An exquisitely crafted debut feature, Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon is a compelling tribute to the aesthetic merits of simplicity. A little girl wants to buy a special fish for the New Year’s celebrations: to get to it, she must forge her way through a sly, treacherous world of adults in the back streets and alleyways of Teheran. The film so imaginatively inhabits the macro mindset of a seven-year-old, for whom the tiniest setback is a momentous hurdle as to bring high drama and a delicious humor to every step of her single-minded journey. Under Panahi’s impeccable direction, Aida Mohammadkhani plays her role with grave charm and unflinching determination.
A Cannes 1995 Camera d’Or winner, The White Balloon is also a salute to the strong collaborative tradition of Iranian filmmaking that has emerged in the wake of that country’s devastating social upheavals. By the time I saw The White Balloon at the Montreal Film Festival, the story of the making of the film was already legendary. As it goes, Panahi told Abbas Kiarostami his idea for the scenario while working as Kiarostami’s assistant director on Through the Olive Trees. Kiarostami not only encouraged him to make the film but offered to “write” the script for it by narrating the story into a tape recorder as they drove from one location to another.
This interview was conducted with the invaluable help of a Farsi interpreter while Mr. Panahi was in town for the screening of his film at the New York Film Festival.
Liza Béar Was there a ban on the showing of Western films in Iran when you were growing up?
Translator I can answer for him. Only after the 1979 revolution, and at that point he was already 18 years old. Do you still want me to translate the question?
LB (to translator) Well, yes. I want to know what films he was seeing.
Jafar Panahi I used to go to the movies from the age of 12 but I never took them seriously. I never thought of myself as a filmmaker or of becoming a filmmaker. I became much more serious after the revolution and I started to study a number of filmmakers on video because their movies were not available in the theaters.
LB You mentioned The Bicycle Thief by Vittorio de Sica at the New York Film Festival press conference. Were there any others?
JP At different periods I liked different filmmakers, but then I discovered our own cinema, Iranians who made films before I did, and they were the strongest influences on me.
LB Did the absence of genre films, of Western commercial cinema on Iranian screens, mean that Iranian filmmakers were able to draw on their own first hand experience in imagining a scenario, rather than making comments on other films?
JP I appreciate the observation. Yes, obviously I paid a lot of attention to local detail in my film. Beyond what you see on the screen I can’t really elaborate on anything except that the joy of a conversation like this for me would be to find out if my audience has also noticed all those details.
LB Uh huh. Do little girls in Iran always get their own way?
JP (laughter) Probably as much as anywhere else in the world!
LB Especially when they’re so persistent. The red bill that Razieh, the seven-year-old girl in your film, loses says 5000 on it. How much is that worth?
JP It’s equivalent to 500 toucans. It’s worth $1.50. But that’s one third of a day’s pay for that family.
LB As well as coming up with the initial story idea and directing The White Balloon, you were responsible for the art direction, you built the set, and you edited the film. How did you manage all these roles?
JP For two reasons. We couldn’t have a very large crew for this film. One was the (small) scale of the production and the size of the budget: We just couldn’t afford to. The other, just as important, was the presence of a kid. The more people you have on the set, the more the kid may be bothered by their presence. For instance, I never use a script supervisor. I take care of continuity myself. Also, I don’t have anyone clap the slate because that is disturbing for the child. I wanted the child very naturally to flow into the part without somebody shouting, “Now we’re ready!”
LB You got the locations to match perfectly, which was very important for a film that takes place in real time.
JP It’s very hard to get that kind of a match. I spent an incredible amount of time doing it. For example: the little girl’s house is in Teheran, but when she opens the door onto an alley, that’s another town. I knew the kind of passageway that that kind of a house should be a part of. In a sense, I created my own architecture by putting different places together. The tailor’s shop was a real shop but not in Teheran, somewhere else. The snake charmers were in Teheran but at quite a distance from the house. No two locations that you see as adjacent in the film are in close proximity to one another in real life.
LB How did the story elements come together?
JP A school friend of mine, Parvis Shabahzi, and I had an idea for a short film. I have two children, a thirteen-year-old son and seven-year-old girl, the same age as Razieh in the film. My premise for the short film was very simple: a little girl wants to make a special fish for the New Year. All the other characters and situations in the feature-length version were added by Abbas Kiarostami, except for the old lady who helps Razieh find the money; she was part of the original concept.
LB What ethnic groups were represented in the film?
JP The old lady was part of the Polish emigration that took place during the Second World War. The tailor is from the Turkish minority. The fish vendor is from a city in northern Iran which is on the Caspian Sea and has its own dialect. And the soldier is from another part of the country altogether.
LB Did you have to travel a lot during the casting to find exactly the right actors?
JP To some extent I did travel, but in many instances I got extremely lucky. The very first day of casting we found the lead character, Razieh. We had scheduled to go to two different classes with a video camera and do a test of several girls, but when we went into our very first classroom, there she was.
LB She’d never acted before, right?
JP If she’d had the slightest bit of experience I wouldn’t have cast her. Sometimes in five frames you can tell whether the person is right for the part. You can spend hours and days looking around, but sometimes there’s a particular moment when your eyes connect and you think, this is it. That’s what happened to me with Aida.
LB Did anyone in the film have acting experience?
JP The only character who had a smattering of film experience, although she’s not really considered a professional actress, was Razieh’s mother. She was the subject of a documentary on her life by another Iranian filmmaker. In fact, she’s married to a friend of mine who made a very good movie called The Fish which went to a lot of film festivals. But to give you an idea of how much she knew about filmmaking, on the last day of my work with her she asked me whether I was also a cameraman like the documentary director.
LB You could take it as a compliment that she didn’t feel intimidated by you as a director.
JP I agree that the less the actors are intimidated by the director, the better it is for the film. It enriches the process of filmmaking as a collective experience, and as far as I’m concerned if the actors don’t see other movies at all I would like that even better complete purity, as far as exposure to cinema.
LB What was your own childhood like growing up in Teheran?
JP I grew up in the same environment, in the maze of back alleys that you see in The White Balloon, with the same kind of family, a family that was struggling to survive. My father was a house painter.
LB Did he have a secret second job, like the unseen father in the script?
JP No, but he was really a film buff, crazy about going to the movies. I used to go to work with him when I wasn’t going to school in the summer or during the holidays. My father didn’t like me to see the movies that he was seeing. But I was just as interested in going to the movies as he was, and since he wouldn’t take me I went on my own. Sometimes he would put me in charge of the workers on a contract job. He’d say, I have to do something, I’ll be right back. I was about 12 years old at the time. When he didn’t come back after half an hour I would realize that he must have gone to see a movie. Once I’d figured that out, I would also abandon the workers and go to see a movie. I usually tried to see a different one, but sometimes it might happen that I ended up going to the same movie as my father. If he found out, there would be punishment later at home and he would promise never to go to the movies again.
LB Sounds like the beginning of a good scenario.
JP I used to complain, How come you go to see them, but you tell me that they are not good for me? L
LB Just like the little girl in the film!
JP Yes, when she’s told not to stop at the snake charmers and she does. But now, as it turns out, my own son is totally in love with American action adventure movies. They’re only available on lousy quality video cassettes on the black market. And I keep telling him, don’t watch them. I try to keep him from seeing those kinds of movies, just as my father tried to stop me. And my son’s response is exactly like mine, I just want to find out why you think this is no good for me.
LB Did you go to film school immediately after high school?
JP When I graduated from high school the Iranian Revolution broke out and the colleges closed for a long time, two or three years. I had to look for other things to do, including going to the front and taking still photographs. And after a while, when I had made some contacts there, I asked them to give me a 16mm film camera so I could shoot a documentary. This was the Iran-Iraq war. The front was in the southern part of Iran.
LB Did you see action? Were you involved in the combat?
JP Yes, I was enlisted.
LB It must have been great training for the eye, aside from everything else.
JP The war documentaries were very encouraging to me because I realized I was doing film work. After the war was over I came back—there’s a college entrance examination in Iran which is very important, so that was an incentive for me to work really hard to prepare for it. It’s like the French baccalaureate. The first year in film school we weren’t required to specialize, but my first love as a filmmaker was editing. I would get my hands on any surplus footage or reels that I could, just to put something together. Sometimes I would beg my friends to let me edit their projects for them. And once I had done some work as an editor, I really felt that I should be making my own films. So I became one of seven students – out of 60 – accepted by the film school that year, to be trained and graduate as a director.
LB That’s a pretty selective system compared to the U.S. film schools. How many films have you made altogether?
JP Three short documentaries and two short dramatic films which won awards in a number of domestic film festivals.
LB Did you travel anywhere other than to the front, which is not exactly traveling?
JP My very first foreign trip in my entire life was to France to participate in the Cannes Film Festival his year.
LB Maybe because you were all working on home turf, the dialogue in The White Balloon sounds particularly lively and authentic. For instance, that very suspenseful sequence with the snake charmers, and later the bickering between the tailor and his client.
JP I wanted to capture day-to-day life in Teheran, but also the script set up strong situations that allowed the characters to engage in disputatious dialogue. It was important to me that the characters each represent a different segment of the population, a particular mindset. It’s through the dialogue that they reveal their unique characters.
LB Was any of the dialogue improvised?
JP Because of our style of working with the actors, we only used improvisation. We never gave them the script. We would just explain a situation to them and talk about it. We would say: In this situation you have to express such and such a feeling and this is your goal. -low you put it into your own words. We might also ;ay a few words to get them going, but that’s it. This is the beauty of working with non-professionals, compared to a professional actor who would say, I want my lines, I can’t work any other way.
LB So your background in documentary must have contributed to this way of working.
JP Not only is the documentary approach very helpful in terms of creating dialogue and improvisation, but it’s also very helpful when it comes to decoupage (the visual dynamic of the shooting script and of the editing). It almost forces you to be spontaneous. No matter how carefully you create a certain decoupage in your mind, you still have to make changes due to the abilities or lack of abilities of your actors. In a situation like this I think it’s an advantage if you edit your own films. It’s amazing—not only was our cast nonprofessional but so was the crew. It was my first feature film, my cameraman’s first film, my soundman’s first film. It was a debut for everybody.
LB You shot in 35mm.
JP An Arriflex. We used three kinds of tripods including the high hat because there were so many low-angle shots. We mostly shot the film in natural light, and even when using reflectors we had to be very careful. I didn’t want anything too imposing like a huge reflector. There were only a couple of instances where we really had to light the scene, like inside the tailor’s shop. I was very careful to pick locations which most of the day were in shadow so we wouldn’t have to deal with variations in sunlight.
LB I understand the use of the goldfish in the New Year’s ceremony is not part of the Islamic tradition, but goes back to an older Persian tradition that predates Islam and that some Iranians have fought to preserve.
JP I’m not sure exactly at what point in time the fish became part of the New Year’s Eve ritual, but in terms of what it means, it’s a dynamic symbol of life.
LB What are the seven “Sins” or elements associated with the ceremony?
JP We have a letter “Sin” which is like “S” for Sally in our language. The seven elements start with a “Sin”, but the fish isn’t one of them. The fish was added, as was the mirror. The other elements are a coin, garlic, flour, a dried fruit not found in the U.S., and a rice dish. Some people believe that if they have the first five or six elements together, for the last one or two they can improvise. I forgot one, sabze, which means grass. Sabze represents green things, spring, the sense of new life.
LB What was the special award you won in Tokyo?
JP I won the best first film award, shared with the U.S. film, The Usual Suspects. The White Balloon also won an award called The Flying Dragon, which is given by the Mayor of Tokyo for the best film of the festival. Obviously I’m very happy about it, not only because I’d just lost all my money in Tokyo, just like Razieh in the film, but because the amount of the award, $160,000, will enable me to produce my next two films. They’ll also both be stories about children, one will take place almost entirely in Teheran and the other in Iran, but outside of Teheran.
LB Well, I hope you haven’t lost any money in New York.
JP No, not yet!
—Liza Béar has just completed a book of short stories, The Punishing Sun. She writes on film for The New York Times, Newsday, and other publications.