace with her circumstances anyhow. Henkov's concern and love for little Riga is deepened by his sister's neglect of him. While Agrin is always spurred to abandon the child, her brother wants to draw him closer and safer.
Satellite, inspite of his seeming arrogance, has a soft heart. His concern during a bomb-scare is not only for his own associates but every refugee boy in the area. His attempts to win over Agrin are earnest and innocent. Acting as counter-foil to the illustrious Satellite is his second-in-command Pashow and faithful disciple Shirkooh. The latter is mostly introduced for comic relief: ever-inquisitive about the meaning of "USA", "Come on!", "Hello mister" and suchlike; getting bullied by elderly Esmaeel and relating the grave injustice meted out to him with a rare touch of both humour and compassion (you smile at first as Shirkooh rattles off teary-eyed, then realising his innocence you suddenly feel like comforting him with love). Pashow is ever-ready to follow in his leader's steps. The sight of him, disabled leg dangling carelessly, running behind Satellite in swift strides with the aid of his crutch is one to behold. Ironically, the leader has to follow in his second-in-command's steps later as he falls victim to a landmine.
There is a scene where Riga is abandoned by Agrin just beside the barbed-wires between Iraq and Turkey in the hope that the Turkish guard on the other side will shoot him. As the little one wrenches hearts with his tears, Satellite and Pashow are passing by. Driven both by curiosity and compassion, the two come to Riga's rescue. To make him smile and 'chide' the guard, Pashow grabs hold of his defunct leg and points it like a gun towards the Turkish guard with mock-menace. It is a fine example of the director's ability to reach into the most cornered recesses of the human mind - the image conjured up is brutal and shocking in a playful non-chalant way.
In another sequence, Riga finds himself alone in a mine-plugged field. A step in any direction could spell danger. When Satellite hears of the incident, he reaches the spot. Riga's position is precarious, yet blindness blocks off any awareness of his surroundings. As he stands there scanning the air about with his senses, Satellite must find a way to save him. This emboldens the humane side of him already revealed before: his concern for others is unaffected by any factor save the immediate need for it. The crisis also adds an unknown dimension to two fringe characters - so troubled are Pashow and Shirkooh about Satellite's safety that they are ready to take the risky plunge themselves. Their leader however vetoes any such intervention. The repeated tinkling of a bicycle-bell ensures that little Riga is delighted, while also drawing his attention to the repeated warnings not to move from his spot. Ears strained to follow instructions, Riga ponders for a while before bursting into renewed peals of merry laughter and jumping here and there egged on by the sonorous cry of the bell. And just as Satellite crawls to touching distance of the child, a mine goes off. A scene with palpable taut tension, yet one that evokes the deepest of empathy for both Riga and Satellite, while offering a glimpse into the hearts of as many as three characters; culminating into an emotional upsurge. Once again, Ghobadi displays his fine understanding of human psyche - Riga's joyous laughter in such a grave situation can only be called a cathartic experience for the viewer. The director defeats expectation when the mine explodes, and yet does not come off as one merely looking to disappoint or shock his audience.
The skies accept Agrin's prayers however. She flies into them from a cliff, burying her troubles in a war-torn land. Strife swallows up Riga too - not so much one fought with guns, as one between Agrin's troubled heart and conscience. The only one left of the family is the compassionate, quiet and brave Henkov. His clairvoyance comes a little too late for help. The only memoir of the past Agrin leaves behind are her slippers, a souvenir the pained Henkov keeps with him.
It is fitting that a bitter condemnation of war should end with a dark realisation. Throughout the film, Satellite is in awe of the American legend. A concoction of iconic images and catchphrases - Titanic, Washington, San Francisco, Bruce Lee and Zinedine Zidane (an aberration Pashow rectifies) - is part of that hallowed glossy dream (the distance - psychological and geographical - helps no doubt). Besides, America is noble: they'll rid Iraq of Saddam's terror-reign. And yet, as the depressing deaths of his sweetheart Agrin and endearing Riga touch him, the legend corrodes gradually. So when, in the final scene, a relieved and excited Pashow exclaims "Look! Didn't you want to see the Americans?" as US troops file by, Satellite turns his back on them. His silence - that most potent weapon Ghobadi uses throughout the movie - reveals his deepening doubts if there really is a good side to this war; if really anybody's victory calls for celebration. (A note: I am aware some critics perceive Ghobadi's leanings to be pro-US. However, that is not evident in the film. Kurds are initially portrayed wishing for US intervention, but through the protagonists - Satellite and Henkov - the denunciation is of war itself, without colour and without side.)
And yet for such a bleak subject, the treatment is not all brooding and ominous. There is humour centering around the Islamic dogma of chastity in thought - the village governer visibly shakes as he encounters a "sexy channel" on TV. There is, of course, amusement in the dialogues between Satellite and Shirkooh and Esmaeel. There's a hint of dark comedy too: as a gift to his dear injured boss, Shirkooh brings along the broken hand of Saddam's gigantic statue (the demolition of which has now become an iconic spectacle). The director's palette comprises of poetically composed shots - the distribution of colour across the screen is remarkably refreshing (of the same school as Majid Majidi's work). The camera does not rely on daring tricks, and yet makes efficient use of props in the locale. One memorable illustration has Satellite perched on the very head of a cannon whose shaft can be moved about, and the scene ends as he is slowly lowered down with just Satellite's ever-present baseball-cap ducking out of sight at the last moment.
Now, to think of my questions at the very start of the essay. For one thing, I am certain that none of the kids who caught the show with me at Nandan completely understood what they witnessed though they may have laughed at the jokes, felt at one with the joyous laughter of Riga and sympathised with the plight of the affected. Which is quite a lot: the audience just connecting at an emotional level, even if not comprehensively analysing cinematic theme and technique, is something any great director would wish for... in fact, wishes for! Analysis is only for academics, enthusiasts and the like. It is also noteworthy that the simplicity and purity of emotions portrayed could only have rested in a child's bosom. This is children's cinema. Relegating the genre to fluff like Hanuman Returns (sorry Anurag Kashyap, I love almost every other film you've directed!) is underestimating a child's inherent emotional and intellectual faculties. That's a mistake every sensible filmmaker - and broadly every sensible adult - should avoid.
To end with, one of the very best films I've seen. (It, along with Majidi's films and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar, has awakened me to the Iranian New Wave - thanks in no small measure, Mr. Ghobadi.) Oh, and Hossein Alizadeh's background score is gorgeous. Not merely an embellishment, rather an essential part of the film's being.