by Simon Louvish
It is the eve of the Islamic New Year, and the people of Teheran are shopping in the markets for last minute gifts for the holiday. Seven-year-old Razieh covets an especially plump goldfish, despite the fact that her family’s courtyard pool is full of smaller specimens, which her mother keeps to sell to the neighbours. Razieh enlists the help of her brother, Ali, to convince her mother to give her the money for the fish, but the mother gives her her last 500 toman note, telling her not to spend more than one hundred on the gift. Razieh sets off to the market, with the note tucked in her fishbowl, but is distracted on the way by a dervish and his assistant, who are hawking for money with the aid of a basket of snakes. The assistant tricks Razieh into parting with the banknote, but the dervish, after baiting her with the snake, gives it back. In tears, Razieh runs to the pet shop, but discovers that she had dropped the note on the way.
An elderly woman shopper helps Razieh to retrace her steps, and they see the note stuck in the cellar grate of a nearby shop. Before they can retrieve it a motor cycle goes by and blows the note into the grate. The woman leaves Razieh at a neighbouring tailor’s shop, where the tailor, busy arguing with a disgruntled customer, tells her the shop owner has left the city for the holiday, but her money is safe and she can get it back a week later.
Back at the pet shop, the owner allows her to pick out her fish and keeps it for her until she retrieves the note. Returning to the grate, Razieh is joined by her brother, Ali. Ali goes off to look for the shopowner, and a soldier on leave stops by, and talks to Razieh. Ali returns, berating her for talking to a stranger. Meanwhile they spot an Afghan boy selling balloons in the street. Using some chewing gum on the end of his balloon rod they eventually retrieve the note, just as the shopowner, who has been roused by Ali, turns up. Razieh and Ali run off to buy the goldfish, leaving the Afghan boy, a refugee, alone by the grate, holding his last unsold, white balloon.
The Iranian cinema has been carving out a niche in a genre which might be called low-intensity third-world neo-realism. A previous art house success, Amir Naderi’s The Runner (1984), was told, like The White Balloon, from a child’s point of view. Children, being pre-political, are an obvious subject in a country whose art is tightly controlled by the government and subject to the strictures of an Islamic State. As in the Cold War Soviet cinema, filmmakers take refuge in a broadly based humanism, which highlights the daily solidarity of ordinary people while being able to comment obliquely on persistent social problems.
The White Balloon is scripted by Abbas Kiarostami, whose most noted recent work has been a trilogy that concluded with the rambling tale of a documentary film in progress, Through the Olive Trees (1994). Kiastorami is a mentor of the young director, Panahi, who has followed Kiastorami’s method of doling the script out day by day to the actors, without telling them the end, to keep them in a spontaneous mode. This pays off in the natural manner of his child players, though the pudgy faced Razieh with her sometimes mawkish stubbornness might not be everybody’s Shirley Temple.
The White Balloon won the Camera D’Or at Cannes in 1995, and it might be worth trying to figure out why. It is certainly not a great children’s film in the manner of Mandy or Les Jeux Interdits. Nor is it great neo-realism in the mode of Bicycle Thieves – the model for Kianoush Ayari’s stunning black and white taxi thief film of 1993, Abadani-Ha, which won no garlands at Cannes. But Abadani-Ha, like the surreal works of the maverick Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Marriage of the Blessed, 1989, Once Upon a Time Cinema, 1992), pulsates with a very Persian quality of viewing reality through a distorted glass. The White Balloon is ‘realist’ and ‘universal’, though its social view is, if one looks a bit closer, highly suspect.
As in Kiastorami’s Through the Olive Trees, there are certain mores, such as family values, which are taken for granted. The ubiquitous imagery of chador-clad women, fulfilling their traditional roles, if also driving jeeps on occasion, is an everyday Iranian reality, but I may not be alone in finding it oppressive. Some Iranian films have cautiously challenged this reality, (for example, Rakhshan Bani Etemad’s Nargess, of 1992), but not The White Balloon. The oblique nudge about the homeless Afghan refugee among all the families gathering for the New Year festivity is not quite the stuff of social protest. Nor is the even more oblique line about Razieh’s encounter with the snake charmers representing her desire “to see what is forbidden.” If all is not necessarily best in the best of all possible Islamic worlds, it is at any rate a status quo. As in the Soviet cinema, which presented a humanist face in the artistic realm, there is much harshness, horror and despair we are not shown. Let us not forget the Iranian cinema which, under the tyranny of the Shah, presented us with the astonishing and corruscating imagery of Daiyush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1968). If all that can emerge from the dictatorship of the fatwa awarding mullahs is as harmless and slight as this, then perhaps the laurels of Cannes, and general distribution, should be bestowed elsewhere.
Sight and Sound, January 1996, p. 57