the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The White Balloon (1995)

Don't Shoot - I'm Holding a White Balloon

When countries are hostile it is easy to view the opposing citizens as merely an extension of the government. Growing up during the cold war I did not distinguish between Lithuanians, Georgians and Asians living near Mongolia. I considered them all Russian Communists, period. It was hard to conceive of anything Russian without immediately making a link to politics. That all changed when I saw the movie Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears. I remember very little of the plot line but this film drastically affected my view of the Soviet Union. For the first time there were Russians struggling with life's travails without a mention of Marx or Lenin. It is difficult in this age when every other cabdriver is from Kiev or St. Petersburg to imagine the impact of this simple movie. In short there were real people over there not just communist appachiks. The White Balloon, a Persian film featuring a seven year old, serves the same purpose as the earlier Russian feature. It dispels the notion that everyone living in Modern Iran is a radical Shiite cleric.

The White Balloon borrows from the Neo-realist tradition of De Sica & Sajit Ray with the sensitivity towards children of Earl Morris & Francios Truffaut. The director exhibits none of the greatness of these masters but he/she does show promise. The story is simple: a young girl needs to buy a goldfish before a national holiday. This is a Iranian tradition which is never explained. (Perhaps the goldfish is as obscure in meaning as the origin of the Easter bunny is in Western culture). The film branches out into equally elementary sub-plots: the girl nags her mother for money, she bargains with her older brother for help, the money is stolen, the money is returned, the money is lost, the money is found…

It is more captivating than it sounds but there were instants of ennui combined with unintended moments of tension. The boredom comes from the pressure of constructing a film which is entirely in 'real time' - i.e. time passes in the same manner for both characters and audience. There were too many pauses in which the characters sat around and strategized. The filmmakers could be afforded artistic license to 'keep the act moving'. This, however, was not as disconcerting as two other scenes which provoked unintended stress. In the first the little girl falls pray to a snake charmer who steals her money. It is difficult to imagine that in a large crowd of men no one would intervene to help the hysterical five year old. The scene drags on and becomes disturbingly out of context with the rest of the film. The fact that the other snake charmer finally comes to her aid is of little comfort. The damage has been done. In the second sequence a young soldier stops to talk to the girl at length. When a young man temps a child into conversation with candy (which she continually refuses) one can, with very little provocation, believe that this adult is a pederast. It is only after the long sequence is over that the audience realizes that this young man is telling the truth. The young girl reminds him of his little sister. Unfortunately it all comes too late. The pay-off of the scene is devoured in worries that she is in danger. These instants should not detract from the overall attractiveness of the film. The little girl is wonderful as is her brother and many of the numerous cameos. The cast was at ease and believable. This is no small feat considering the age of the protagonists and the use of non-professional performers in real-life locations.

The White Balloon's significance lies outside of the cinematic. This work is interesting precisely because of its origin. It presents modern Iran in an unpolitical light. If one looks closely all the women are covered (arms and heads). Aside of this peculiarity there are no signs of the fundamentalist regime - no mullahs or calls to prayer. This is not to infer that the country would be palatable to a Westerner. It is important, however, to view 'the other side' as human. Even the most ardent opponent of the Ayatollah would find the film agreeable and learn unexpected tid-bits about that society. (e.g. the young balloon seller, referred to as the 'Afghan boy', looks strikingly Asian). Anyone who believes that communication between our two cultures is satisfactory should be reminded of a bit of patriotic chauvinism that was proudly displayed by many Americans in the not so distant past. It was a black button with huge block white capital letters which read: FUCK IRAN. I doubt many people would adhere to that statement after watching The White Balloon.

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