This week at the Wellington Film Society: Jafar Panahi’s marvellous debut.
While it’s easy to sentimentalise when children are your main characters, the success of Jafar Panahi’s marvellous debut film, The White Balloon, lies in the cruel, swirling subtext to the rather simple tale of a young girl’s quest to recover money she lost. As the young girl confronts the adult world of outsiders, a world hitherto forbidden to her, the film adopts the tone of a dark thriller, while also appearing to have the light touch of a filmmaker in complete control.
The White Balloon is set in the immediate lead-up to the Iranian New Year. Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani), an adorable seven-year-old, is desperate to get a new goldfish because all the ones at home are too skinny. Her mother isn’t keen (money issues), but finally relents and gives her a big note, expecting change from the goldfish purchase. Razieh, however, manages to lose the note twice, the second time with potentially fatal consequences. Her quest to recover the money forces her to meet a cross-section of Teheran, from poor Dervishes and balloon sellers, to shop owners and soldiers.
Shot in real-time, the film gains its tension purely from its strict adherence to time. It’s as if the inexorable march of time is heightened by it appearing so real. And it also explains why its final freeze-frame shot is so potent—our attention is finally diverted to something else, something forgotten by all. This rigorous construction of time is established by the opening long shot, which cleverly brings in most of the later characters, and so convincingly establishes the milieu that you forget the film, for all its diverse characters, is set in a tiny area.
Panahi has since established himself as a master of shooting urban environments. But he does it no better than in this début. The film was co-written by Abbas Kiarostami (the genius with whom Panahi initially cut his teeth). Part of it relies on the empathy he shows his main characters, the kids of the film (in particular Razieh’s older brother, who is caught in-between the naivety of Razieh and acknowledging the adult world). Part of it also comes from the rhythms of everyday life Panahi manages to skilfully capture—the arguments in the shop, the layabouts waiting for rides, the forgotten details of a street which can appear so important when magnified.
The film also bears close resemblance to The Bicycle Thieves for both its narrative simplicity and deeply sad undercurrent (there’s a definite neo-realism feel). Underneath the main character’s quest is a corrupted adult world of poverty, violence, isolation, and consumerism. And while the adults are willing to help, the darkness is underlined by the final shot’s focus. The title can be linked to Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. In that classic short, the balloon symbolised transcendence and escape from the adult, urban world. However in Panahi’s film, the balloon is firmly tethered to the ground. The children will inevitably learn to live up to the adult world’s expectations. This political and social tension present isn’t surprising given Panahi is languishing in jail at the moment in Iran for spurious political reasons.
For all of this subtext, The White Balloon has a lovely, light touch. The children and the supporting characters are impeccably drawn, and Panahi’s sense of whimsy, humour and warmth adds to the realism of the environment. Sure the film is sad and dark. But, like the life it so beautifully captures, it’s also a life-affirming and joyous piece of filmmaking.