In these last few seconds, Panahi manages to provide a new layer of complexity to his film. The audience has to this point been invested in Razieh’s fate. The lengths she has to go through to obtain the money for the goldfish, including bribing and then colluding with her brother, point to the family’s financial hardships. Her father, never seen but heard yelling and complaining from the shower early in the film, signals additional family tension. Talking to a soldier on furlough, while waiting for her brother to return with help for getting the money out of the gutter, Razieh tells him that her father has two jobs, one which she is allowed to speak about, and one which she is not. The unspeakable job both points to their financial problems and provides some explanation for the father’s bad disposition. It also leads the viewer to conclude that the bruise on Ali’s face is likely a result of the father’s ill temper.
Despite the difficulties they might face, the film’s conclusion suggests that others in their city fare worse. In the film’s opening scenes, their mother is shown with bags full of groceries and is later seen preparing the house for New Year; the siblings’ joyous run home indicates their excitement for the coming festivities. In contrast, the Afghan boy does not appear to have a place to go to. Present in the opening sequence with lots of balloons, he is down to the white one by the end: parents of happy children have presumably bought them in celebration of the New Year. The Afghan boy contributes to the festivities of the New Year but is not included in them.
In Panahi’s later films, the political resonance of his work is unmistakable. This is particularly the case in his third and fifth films, The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006), which cast light on restrictions faced by women under the Islamic Republic.3 Unlike his first two films, which centred on children, the latter faced a ban inside Iran. Yet the stark contrasts between The White Balloon and the later films in his oeuvre do not mean that his first work is bereft of social commentary or political implications. The final focus on the Afghan balloon seller is a poignant illustration of the hard-working yet excluded Afghan minority in Iran. Unlike other Iranian films about Afghans in Iran or Afghanistan, most notably those of the Makhmalbaf Production House, which often exoticise and are condescending to their subject, Panahi treats the Afghan boy with respect and humour.
While some have criticised the sentimental portrayal of children in 1990s Iranian cinema, contrasting them to the resilient children appearing in the films of the previous decade,4 the kids of The White Balloon cannot be dismissed as romanticised innocents. At his first appearance on screen, Ali is rushing out of the house to buy soap for his father, and is later yelled at for not paying attention and buying soap instead of shampoo. The film later suggests that Ali bears the brunt of his father’s physical anger as well. He is also the one sent to look for Razieh when she delays in returning from the fish store, and he acts as her protector when he finds her on the street. Razieh too is clever beyond her years and spends much of the film variously negotiating with adults. After attempting to barter with her mother in exchange for money for the fish, her mother confirms Razieh’s headstrong defiance when she responds with: ‘Not only have you put on your new clothes before the New Year, but you’ve also given your gifts away before getting them’. Finally, there is the Afghan balloon vendor, a working child who is not even able to celebrate the New Year. In short, the film’s children, all charming in their own ways, nonetheless reflect the social and economic difficulties that have contributed to their strong characters.
While the political resonance of Panahi’s later works have somewhat overshadowed his first film, The White Balloon remains a seminal work in both Panahi’s oeuvre and in Iranian cinema. It was one of the key works signalling the ascendancy of Iranian cinema in the 1990s, and remains remarkable in its own right as a well-told story with cleverly understated social commentary.
1. For an overview of the state of Iranian cinema in the first decade after the 1979 revolution, see Hamid Naficy, ‘Iranian Cinema Under the Islamic Republic’, American Anthropologist, Vol. 97, No. 3, 1995, pp. 548–58.
2. For Panahi’s own comments on the neo-realism of his films, see Saverio Giovacchini and Robert Sklar, ‘The Geography and History of Neo-realism’, in Saverio Giovacchini and Robert Sklar (eds), Global Neo-Realism: The Transnational History of a Film Style, Jackson, MS, University of Mississippi Press, 2012, p. 3. Hamid Naficy’s essay, ‘Neo-realism: Iranian Style’, included in the same collection, may also be of interest.
3. The depiction of the realities of women’s lives in post-revolutionary Iran is not without its downsides in the international arena. For an example and critical intervention into how some celebrations of Panahi’s Circle have fed into troubling generalisations and erroneous assumptions about women and Iran by journalists and film reviewers, see Hossein Khosrowjah, ‘Neither a Victim nor a Crusading Heroine: Kiarostami’s Feminist Turn in 10’, Situations, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011, pp. 53–65.
4. Azadeh Farahmand has argued that the children of 1980s Iranian cinema had a ‘strong and proud presence, fighting and surviving the injustices of their surroundings’ whereas the children of 1990s cinema were ‘purified prototypes’. See Azadeh Farahmand, ‘Perspectives on Recent (International Acclaim for) Iranian Cinema’, in Richard Tapper (ed.), The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, London and New York, I.B. Tauris, 2002, p. 105. Hamdi Reza Sadr’s essay, ‘Children in Contemporary Iranian Cinema: When we Were Children’, also included in this collection, is also relevant for its overview of children in Iranian cinema.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Iran. Production Company: Children’s Division of IRIB Channel 2 and Ferdos Films. Director: Jafar Panahi. Producer: Korush Mazkouri. Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami (based on an original idea by Parviz Shahbazi and Jafar Panahi). Cinematographer: Farzad Joudat. Sound engineers: Mojtaba Mortazavi and Saeed Ahmadi. Sound mixing: Mehdi Dejbodi. Editor: Jafar Panahi. Cast: Fereshteh Sadr Orafaiy (Mother), Ana Bourkowska (Elder Woman), Aida Mohammadkhani (Razieh), Mohsen Kafili (Ali), Mohammad Bakhtiari (Tailor), Mohammad Shahani (Soldier), Ali-Asghar Samadi (Afghan balloon vendor).]
Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2012.
Sarah Niazi, ‘Urban Imagination and the Cinema of Jafar Panahi’, Wide Screen, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2010.
Richard Tapper (ed.), The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, London, I.B. Tauris, 2002.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.