'The White Balloon' is a highly acclaimed 1995 movie, the feature film debut of Iranian director Jafar Panahi who later made 'The Mirror', 'The Circle' and 'Crimson Gold' - films that won him critical acclaim. Panahi is seen as one of the architects of the New Wave movement in Irani movie making. He has been arrested by the Iranian government in 2010 for propaganda and remains in imprisonment till date.
The movie begins in Teheran with a few hours left for the Iranian New Year to begin. The first scene shows a market place where a young mother looks worried and is probably searching for her little child. She finally finds her daughter, a seven year old girl, standing with a balloon in a place away from the crowds. As they head home the little girl sees a gold fish and wants to buy it - it looks so pretty and healthy compared to the thin goldfish they have at home. She nags her mother and even bribes her with all the gifts she would get for new Year's to buy the goldfish. They pass a couple of snake charmers on their way home who are showing off their wares, telling stories and making money from an idle bunch of watchers.
At home the girl continues nagging her mother. Then her brother. Her father is apparently not holding a job, so there is not enough money. Tired of the girl's nagging the mother gives her the last 500 tomans note that she has and asks her to get back the change after buying the gold fish which costs 100 tomans.
The girl goes with a fishbowl and the 500 tomans in it. She first stops at the snake charmers who in their money making scheme take her 500 tomans as donation. When she starts crying they return it to her. She then goes to the shopkeeper who tells her that the big gold fish cost 200 tomans and the small ones cost 100 tomans. But now she realises that she has lost her 500 tomans - it is not in her fish bowl. She starts crying, leaves her fish bowl there and goes back to find her note. An old lady who is a customer at the fish shop helps her retrace her path to find the note. Finally they find the note fallen into a dry sewer in front of a closed shop with an iron grill in the way. The old lady tells a known shop keeper next to that shop to help the girl and goes away.
The girl finds no help from the shop keeper. The fish shop owner tells her she can take the fish free of cost but she does not agree - she will pay and take it and she tells him to keep that fish for her. Her brother joins her and together they try to get the note out of the sewer. Many people come - some help, some don't. Finally the brother goes to find the shopkeeper who owns the shop and tells him to come to the shop. In his absence a soldier meets the girl and tells her how he also has two young sisters like her but he cannot go to meet them for New year's because he has no money to travel nor to buy them gifts. He needs 400 tomans. The brother comes and tells her not to talk to strangers.
Just as the skies threaten to rain they find a young Afghan balloon seller who has a stick on which the balloons are displayed. They think they can use the stick to get the note out. Only they need something sticky. The brother goes to get some chewing gum. But the balloon seller goes away to sell the three remaining balloons he has left. The brother comes back and finds the balloon seller gone. As the brother and sister wonder what to do, the balloon seller returns with only one balloon left, a white one, and offers to help. The three kids eat the chewing gum, laughing at their escapade, stick the sticky gum to the end of the stick and retrieve the note just as the shopkeeper comes to the shop. The brother and sister go home with the note and the gold fish. The balloon seller, sits in front of the shop, his white balloon still with him.
Once the little girl and her lost note story is established, you are hooked to find out how she would retrieve it. All else is a simple for and against. Panahi is an expert at showing the world through the eyes of children, the kind of dangers that they seem to survive so nonchalantly, something he shows in the 'Mirror' again. The scene when she retrieves her money from the snake charmers where for a while you wonder if the snake charmers are going to fool her, makes you want to step in and get it for her. But the snake charmers give it back to her and tell her that they do not want to see a little angel like her cry. Then the fish shop owner, after starting off negotiating hard, also gives her the fish free. Only she does not take it. Or the soldier who chats her up while waiting for his transport sounds like a mad man but turns out nice. It is a world that anyone who has been a kid can understand. A world that gives us hope in the way that it ensures the child gets what she wants finally.
What also impressed me is the single minded approach that children take when they want something. To me the movie was also a wonderful case study of how to get what you want. Her desire to get it at any cost, her bribing her brother, her mother, using every tactic in her repertoire, negotiating with the shop keeper, spending most of the day trying to retrieve her note, finally getting it shows amazing focus, persistence and courage. And for a moment when she hears the soldier's story she looks like she will let him have her 500 toman. And that is the difference between being a child and a grown up - they will do everything in their power to get what they want and just as easily, give it up. They do not get attached to it and move on. Grown ups do the opposite - they put half hearted efforts to get what they say they want and get too attached to that. Enough to take all the fun out of living.