OSCAR POLITICS : Iranian ‘Balloon’ Drifts Into Unexpected Storm

Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

It’s hard to imagine a movie more innocent of politics than Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s “The White Balloon.” Evocative of the postwar, neo-realist cinema of Vittorio De Sica, the debut film by the 34-year-old director is a simple tale, told in real time, of a little girl searching the streets of Iran to find the money her mother gave her to buy a coveted goldfish.

A hit on the festival circuit, “The White Balloon” won two prizes last year at Cannes and was slated to be an official entry in this year’s Oscar race for best foreign-language film. Touted as the biggest movie yet produced by Iran in terms of international crossover potential, “The White Balloon’s” upward trajectory came to a screeching halt last month when Iran withdrew the film from competition in protest against House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s intervention in congressional budget negotiations in early January to push for a $20-million covert action program against the Iranian government.

Condemning the proposed allocation as “state terrorism,” Ezzatollah Zarghami, the Iranian official in charge of films at the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry, announced “it would be most inappropriate to screen such an emotive and sentimental film full of love and affection in a nation ruled by an arrogant world power.”

The Academy’s executive director, Bruce Davis, responded that they wouldn’t comply with Iran’s decision, and the film remains eligible for Oscar consideration. “The awards are cultural, not political,” Davis said, “and the film should not be embroiled in anything other than its’ artistry.”


Though it surely wasn’t their intention, the Iranian officials did Panahi a favor in that the brouhaha they’ve stirred up has generated considerable publicity for the film. And their latest ploy--forbidding Panahi to come to the U.S. to promote the film, give phone interviews or have any contact with the West--only adds fuel to the fire. People are apt to go see the film simply to find out why it’s causing such a furor.

If they do, they’ll be disappointed on the sensationalism angle but otherwise pleasantly surprised. Echoing the structure of De Sica’s neo-realist classic “The Bicycle Thief"--where we follow the workman Ricci on a search for his stolen bicycle that leads to encounters with various poor and workingclass characters in ‘40s Rome--Panahi’s film takes place in the streets of a big city. The crucial element in the story, which features a revolving door of colorful characters, is its 7-year-old heroine, Razieh, played by Aida Mohammakhani. On screen in virtually every frame, Mohammakhani gives an astonishingly nuanced performance that’s been hailed as “one of the greatest child performances in film history” by Hollywood Reporter critic Frank Scheck.

In an interview with journalist Jean Pierre Limosin last year at the Tehran Film Festival, Panahi said, “I knew immediately Aida could play this character, yet on the second day of shooting I decided to test her. I forbade her to do something and made it impossible for her not to do it, then I scolded her and she started to cry. I said to her, ‘See how easy it is for me to make you cry?’ But I don’t want to do it that way because it makes you unhappy, and I want us to have another kind of relationship.

“I suggest we look into each other’s eyes every time you have to cry in the film, and when I start to cry, you cry. She didn’t believe it would work, but the first few times we looked at each other we cried together, and then she cried alone,” adds Panahi, who refused to tell Mohammakhani the story of “The White Balloon” to preserve an element of spontaneity and surprise in her performance.

After earning a degree in film directing in 1989 from Iran’s College of Cinema and Television, Panahi completed three documentaries and two short films before making his first feature. His career is off to a big start, but on winning the Camera d’Or and the International Critics’ Prize last year at Cannes, his humble response was: “When I next stand behind the camera I want to work as sincerely as before, and pray I retain the same student mentality.” Panahi chooses his words carefully, as being a filmmaker in Iran is a tricky business.

Begun approximately 60 years ago, the Iranian film industry spent several decades churning out films targeted strictly for local audiences. In the mid-'60s, “modern” films accessible to non-Iranian audiences began to appear, and at that point the industry started to grow rapidly. Every film, however, was subject to the approval of the Shah, who favored cheap melodramas and action flicks and tended to ban anything with a trace of social criticism in it. When the Shah and his pro-Western regime came crashing down in the revolution of 1979, the Iranian film industry traded in its old problems for a set of new ones.

Few films were produced in the years immediately following the revolution, as the country was crippled by the chaos and bloody struggle for power that followed the fall of the Shah. In the early ‘80s, however, the Khomeini regime banned sex and violence in film, then began subsidizing movie production. All funds were cut off in 1992 when the economy ran into trouble, and this led to a sharp drop in production--last year the country turned out just 40 films, as opposed to the 70 released in 1994.

The government monitors the film industry closely and maintains strict controls on everything from script content to distribution of films to the country’s 400 theaters. Political hard-liners are suspicious of art films, which tend to be devoid of pro-government or pro-religious propaganda, and the making of such films is generally obstructed. Nor will you ever see women dancing, singing or uncovering their hair in an Iranian film; dead since 1989, the Ayatollah continues to keep a stern eye on Iran through the posters that adorn most government offices and many homes.


Panahi isn’t about to challenge him either. In Tehran editing his second film, Panahi was slated to appear this year at the Sundance Film Festival, but he canceled that trip and is presently declining all invitations from the West. If he wants to continue to make films in Iran, he has no choice.