Posted on 10 February 2015
Jafar Panahi is maybe best known as the Iranian filmmaker who smuggled an illegally recorded film out of his home country in a USB drive hidden inside a cake. This Is Not a Film was shown at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and won many awards but the story of his career started out a little more simply and involved no baked goods that we know of, with his first feature The White Balloon released in 1995.
I showed up to Kelab Filem Bangsar’s screening of the movie knowing only the title and that they’d be serving food. Rumah Titi’s front drive was turned into a makeshift wayang pacak with some very simple ingredients: a digital projector, a laptop and a white sheet hanging from some branches. We sat on mats, cushions, and plastic stools, some of which were piled high with packets of Kacang Cap Tangan and Mamee Monster. To the side of the screen was a small barbeque pit, emitting smoke and smells of charred chicken throughout the screening. It kept the mosquitoes away, and it smelled delicious. They played parts of a superhero blockbuster as we waited for more people to arrive, like our very own previews. Children played shadow puppets with the projector. The DIY, scuffed-around-the-edges feel fit nicely with the screening of this small and meandering little Iranian film, Panahi’s short film turned full-length debut.
So, the thing about The White Balloon is that it’s not about a balloon at all — it’s about a fish. Specifically a fat goldfish seven-year-old Razieh wants more than anything in the world, to celebrate the Iranian New Year. Her mother tells her that they have perfectly serviceable goldfish in their pond, that there’s no money for a new one, that she’s being unreasonable. Razieh is unconvinced and, with the help of her brother Ali, wheedles last bit of money they have for the New Year, a 500-toman banknote, from her mother. She tears through town with it, losing it pretty much immediately — twice. Two snake charmers steal it from her as a “donation”, when she gets to the shop she finds the fish seller has hiked up the price, and the worst of it all, she finds out that in her excitement she’s dropped the banknote through a grill into the basement of a locked shop.
Razieh’s face vacillates from lip-quivering brow-furrowing worry to a restrained, slowly blooming joy as she interacts with multiple characters from town who seep in from the edges to try and help her. An Armenian woman helps her retrace her steps to find the dropped note, a young soldier sits with her as she waits for her brother to call the owner of the locked store. The world in the background of Razieh’s story is a very busy one, layered with small moments and characters that recur as their paths cross with each other and the little girl.
We see the crowd around the snake charmers as Razieh walks home, quiet and vibrating with her desire for a fish, and again as she passes back through them with her 500-toman note in a small fishbowl. A redheaded neighbour boy asks to get some fish from their pond — too skinny for Razieh — and reappears in the middle of her haggling with the goldfish seller, to sell him some fish. The most important recurring character is the balloon seller, who we see at the very beginning of the film moving through the market with multiple balloons tethered to a long wooden stick. It’s this stick, and the Afghan boy holding it (and a little chewing gum) that ultimately save Razieh, Ali, and their family’s plans for the New Year.
By the first 10 minutes of The White Balloon, I couldn’t stand it. I was consumed by my irritation with Razieh, with her incessant whining to her harried, put-upon mother for something that I, at my wise age of 20-something, could see was a total scam. I could barely enjoy the film even after she got the money, because immediately my irritation was joined by worry that this excited, not-so-sensible little girl wasn’t going to get her stupid fish due to naïveté and carelessness (and I was right!). I was being a bit of a Grinch about it. My feelings lasted all the way to the credits and I was secretly hoping that someone in the post-film discussion would say they didn’t like it too and take one for the haters.
The two moderators talked through the themes they could pick out from the film: the strength of love between siblings, the strong focus on material things, elements of patriarchy in the male characters’ behaviour (read: condescension) towards Razieh and how she as well as her mother are treated and perceived throughout. They shared articulate and wonderfully perceptive readings, especially wonderful because it was all in Malay, a language I don’t often hear used for film criticism and philosophical musings. Then suddenly I was being called on to explain my uncharitable, aggressive dislike of a fictional young child. I managed, just.
Thankfully I wasn’t so much of a killjoy that the moderators and the audience at the front couldn’t continue and share more thoughts on the determination and creativity of young children in pursuing small desires (which even my Grinch heart saw as a valid point). I was swayed, or at least a little less of a hater. The discussion was halting as the moderators and audience members who spoke up were hard to hear from anywhere past the first few rows, with one person called on to speak calling back, “Aku hisap rokok, aku tak perasan!”
The schoolboy cheek was at least a little endearing, even if it perhaps cut short any further discussion. #FILEMGIG certainly had the ambience and the chill vibes, but it was unfortunate that the cakap-cakap got overshadowed by the lepak-lepak. Perhaps with a microphone/loudspeaker and more structured moderation, Kelab Filem Bangsar can nail the balance with their next outing.
Or maybe we were all distracted by the smell of Dapur Jalanan Kuala Lumpur’s spread.
The night wound down with shared eats (they even had toasted marshmallows) and a small acoustic music set of covers. This was Kelab Filem Bangsar’s second #FILEMGIG screening after starting up in November 2014. They plan to have themed screenings in different locations throughout the year, so follow them on Facebook and Twitter to catch the next one.