This debut feature from Iranian director Jafar Panahi, which won the Camera D'Or and International Critics Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is a vivid exercise in transforming the problems of everyday life into a movie experience. Panahi's study of the minutae of life is actually quite extraordinary.
The story follows Razieh (Mohammadkhani), a gap-toothed sweetie who sets her heart on getting a goldfish she has seen in the market. Having finally persuaded her hard-up mother (Sadr Orfani) to give her the money, she immediately loses it to a bunch of scamming snake-charmers. She eventually gets it back, only to drop it on her way to the pet shop. All of which occurs during a real-time countdown to New Year and a whole bunch of characters get involved as Razieh searches for the cash and struggles to reach the shop before it closes.
Direction is the key. There is a visceral excitement in Panahi's close-ups that take you inside the fierce bustle of the market-lined streets. Point-of-view of camera work puts the central dilemma straight into your lap, making it impossible to avoid getting swept along. Apparently, Panahi loves spontaneity during filming - he deliberatley left his young cast members in the dark to what happens next, to get that natural, instantaneous response.
There maybe the typical arthouse resistance to the idea of an Iranian film about purchasing a goldfish - it sounds like a marketeer's worst nightmare - but this remarkable film should not be saddled with stuffy preconceptions. Among an crowd of wham-bam multi-million dollar gut-crunchers, The White Balloon stands tall as, possibly, the most real film of the year.