On truth, intent, and how we make meaning.
BY: MALIN ANDERSSON
April 24th, 2020
I first encountered Majid Majidi as an undergrad when I was studying Iranian Cinema at the University of Michigan. In a single semester, I was able to walk alongside the very best Iranian directors: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, Asgar Farhadi and Jafar Panahi – training myself to hear their voices in every character choice, color, and motif. I talked with them about their films for nights on end, soaking in every detail they could give me with the enthusiasm of a young sponge. But of all of my conversations with these renowned artists and human beings, I seem to always make my way back to a conversation I had with Majid Majidi after I viewed his marvelous work: The Color of Paradise.
Majidi originally started his career as an actor at the Institute of Dramatic Arts in Tehran before he became a director. The Color of Paradise (1999) came relatively early on in Majiidi’s glittering directing career as his fourth feature length film. Just two years before The Color of Paradise, Majid directed Children of Heaven (1997), a film that was nominated for the 1997 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Though it lost to Italian director Benigi’s Life is Beautiful, it made history as the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Majidi is a devout Muslim and many of his films reflect this. Majidi directed the film Muhammad: The Messenger of God, released in 2015. When a Danish comic satirized Muhammad, Majidi withdrew his film from a Danish film festival, stating “I am a Muslim Iranian filmmaker and believe in the presence of God in every aspect of my life based on the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad. I live with my beliefs and strongly oppose any insult to the beliefs of any religion.” (Tehran Times)
The Color of Paradise is a film that, when read through the lense of Majidi’s strong spirituality, comes to life in the flourishing colors of heaven and beyond. This film follows Mohammed, a young blind boy who struggles to win the affection of his cold father, Hashem. Hashem grapples with raising a handicapped son with a profound blindness to the beauty around him. Mohammed, unlike his father, has a sight for higher things – reading the world around him through sound and touch to come to a peace that his father could never reach. This quiet, slow film follows the every day of this broken father-son relationship and how, despite the hardship around him, Mohammed internalizes the beauty of nature and life, ultimately living in joy and love. The Color of Paradise is a deeply moving film that asks you what’s most important about life and if you would be willing to fight for what’s right. This is a film that moved me as someone who believes in God with its spiritual themes, making me very excited to talk with Majid Majidi and hear what he had to say.
A Quick Disclaimer: I did not speak with the real Majid Majidi. No part of the following conversation happened anywhere outside of my own head. Yet, this is a conversation that I had to have because… well… isn’t all film analysis pretending to know what the director “intended?”
I met Majid Majidi in the basement of the ugli on a Thursday night in mid-October, 2018. He sat across from me at one of those tables by the computers. He wiped the crumbs from my muffin off the table so he could fold his hands professionally on the table. I offered him a glass of my kombucha (Trilogy of course) but he politely declined. I paused for a few moments, and then began the interview.
Malin Andersson: Thank you for speaking with me this evening, Mr. Majidi.
Majidi Majid: Happy to be here, Ms. Andersson.
Malin Andersson: First, I would like to say that I was deeply moved by this film. It is quite emotionally rich. From the death of his grandmother to…
Majid Majidi: I am going to stop you for a moment, Ms. Andersson, before you go on. I would like to remind you that if you want to be a serious film critic, you may consider leaving emotion out of the conversation. This isn’t about your reaction to my film, but about my intent in making it. Therefore, you mustn’t say “I was very moved when Mohammed found his way in the world by touch.” Instead, say “Majidi enriched his film with the language of touch to bring Mohammed’s blindness to prominence.” You see?
I pause for a moment, thinking about how my professor said a very similar thing in office hours yesterday. Majidi unfolds his hands and crosses them instead. We look at each for a moment in silence. The silence is deafening. I break the silence.
Thank you for that reminder, Mr. Majidi. So, you are a devout Muslim, and I believe that from from the very opening, we understand the dedication of your film, The Color of Paradise. The very opening shot is a single line of text over a black screen that reads “In the Name of God” or “To the Glory of God” – depending on the translation. Is it fair to say that, in this opening shot, you reveal to us the audience the very purpose for which you made this film? For God?
He uncrosses his arms, folding his hands as he originally did.
Was that your intent?
Um… so I can write that that’s the official reason for this film?
Go for it.
Okay sweet. Thanks.
You’re welcome, Ms. Andersson.
I take a bite from my muffin. Double chocolate chip from Bert’s.
So, I observed that you utilize the universal language that is the “language” of the senses – specifically sight, touch, and hearing. Was this done in the effort to craft international relatability? You are no stranger to reaching many different kinds of audiences, you won an Academy Award two years prior to this film. So was your intent to reach an international audience?
Sounds good to me.
Wow, great! Thanks, man.
You’re very welcome.
I begin to type furiously.
I think the animals symbolize how we interact with nature–
And I would argue that you increase the power of sense by increasing the diegetic sound of the forest–
And Hashem represents a life with attachment to “earthly” values and Mohammed represents a spiritually-vibrant life focused on God…?
Are Father and Son juxtaposed in their acts of kindness?
Majid Majidi laughs but I didn’t think I said anything particularly funny.
Ms. Andersson, why are you asking me all of these questions?
Um, I am in a film class? Iranian Cinema it’s called.
Well, we’re writing a film analysis. For a grade. This is a midterm, Mr. Majidi.
Ms. Andersson, when is your film analysis due?
In a little less than 24 hours. But I don’t know what to write about…
He looks at me like I’m absolutely crazy. And I guess I am. I’m interviewing an empty chair as if Majid Majidi is sitting in it.
Ms. Andersson, ask me why I created this film.
Mr. Majidi, why did you create your 1999 film, The Color of Paradise?
To answer that question, I must ask you a question. What do you see?
Why does that matter?
Because I see what you see – at least for the purposes of analysis. Odds are you will never sit down with me and talk about the things you’ve “seen.” And I will never be able to confirm or deny them. And neither will your professor. So tell me what you see in my film.
Majidi sees that I am stuck so he pushes me in the right direction, as only a director knows how.
Ms. Anderson, did you entire class watch my work?
No, actually we got to pick our own film to watch.
And you chose The Color of Paradise? Why?
Um… you see… well, this is kinda hard to talk about…
Why? Ms. Andersson, let me remind you of your situation. This is due tomorrow and you’re sitting with a dry muffin and a nasty glass of kombucha by yourself in the Ugli. You cannot afford to not talk about what you’re thinking.
I look around at my fellow students in the basement of the Ugli. No one is staring, making the redness of my face unjustified.
Ok, well, I chose your film because I did some research into you and saw how much your faith means to you and your work. And I believe in God, too. Um… but I don’t talk about that much here at school. I’m trying to make friends, Mr. Majidi, and I feel uncomfortable saying I’m a Christian when most people have had a really difficult time with religion. And I don’t blame them but… man, this is tricky.
I think of Majidi’s shot of Mohammed running his fingertips over flowers in a field even though he can’t see their vivid colors.
I chose your film because you express your spirituality in your work and I wanted to see that.
But how could my film speak to you? Aren’t our Gods supposed to be different?
Your main character Mohammed can’t see any person, or tree or flower. But he runs his hands along them and feels them and knows that they are real. That’s faith.
Majid Majidi smiles.
So write about that.
Is that the reason you made this film, Mr. Majidi? To express your faith and honor God?
Yeah, that works for me.
Majidi leaves – possibly to get another chocolate chip muffin from Bert’s. The students in the Ugli watch him as he goes.