This week’s screening at Doc Film’s ‘Iranian New Wave’ series is a rousing adventure. A quest is established after an argument about its value; it’s embarked on, and obstacles appear; a thing of value is lost, then regained, then imperiled again; alliances are formed, suspicions raised, and a stranger makes a sacrifice that enables our hero to complete the task and return home. The fact that this quest is taken on by a seven-year-old girl, in the space of a few Tehran city blocks, hardly diminishes our rapt anticipation that the treasure will be attained.
Jafar Panahi’s wonderful film debut, The White Balloon (Badkonake Sefid) (Iran, 1995), takes place hours before the start of celebrations for the Iranian New Year (Nowruz), and young Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) wants a new goldfish (a traditional good luck talisman). The goldfish they already have at the house aren’t nearly as impressive as the ones she saw at a vendor’s down the street that ONLY cost 100 tomans. But Razieh’s mother (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) only has a 500 toman note, and she must use most of that to purchase gifts for their other relatives. (Nowruz is very similar to our Christmas – families come together and gifts are exchanged, although it’s not specifically a Muslim, or even a generally religious, holiday). Razieh enlists the aid of her older brother, Ali (Mohsen Kafili), to help convince their mother to allow her to buy the fish, and Mom relents, giving Razieh the 500 toman note, expecting change back.
As Razieh makes her way back to the store, she’s distracted by a small crowd watching a snake-charmer street show. The performers are more hustlers than herpetologists, and, very quickly, Razieh’s 500 toman note becomes a prop in their show. One barker insists that the 500 will buy his dinner that night, but the other, after maliciously teasing her with the snakes, soft-heartedly relents and gives it back to her. (I suspect that his show of generosity to the tiny girl will loosen the purse-strings of the other spectators).
Having snatched redemption from the jaws of humiliation, she hops along to the store and starts cannily negotiating with the sales clerk, who actually wants 200 tomans for the bigger fish that Razieh prefers. But as she reaches for the note…it’s not there. She’s lost it again. Retracing her steps and frantically combing the street with a helpful older woman, she discovers the note has fallen down into a storm drain, and is unreachable. Her brother, Ali, sent to find out what’s taking her so long, is recruited to help her find assistance in retrieving the note from the grated hollow. This process involves other store owners, both preoccupied and helpful, a soldier on leave who may or may not be up to no good, and a young balloon seller who initially fights with Ali, but eventually aids them with their problem.
Innocent little problem dramas like this are legion in Western books, TV shows and movies. (Remember Uncle Billy’s lost deposit in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, for one?) But social interaction like this – where seeming strangers come together, solve problems, and protect each other from being taken advantage of – in Iran, starts to smell like secular populism, and adults involved in dispensing stories like this are seen as subversives in the Ayatollah’s world. Therefore, in many newer Iranian films, children’s stories act as allegories for what are really pretty expansive social statements that might otherwise be censored. Director Jafar Panahi knows the realities of this – at this very moment, he’s in an Iranian prison for creating a number of films that compellingly, but dangerously, perpetuate these values.
Panahi’s imprisonment is tragic, as well, because he’s a transcendentally skillful filmmaker. He’s taken a few lessons from his mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, in telling stories of everyday life using primarily non-professional actors. But his narrative is, visually, much flashier, employing many more rapid cuts and elaborate tracking shots – it’s a much more modern, westernized way of constructing the visual storytelling aspects of the film. And take note of how much of the film is at Razieh’s eye-level, not the director’s.
The story becomes thrilling because we’re rooting for Razieh to get her perfect goldfish. But it’s also thrilling because Jafar Panahi yanks us into the story, and holds our interest so skillfully, so generously. And that White Balloon? We see the balloon seller throughout the film, with a polefull of balloons, and his supply slowly diminishes with each encounter with him. He’s got three left when he starts helping Razieh and Ali with their retrieval problem, and as the problem is solved, and Nowruz is officially declared, and his customers retreat to their homes and families, the white balloon is the one that he chose to leave unsold in order to help the two young strangers. It’s up to us to decide if his decision was worth his while, or if it was ‘unprofitable.’
‘The White Balloon’ screens at Doc Films’ ‘Iranian New Wave: Recent Films from the Heart of the Middle-East’ series on Thursday, April 7th at 7:30 P.M. Sadly, it is not available on Netflix.