Jafar Panahi’s debut feature about a little girl’s quest to buy a goldfish becomes a vivid study of the little things and emotions, often neglected and forgotten in the hustle and bustle of daily routine, that constitute everyday life. With a screenplay written by another legend of Iranian cinema, Abbas Kiarostami, The White Balloon won the Camera d’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. Even in his first full-length venture, Panahi’s sharp sense of visual style is readily apparent and the film remains an important addition to the legacy of great Iranian New Wave, with its sensitive portrayal of the country’s realities as seen by kids.
Told from the perspective of children, The White Balloon is a visceral and heartwarming tale of longing, compassion and never giving up hope even in the face of life’s many adversities.
The plot is deceptively simple yet very engaging. The film starts inside a bustling market in Tehran and follows a mother (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee) and her delightfully cute little daughter Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) making their way home on New Year’s Eve. An announcement being periodically made somewhere informs the people of the exact hours and minutes left for the new year to commence, injecting a sense of urgency in the narrative and in the lives of the people. The little Razieh catches the fancy of some pretty healthy-looking goldfish at the market and keeps trying to convince her mother into buying one for her.
Her mother, already struggling from financial constraints compounded by added expenses due to the festive season, curtly refuses. Eventually, it is her brother Ali (Mohsen Kafili) who comes to the rescue by somehow getting their mother to spare some money. But fate tests little Razieh as she loses the money on her way to the shop and thus begins a quest to find the precious 500 toman bill ― a quest where a variety of people like a soldier, a balloon seller, a tailor all attempt to help the children recover what’s lost.
Kiarostami peppers his script with a wide range of characters, each of them sketched colourfully and in detail, from shifty snake-charmers to helpful elderly ladies. Each of these interesting humans brings forth a different aspect of adults (and society) in general to the kids. Some are greedy and mysterious, some are distracted and unhelpful while some are utterly friendly and willing to go out if their way to show compassion. Interestingly, the only evidence we have of Razieh and Ali’s father is through a disembodied voice bellowing orders and complaints from the shower, even as their mother tries her best to keep the household together while also dealing with her kids’ demands ― perhaps symbolizing the absence of most males as true father-figures in the household and their accompanying emotional unavailability.
Much like Sean Baker did in The Florida Project (2017) last year, Panahi has kept the cameras low, seeing the world through the eyes of little Razieh and Ali. The White Balloon, at its core, is quite humanistic ― depicting what it’s like for young children to come in contact for the first time with emotions and behaviour previously alien to them.
The majority of the film deals with the kids’ attempts to recover the money and their interactions with strangers. Panahi loved spontaneity during filming ― it is said that he liked to keep his young actors in the dark about the plot progression, in order to ingrain naturalistic reactions into their performances. And both Mohammadkhani and Kafili live up to their roles as the helpless but determined siblings, delivering nuanced performances far beyond their years, ensuring a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience. These street interactions provide the basis for the subtle social commentary that runs throughout the film and becomes prominent towards its conclusion. Although The White Balloon is only about 85 minutes long, Panahi never shows any hurry in his editing. The pace is leisurely without being sluggish, with typical action-reaction shots of faces and activity deliberately lasting longer than usual ― enabling us to experience the way Razieh and Ali might feel waiting on the streets on a festive day.
The same balloon seller appears once during the start of the film, perhaps after selling the droopy blue balloon Razieh was carrying and again towards the very end, this time with a white balloon flying high ― with the balloons subtly indicating the respective moods of the film at different moments, as the latter played a part in helping save the day. The film effectively puts us in the shoes of the children, for whom nothing is more important than clearing the mess they have made, even as the adults around them seem to trivialize their problem by appearing constantly dismissive of their concerns.
Carefully structured and executed to perfection, The White Balloon dramatizes a slice of life as seen by the little minds yet untainted with the common vices that come with adolescence. And its final few images indicate an unexpected tonal shift, suddenly thrusting a side-character to the forefront and forcing us to take stock of the situation from a renewed perspective ― guaranteeing a melancholic ending that is bound to linger in our heads for days to come, imploring us to rethink and re-evaluate the film and its themes.