The White Balloon unfolds during the countdown to the New Year. The plot revolves around seven-year-old Razieh, who has her heart set on a particular goldfish. Goldfish are an essential element of a table of various items Iranians set out in celebration of the New Year, and Razieh is not satisfied with the ‘skinny’ fish her family cultivates in their yard. After managing to receive money from her mother for the fish, the film unfolds like an anxiety dream with a series of drawn-out obstacles standing in the way of Razieh and her goldfish.
The White Balloon (1995) is Jafar Panahi’s first feature film, with a screenplay by the better-known and celebrated director Abbas Kiarostami. Funded by Iranian sources, including the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Broadcasting Channel 2, the film was screened inside Iran but found its most enthusiastic audience abroad. Like his subsequent work such as The Mirror (1997), Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006), Panahi’s The White Balloon was the recipient of international praise and awards. It also received critical acclaim inside Iran and was Iran’s official submission to the Academy Awards. However, the Iranian government later attempted to withdraw the nomination due to political tensions with the United States.
The White Balloon stands out as among the best known of a number of other Iranian films in the 1990s which signalled a revival of Iranian cinema. Following the 1979 Revolution and the eight-year war with Iraq that began within a year, the film industry suffered along with other sectors of Iranian society.1 With a few exceptions, such as Nader’s The Runner (1986), Beizai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger (1989), and Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House (1987) and Close-Up (1990), the cinema of 1980s Iran was largely unremarkable. As the country eased into the relative stability of the post-war years following the August 1988 ceasefire, the possibilities for films and other forms of expression expanded. At the same time, films in particular and cultural production more broadly became a site of increasing political contestation. The result was a vibrant, if volatile, film industry.
Panahi’s work has been noted for its neo-realist aspects,2 and some of these elements are evident in The White Balloon. Employing a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, the majority of the action takes place in the main streets and back alleys of Tehran. The film is set in a working-class neighbourhood, and while the film revolves around the protagonist’s desire, rather than need, for a goldfish, the lengths she must go through to fulfil her wish for a fish that costs less than one dollar underscores the economic hardships of her family. Panahi does not gratuitously toy with the audience’s emotions; he avoids close-ups, and several long takes provide an occasional sense that one is watching an observational documentary. The opening sequence of the film provides one such example.
Approximately two minutes in length, the first long take of the film captures a busy Tehran street on the eve of the Iranian New Year celebration: a radio host stating that the New Year is one hour and 28 minutes away opens the film, and the announcement of the New Year’s arrival brings the film to a close, with the story time approximating the film’s run time. The excitement of the countdown to the New Year is intensified by the stress of the protagonist’s main obstacles. In the course of Razieh’s misadventures, Panahi reveals the diversity of Tehran and ultimately tells a touching tale about human connections in a big city. At the same time, the film provides subtle social commentary, a feature that becomes overt in his later films.
Razieh’s compounding difficulties in reaching her goldfish bring her into contact with a range of Tehran’s permanent and transient residents, providing Panahi the opportunity to show Tehran in all its strangeness and dynamism. First, snake charmers that her mother had warned against earlier take her money as part of their act for several stressful moments. Soon thereafter, she realises that she has lost her money after leaving the snake charmers for the fish store. Seconds after spotting the money with the help of a kindly, elderly woman who speaks Persian with a foreign accent, a motorcycle rushes by, pushing the bill – already precariously perched on a gutter – into the cellar below. Razieh’s nightmare continues for nearly another hour of screen time, as she tries to recover the money on her own and soon thereafter with her brother’s help. Others she encounters in her attempts to recover the money include the cranky tailor with a shop next to where the money was lost, a soldier on furlough who cannot afford to go home for the New Year, and the Afghan balloon vendor who is not much older than her and her brother and who is ultimately their salvation. As is apparent from their accented Persian, the tailor and the soldier are not Tehran natives, and the Afghan boy, though he may well have been born in the city, is marked as being on the margins of Iranian society.
It is the Afghan boy who obtains chewing gum for the kids, which they adhere to the bottom of the stick holding his balloon and successfully retrieve the money. After nearly an hour and a half of immersion in Razieh’s obstacle-ridden quest for the desired goldfish, the film does not end with the happy siblings rushing home to be with their family. Rather, it concludes with a focus on the Afghan boy, alone after Ali and Razieh buy their fish and pass him by without acknowledgement, much less an expression of gratitude for his help. Various characters introduced throughout the film also stroll by, likely heading out to join their loved ones for the turn of the New Year. The friendly shop owner whose cellar the money had fallen into but who had arrived after the children had already retrieved their money, pats the Afghan boy on the back and tells him that it is time to go home. But the boy does not budge, raising the question of what kind of home life – if any – he has. The film comes to a close with the Afghan vendor sitting alone with his single white balloon stirring almost imperceptibly as the clock ticking toward the New Year beats on. After the New Year is announced, he gets up; and this is where the film concludes, with the freeze frame of the boy turning to walk away.