God Bless the Child: The Girl In the Sneakers (1999); dir. Rasul Sadr Ameli

For the Iranian Film Blogathon: I discuss director Rasul Sadr Ameli’s film about young thwarted teenage love: The Girl in the Sneakers.

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1999′s The Girl in the Sneakers was directed by Rasul Sadr Ameli, a native of Isfahan, Iran, who also directed 2002′s award-winning Man, taraneh, panzdah sal daram (I am Taraneh, I am 15 Years Old) starring Taraneh Alidoosti, the wonderful mischievous bushy-eyebrowed actress I first encountered in Fireworks Wednesday (my review here). Sadrameli has a background in journalism, and it shows in the films of his I have seen. Unlike Jafar Panahi who takes his movies out into the streets of Tehran, Sadr Ameli is mainly concerned with the interior. Meaning: domestic life and family dynamics. The private lives of families in Iran. His films (and I’ve only seen a couple) focus on the dramatic moments in our lives (dare I say “melodramatic”?) when we come up against our families’ expectations of us as opposed to what WE want. And naturally, because this is a film from Iran, Sadr Ameli mainly focuses on the plight of women, and the restrictions placed on women’s lives. I suppose when you are talking about Iran, you actually can’t get too melodramatic. The “personal is political” takes on a whole new meaning. Even something as potentially fluffly as The Girl in the Sneakers, about a 15-year-old girl in love with a boy she met in the park takes on vast social and cultural importance, shining a spotlight onto how unfair the situation is, and how, ultimately, ridiculous.

The young heroine of Girl in the Sneakers, who moons about the streets of Tehran, trying to get in touch with her boyfriend, hiding from the police (because, you know, teenage romance is just. that. serious… so serious that we need the POLICE to monitor a walk in the park) becomes symbolic. So many of the films made in Iran take on symbolic meaning and perhaps some of that can be a bit tiresome, although I understand the reasons for the abstraction. But the Iranian filmmakers know what they are up against, they know the problem, and many of them are in the strange situation of having much more fame worldwide than in their native land – because their movies aren’t allowed to be showed there. It is similar to Vaclav Havel having his plays in repertory around the world but NOT in Czechoslovakia during communism. Films made under such conditions have a gravitas that cannot be denied. They cannot be separated from the context under which they are made.

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If Hemlock is a Lifetime Movie of the Week, and Fireworks Wednesday is a bleak Desperate Housewives, then Girl in the Sneakers is definitely an ABC Afterschool Special. I could imagine teenage Iranian girls watching this and feeling totally validated, and “seen” and “heard”. Granted, the copy I saw was a horrible video transfer and looked pretty bad, but it’s good enough: the images and sounds get out, they travel. It tells the story of 15-year-old Tadai (played sensitively by Pegah Ahangarani), a young teenage girl who has met a boy in the park, and they have fallen in love. It is a first adolescent love, passionate, out of control, and nobody’s parents approve of the situation.

As a matter of fact, the film opens with Tadai being called up by the Vice Squad, and brought in for interrogation about her behavior. Tadai is not appropriately submissive in this situation. For example, the policeman asks her if she has ever been to the boy’s house and she says, “No” followed by a long pause, and then adds, “Not yet.” Then there’s a horrible scene that made me very angry where Tadai and her parents have to go to court to prove her innocence and she is taken off down a chilly tiled corridor with a nurse who examines her to see if she is a virgin. The humiliation of that, the public indignity, and then the nurse emerges with her into the crowded courtroom, announcing to everyone present, “This girl is a virgin.” It’s absolutely disgusting.

What is amazing about the beginning scenes of the movie is how casually it is all presented. It’s like a documentary. The “drama” isn’t pumped up – it already is dramatic.

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Tadai’s parents have descended into a minor war about the raising of their daughter, and there are scenes at home of Tadai’s younger brother watching television, trying to drown out the sound of his parents’ screaming upstairs. Neither of them want to take the blame for their daughter’s behavior, and I suppose they are truly worried for her. They aren’t evil. Tadai has slipped into a depression. She won’t eat, she lies in bed all day, she’s a wreck. Her mother says to her, ‘You can’t be so trusting, Tadai. The world will not be kind to you.” There is some good advice in that, which Tadai proceeds to completely ignore, in true teenage fashion.

Tadai is dying to talk to her new boyfriend, and there are numerous scenes throughout the film of her calling, hanging up when his mother answers, or having someone else call for her to see if she can get through (teenage love is the same wherever you go). At one point, his father gets on the phone when Tadai calls and he says, “If you call this house again, I will lodge a complaint against you.” Because in such a world, the state is involved on a micro-managing level with people’s personal and private lives. She hangs up, scared, distraught.

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Her parents no longer trust her to walk to and from school by herself, so either her mother or her father drives her. Tadai sulks in the passenger seat, as her mother lectures her, trying to tell her that her father loves her, he’s just worried, and it’s not so bad having your own personal chauffeur, now is it? Tadai meets up with a group of her friends, chattering and blabbing on the sidewalk like a group of pubescent black-veiled magpies. Tadai is not a silly girl. Her crush on the boy will obviously pass, but try telling that to a 15-year-old! What she is feeling is forever! This is no “crush”. This is love!

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There is a scene later on when Tadai calls up a friend, needing to talk. Her friend makes the mistake of saying, “Could we maybe talk in 2 or 3 hours? I’m cooking my first meal and I’m afraid it will burn.” Tadai, who is not always pleasant, not always good, gets angry. She ends up telling her friend to “go to hell” (Tadai!! Take a step back!), which pisses her friend off (naturally).

She runs away from home. The film is really the story of her 24 hours living on the streets of Tehran. She sells a necklace so she has some cash, which she mainly spends on phone cards to call the boy. But he isn’t there. Ever. He will be gone for a couple hours. He’s not home now. He was here but now he’s gone. Don’t call again.

She sleeps on a park bench. She meets a couple members of the underclass in Tehran, the beggars and gypsies and whores who are there but mainly invisible to those in the middle class. For the most part these people (especially one woman, who is obviously a prostitute – although it is never stated outright) are kind to Tadai. But her mother’s nervous advice from the beginning of the film hangs over the action. She gets into cars with random men, hitching a ride (and let’s not forget that it is illegal for a single woman to be in a car with a man not her relative, not to mention a MINOR). We want to shout at her to stop!

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She tries to check into a hotel, but is turned away: she’s too young, she’s a girl, she’s by herself. She keeps trying to call her boyfriend and as the day drags on, she wilts. She begins to get desperate. Crying out to her new friend (the prostitute), “I need to talk to him! Where is he? Why won’t he come??” The prostitute, naturally, is a bit more worldly-wise about such matters, and there is a disturbing indication that she may have ulterior motives for befriending the young runaway: she may want to put Tadai into service as a prostitute, and then collect her pay. There are many clues along these lines, comments made by other characters (“You’re young to be starting out on that …” says the newsstand owner).

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Things build up to a crisis.

I won’t reveal what happens. I will just say that Girl in the Sneakers, even with its rather ham-fisted approach to such matters, is effective. And you know what? When 15-year-old girls are examined in a backroom of a courthouse to see if they have intact hymens and then the results are announced to a crowded room of strangers … well, maybe a ham-fisted approach is the most appropriate!

What I like about this film is that it keeps its focus. (That’s one of the main reasons it reminds me of an ABC Afterschool Special, besides the focus on teenagers and their problems). The film doesn’t try to do too much, it keeps its eye on the ball. Sadr Ameli keeps his camera focused on the beautiful face of his lead actress, and that is our story. There is no big meltdown or sweeping violins, and we are left with a sad resigned feeling. Yet, we definitely also feel that the girl in the sneakers is going to be okay.

Because in the last moment of the film she makes a choice.

Instead of being victimized, she chooses.

I will leave her choice unspoken, but all I can say is: it’s not what you think. It’s a choice that comes from a comment she made early on in the film, perhaps forgotten or brushed aside, and when it returns, when she makes the choice, it is deeply right. Even triumphant.

And so maybe, like all of us, in Iran or not it doesn’t matter, she will survive her first passion of love, she will not drop off the grid (as it seems like might happen). She will go home to her parents, finish school, and maybe find a life for herself that makes sense. She is 15. The love she has for her boyfriend is not built to last, although that doesn’t take away from her agony in the middle of it.

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Late in the film, when she finally sees her boyfriend in the park, she flips out and starts running towards him, exhilarated. The prostitute, eyes lined with kohl, looking on, mutters to herself, “Don’t hurry, you fool”, a nice moment of wisdom from a wise woman to an innocent. Don’t give it all away at once, you fool. Keep him guessing at least a little bit.

But we can’t learn those lessons until we make those mistakes.

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In its own small way, The Girl in the Sneakers is quite profound (in the same way that I remember vividly those ABC Afterschool Specials when I was growing up). It took the issues seriously, it put itself on the ground level with the problem, not condescending or taking a “this too shall pass” attitude which is off-putting to teenagers, and it created a character that was interesting to watch.

I am still left with the image of Tadai, draped in her veil and trenchcoat, teetering along on the curb, her white sneakers making their way tentatively along the narrow path. She likes to walk on the edge of the curb. She makes a personal challenge out of it. This behavior also emphasizes, if we didn’t already get it from the sneakers themselves, that this girl is really just a child, and not to forget that.

Be kind to the child. Let her have her experience. She’ll be okay in the end.

At least I hope she will.

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2 Responses to God Bless the Child: The Girl In the Sneakers (1999); dir. Rasul Sadr Ameli

  1. This review, and some comments you made in general about Iranian genre films, should hopefully serve as a reminder that what is seen in the film festivals or art theaters is not fully representative of a national cinema.

  2. sheila says:

    Peter – thank you for comment.

    I think it’s so true. While the auteurs are wonderful, I really wanted with this blogathon to point up the variety of movies you can see – things that never even played in the US – but that you can rent on Netflix. Popular films, conventional films – but fascinating, because of their cultural information – and also, just flat-out good entertainment. The production values are rougher – Iran is a poor country and much of this is done on-the-fly – but the storytelling gene can never be killed. Even in a so-called benign teenage love story like Girl in The Sneakers – there is information that is a testimonial, a “speaking out” about How We Live Now (speaking as an Iranian). Jafar Panahi has always said that he hoped his films would travel into the future, and baffled future Iranians would watch them as evidence of “how we used to live”. There is an URGENCY inherent in this kind of situation – even in something like this Iranian ABC Afterschool Special – and it makes their films very very special indeed.

    To us, out here, it is only the auteurs who have the big voices. Not so. There’s a lot of shit going on in Iran. Type “Iran” into Netflix, and you’ll see literally HUNDREDS of films – you couldn’t even live long enough to watch them all.

    But I’m doing my damndest!!

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