Growing up during the Iranian Revolution, renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi is no stranger to censorship in his home country. In 2010, the same year he was banned from making films for the next 20 years by the Iranian government, he released his short film, The Accordion. It was part of a larger project supported by the UN under the Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”) The Accordion follows the story of sister and brother Khadijeh and Kambiz, working as street performers in a neighborhood of Tehran. Unaware they have entered the grounds of a mosque, where it is illegal to play music, they are reprimanded and stripped of their accordion. Kambiz, in an act of anger, picks up a large stone and goes on a hunt to find the man who stole his accordion. Khadijeh begs her brother to put the rock down, asking “What will you do with that rock? If you go to jail, who is going to take care of our mother?” Khadijeh assumes Kambiz will kill the thief. As they reach the end of a flea market, they find the thief sitting on a stoop attempting to play the accordion. In an act of empathy and most likely, shame, Kambiz drops the rock and Khadijeh hesitantly joins the man with her tabla. Kambiz collects his accordion, and the thief joins them by holding their change cup in hopes of sharing their collection.
“It is the story of humankind’s materialistic need to survive in a pretentious religion,” Panahi says. “The main character of the film is the girl or, perhaps, in my view, the symbol of the next generation. In her ideal world she realizes man’s need for survival and decides to avoid the violence and share her small income with someone else who is also in need.” Many film scholars have described Panahi’s filmmaking style as neorealist. One cannot watch The Accordion without making comparisons to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. With its use of non-professional actors, location shooting, a documentary camera style and a definite social context, The Accordion fits perfectly in the niche in which Italian neorealism flourished in the mid-1940s. Looking back to Panahi’s former directorial endeavors, films like The Mirror and The White Balloon are in the same vein as The Accordion, glancing into the lives of impoverished women, children and their hardships. Many Iranian filmmakers have made films with overt political contexts, but none so much as Panahi have been motivated to make films that express his anger at the restrictions the Iranian government has imposed on its citizens. The Accordion solidifies Panahi’s stance as a world-class filmmaker, furthering his themes of tolerance, non-violence and respect. It demonstrates to us that rather than fighting against an oppressive system, people must first work together to survive the oppressor.