The colourful, mousy world of 1980s Iran, 30 years on
Making sequels of popular movies in the film industry is not a strange phenomenon – but seldom does it take 30 years for one to be released. Recently, in large and small Iranian cities, and even major ones around the world, the screening of a sequel to a beloved children’s movie, Shahr-e Moosh-ha (City of Mice), released in 1985, created a buzz and stirred emotions amongst young and old alike. The film was born out of a popular television puppet show, Madreseh-ye Moosh-ha (School of Mice), which aired for three years. Written by Ahmad Behbehani, directed by Marzieh Boroumand, and featuring some of the most prominent names in the industry, such as Iraj Tahmasb, Hamid Jebeli, Fatemeh Mo’tamed-Arya, and Azadeh Pourmokhtar, the series aimed at promoting education as well as notions of kindness, cooperation, and friendship.
During the early and tumultuous years of the Iran-Iraq War, schools (mainly in Tehran and western parts of the country), similar to other public spaces, were targeted by Saddam Hussein. Fearful for their safety, many parents decided to either school their children at home, or simply leave for quieter parts of the country. Many Iranian children continued their education at local schools in remote villages and tents, and – to their delight – in mixed-gender classes. Even those children who did not have to leave their schools, however, also felt the imminent threat of being attacked. Darkened windows, makeshift bunkers, and sandbags were enough to instill fear in the hearts of school kids across the country. It was at that time, whilst entertaining children, that Madreseh-ye Mooshha, with promoting education as its core message, functioned as a ‘virtual’ school.
As one of the few shows for children during those difficult times, the colorful world of this delightful school promised hope for a safer future. Despite this promise, though, the show had no illusions about the situation of children in a country at war. While mainly encouraging the culture of learning, every episode contained little incidents that were somehow related to what Iranian children would encounter on a daily basis in a state of emergency. Concepts such as living frugally, foregoing indulgences, and health and safety were a few that the show often highlighted. The show’s popularity was mainly due to the clever and entertaining wit of its ‘students’ and their specific personalities. The names of some of the most popular characters, such as Kopol (Chubby), Dombarik (Slim Tail), Khoshkhab (Sleepy), and Eynaki (Four-Eyes), amongst others, revealed something about each of them that charmed all and stayed in everyone’s memory.
It was at the height of the Iran-Iraq War that Boroumand, her team, and a young director by the name of Mohammad Ali Talebi began making Shahr-e Moosh-ha, which became an instant success upon its release. I remember watching the movie with my younger sister and my cousins in the overcrowded Sa’di Theatre in Shiraz. In the darkness of the theatre, amongst whispers, the sound of people breaking sunflower seeds, and the familiar smell of sausage sandwiches wrapped in cheap parchment paper, we, the first generation of the Revolution, were transported into a world not drastically different from the one we were living in at the time. The story of the residents of a city under fire who were forced to leave their homes in order to escape a fearsome enemy resonated with everyone, and instilled in us a sense of uncertainty about the future. We sat in our seats with our eyes glued to the big screen, as the camera slowly took us into the lives of a group of brave, playful, and loyal little mice who embarked on a dangerous journey they hoped would eventually lead them to safety. Very recently, the first generation of the Revolution – many of them parents now – along with younger generations of Iranians flocked to cinemas once again to see the sequel: City of Mice 2.
In Search of Utopia
The opening scene of Shahr-e Moosh-ha is a long shot of what seems to be a dusty old town, and cuts immediately into a classroom full of energetic little pupils practising their multiplication tables at the top of their lungs. Their lesson gets interrupted by the loud sound of the ghased’s horn, who invites everyone to gather in the town square. The little mice are happy that school has been cancelled, and disappear from the classroom in the blink of an eye, only to appear in a storage room filled with walnuts. While they playfully indulge in eating the nuts, the grownups listen to horrifying news that will forever change their lives. The messenger has received word that a fearsome foe – the Black Cat, better known as ‘Esmesh-o Nabar’ (Don’t Mention His Name) – is fast approaching the town, and that they must all leave immediately, just as other mice had previously done, in order to survive. The messenger also reminds everyone that their forefathers had always wanted to build a big and beautiful city surrounded by greenery and good weather: a place where no Esmesh-o Nabar could ever go. Mice from everywhere have already begun migrating to Shahr-e Bozorg-e Moosh-ha (Big City of Mice), where they are building their homes, the messenger says encouragingly.
Upon hearing the news, everyone agrees to leave the town. After many adventures, some delightful and some dangerous, the little mice reach a river they must cross to reach the city, and it is there that they come face-to-face with Esmesh-o Nabar, who had been following them all along. In a show of solidarity, camaraderie, and bravery, the little mice, their teacher, and their loyal cook are able to defeat him; the Black Cat flees the scene, and disappears into the river. The film ends with the excited parents receiving their little ones safe and sound at the gates of the city adorned with twinkling and colourful lights, a safe haven where danger has no place.
The Message of a New Generation
The opening scene of the second film is also a long shot of the city; however, this time around, the City of Mice is tucked away amongst lush greenery surrounded by trees, just like the ghased had previously described: a utopia. The city is a modern one; its citizens – or, mooshvands (a play on the Persian word for ‘citizen’, shahrvand) – drive cars, eat at glamorous restaurants, wear bowties and stylish clothes, listen to soft songs on the piano, and enjoy all the amenities a modern city has to offer. The movie begins with festivities and music at the start of the school year, the moosh sal. As beautiful and calm as the city seems to be, however, it is closed off from the outside world; nobody is allowed to venture beyond the city walls. Regardless of the tight security measures imposed by the ajand mooshan (mice agents), some of the little mice, led by Meshki (Black), a heroic character who loves to play the guitar, secretly travel beyond the walls.
We loved the first film, because it reflected our reality: a world in which frugality, altruism, and sympathy were cherished values. The ostentation of the new film was something almost foreign
Reminiscent of the story of Moses and his rescue by Pharaoh’s wife, on one of their trips, the little mice find a white kitten in a basket floating down the Porabrood (River of Abundance). There, they find a note from the kitten’s mother containing a plea to whomever finds her daughter to save it from Esmesh-o Nabar. The father of the kitten was killed by Esmesh-o Nabar, who is fearful that one day the youngster will eventually avenge its father’s death. The little mice take the little kitten in, and decide to keep it, despite their fear that it could one day grow into a cat and pose a danger to them as well. In their attempt to keep their secret and look after the kitten, they befriend a mole, Korolmoosh, a wise and benevolent character. Due to his ‘blindness’, Korolmoosh was treated unkindly and was not welcome in the city; nevertheless, he agrees to help the mice keep the kitten. Soon, Esmesh-o Nabar’s cronies find the kitten’s hiding place, and capture Korolmoosh. Meanwhile, the parents discover the kitten and declare a state of emergency in the city. Taking refuge in the school laboratory, the children refuse to hand over the kitten, and are saved in the end by Korolmoosh, who leads them out through an underground tunnel. As in the first film, Esmesh-o Nabar is defeated, and goodness prevails.
The Big City of Mice: Open Sesame
City of Mice 1 and 2 can be regarded as simulacra of Iran during different periods in history. The first film clearly told the story of the first generation of the Revolution who experienced war, displacement, and insecurity. Its less than ideal message offered desertion as the first answer – or, in a way, reaction – to threats of aggression, while the second movie replaced resistance with tolerance, cooperation, and acceptance, among other alternatives, as the ideal choices of later generations. Aside from conspicuous differences in the appearances of both cities – one, old and almost archaic, and the other, modern – the heroes remained the agents of change. It was the children whose ingenuity, optimism, bravery, and determination ultimately saved the day. However, the heroism of the children in the first movie differed considerably with how it was portrayed in the sequel.
Completely ambivalent to the fast-approaching threat of the enemy, the children in the first film had to face the consequences of their parents’ decisions. The first generation of the Revolution, just like the little mice, did not have a choice, either; in other words, they became the obligatory heirs to the Revolution, and the consequences of its political instability. If, 30 years ago, heroism among the mice was defined as prevailing in a dire situation, it has now come to be defined by looking beyond the horizon and possessing an unquenchable thirst for learning. This, perhaps, is the main ‘point’ of the second film: the introduction of a different kind of heroism. While the former generation of mice had become bourgeois and content with the status quo, the latter had become interested in forging relationships with others, despite having told not to all their lives. They seemed to favour diversity over a homogeneity often resulting in ostracism, be it based on race, tribe, religion, language, or even social class, and the addition of a character like Korolmoosh, a blind mole with an Azeri accent, was a testament to this aspiration. Korolmoosh’s character was based on the story of the legendary Turkic folk hero, Köroğlu. A Robin Hood figure, the son of a man who had been wrongfully blinded by the enemy (hence his name, ‘Son of a Blind Man’), Köroğlu was the friend of the wronged. Once part of the community, Korolmoosh was asked to leave on the issue of his blindness by the town’s people; he, however, held no resentment towards them. Despite his apparent flaw, Korolmoosh was the only one who believed in the children and their capabilities, at a time when their parents were too involved with their immediate realities, such as jobs, finances, social statuses, and appearances.
The inclusion of Korolmoosh was not the extent of the new generation’s willingness to embrace the outside world. Caring for the white kitten, and even protecting it, signified the fact that not every kitten grows up to be an ‘Esmesh-o-Nabar’; in other words, what the older generation had defined to be the ‘enemy’ did not necessarily correspond to the reality, although this did not mean to the little mice that the outside world was necessarily ‘safe’. Through their initiative and willingness to go beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone, the children taught their parents that life can be more wholesome if one is let to live it free from a constant fear of the ‘Other’.
The news of the screening of a childhood favourite brought back many memories, and instilled in many a deep sense of nostalgia. Social media was buzzing, and old episodes of Madreseh-ye Mooshha were the subjects of many posts. Finally, the wait was over and the mice had made their way to Washington, D.C. Many – myself included – went to see the film in search of a part of our past, a part of our childhood. After the screening, however, a large number of viewers came out of the theatre feeling disappointed. The city had changed, the characters were almost unrecognisable, and Esmesh-o-Nabar had come to resemble the feline creature in Michael Jackson’s Thriller; nothing was the same. Our ideas of the old, dusty city and the humble characters we had known for so many years did not correspond to their new counterparts. We loved the first film, because it reflected our reality: a world in which frugality, altruism, and sympathy were cherished values. The ostentation of the new film was something almost foreign.
I find this contrast, however, to be neither good, nor bad; City of Mice 2 is simply a representation of a society moving in correspondence with time: a society that is not – despite all the odds – stagnant. While many of us who identified with the mice in the first film seem to be content with our lives after the tumultuous years we have put behind us, our children are yearning for more, and pushing boundaries. The little mice in the second film may not have been successful in capturing the hearts of the likes of me as their parents did, but they did succeed in finding a brand new audience amongst our children, and promoting amongst them progressive values. Not only did City of Mice 2 reacquaint many with their past (albeit not as many had expected it would), but also connected generations across geographical borders. When I left the theatre, my eight-year-old nephew told with excitement about his favourite characters, and proudly mentioned that he understood almost 80% of the film in Persian. If only this was the accomplishment of the little mice, then I, for one, am beyond grateful.