The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
“You call these goldfish, you haven’t seen the others. It’s as though they’re dancing when they move their fins. And they’ve got so many fins.”
I’ve read a lot about Iranian cinema over the years. By that, I mean that I’ve seen a lot of headlines about Iranian cinema over the years, but I’ve rarely read the actual articles. I know I should read those articles and I know I should see the movies that they’re about. The Iranian film industry seems to be thriving, and it’s a culture so completely foreign to me, there’s no way I won’t find the movies fascinating on some level.
Even with my limited knowledge of Iranian cinema, I’m aware of Jafar Panahi. A decade or so ago, the Iranian government banned him from making movies. In the years since, he’s got around the ban via a loophole of making non-movies. Not only do I think that’s amazing, l’m also pretty sure any bloke the Iranian government bans from spreading his message, is a bloke with a message worth hearing. Which is why I tracked down my first Panahi joint, The White Balloon.
In the lead up to the Iranian new year, seven year old Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) is shopping in a Tehran market with her mother when she sees some beautiful gold fish that she thinks are perfect for the night’s celebrations. Her mother tries to tell her that the fish from their own pond are more than suitable, but Razieh is convinced the fish in the shop are much more beautiful.
When they arrive home, Raziah’s father is yelling from the shower that he needs shampoo. Sending Razieh’s brother Ali (Mohsen Kalifif) to buy some, the shouts from the unseen father cause an obvious and immediate tension with the rest of the family. Eventually, with the help of her brother, Razieh convinces her mother to give her the family’s last bank note to go buy the fish. Running off by herself, it’s only a matter of time before Razieh loses it and the specter of her angry father looms large over everything.
Basing a movie around a seven year old is a massive risk. Finding a kid actor good enough to completely carry a move, basically all by herself, couldn’t have been easy, but Aida Mohammadkhani is absolutely amazing. The first time she loses the money to some snake handling street con men, there’s a look of terror on her face that is heartbreakingly real. She can see the money being taken away, she can foresee the wrath of her father if she comes home without it, yet for a long time, she’s totally helpless to do anything about it. And she conveys all of that without speaking a single word of dialogue.
Once Ali gets involved with his sister’s attempts to retrieve the movie, The White Balloon opens up a whole new dimension between the siblings. You can see Ali’s frustration with his little sister’s mistake, but you also see him jump to her defense the second anyone else gets frustrated with her. This, plus the moments of defeat when the two realise that no adults are taking them seriously, seemed so true to life to me and my memories of being that age.
Taking place in real time, using no artificial music or flashy editing, and telling a story of such relatively small stakes, The White Balloon feels like a pretty accurate depiction of life in Tehran. Of course, I have no idea how accurate it is, but the important thing is, it feels accurate. Small moments roll out in slow, natural ways, and the closest thing to a climax is so small and comes and goes so quickly, it barely matters in the big scheme of things. But this isn’t a big scheme of things kind of movie. It’s about the small moments that seem big to kids at the time, but are almost funny in their piss weakness when you look back years later.