Films focus on children

Teen director debuts in Iran; promising newcomer in Asia

As more international movies slide onto American screens during the current slack time for Hollywood pictures, it's noteworthy how many films from other lands are taking children as their main concern.

These portraits of youngsters aren't all rosy in their outlook, but they suggest that a healthy number of societies are taking an active cultural interest in the well-being of their smallest citizens.

None is more fascinating than The Apple, an Iranian drama that is itself the product of a teenage director, Samira Makhmalbaf, who started work on the project at age 17 and completed it a year later. It was written by her father, filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose colorful "Gabbeh" attracted many American viewers in 1997.

"The Apple" was inspired by news reports about an aging couple in Tehran who kept their twin daughters literally imprisoned in their house for 12 years until neighbors realized the children's plight. Investigating this harrowing situation, Samira Makhmalbaf became acquainted with the parents, learning that they suffered from exaggerated fears of the outside world spurred by religious beliefs and their own physical infirmities and believed they were acting in their daughters' best interests.

Showing great initiative and creativity, Makhmalbaf persuaded the family to reenact their story for her camera. The result is an absorbing movie that treads the delicate line between documentary, since the facts and personalities are real, and fiction, since events have been arranged and condensed to form an orderly narrative line.

"The Apple" is a particularly good example of contemporary film in Iran, where the industry has learned to avoid censorship by focusing on young people's lives and on the process of filmmaking itself.

Both of these tendencies also can be seen in Jafar Panahi's comedy-drama "The Mirror," playing now in American theaters, and concern for kids surges through Majid Majidi's poignant "Children of Heaven," an Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film.

"The Apple" and "Children of Heaven" have received criticism from some observers who feel American importers are overemphasizing Iranian pictures that happen to portray poverty and ignorance. Americans are well advised to keep a sense of proportion about such matters, but this doesn't cancel out the warm human properties of so many recent Iranian imports.

Iran doesn't have a monopoly on children's issues, of course, and similar concerns are woven through Beshkempir - The Adopted Son, the first feature-length production from Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic.

Arriving in the US with film-festival prizes to its credit, it centers on a boy whose life is shaken when he learns that he was born into a large family and then adopted by a childless couple, in accordance with an old Asian custom.

As directed by Aktan Abdykalykov, a promising newcomer, "The Adopted Son" is amusing in its views of adolescent mischief and candid in its recognition of developing sexual interests.

Most impressive of all is its eye-catching blend of color and black-and-white cinematography, lending it a visual beauty as internationally appealing as its simple but compelling story.

*None of the films are rated. 'The Apple' contains scenes of mistreated children, and 'The Adopted Son' contains nudity and sexual play.

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