TitleHonoring Jafar Panahi

‘Badkonake Sefid’: Hope in times of despair

2 Mar 2010

■ Ann De Craemer
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March 2, 2010

Early this morning, Jafar Panahi has been arrested by Tehran security forces. A dark day for him and his relatives, but TehranReview wants to send a signal of hope with an article from Ann De Craemer about his movie Badkonake Sefid.

Tehran. Crowded squares, honking taxis, running feet, voices that get lost in the deafening street noise. That is the setting of the beginning of Badkonake Sefid (‘The White Balloon’) by Jafar Panahi, one of Iran’s most renowned directors. Seven-year-old Razieh and her mother are hastily walking through the streets of Iran’s capital. In only some hours, the Persian new year will start, and mother wants to be home in time. But Razieh doesn’t want to go home yet. She wants her mum to give her a present for the new year.

She wants a goldfish – one of the seven things or haft sin that Iranians traditionally display in their house when at the beginning of spring, they celebrate Noruz or the new year.

No, says the mother to Razieh, no, girl, out of the question, at home, we have goldfish in the pond, why do you want to buy a goldfish if we have plenty ourselves?

Because our goldfish are so skinny, Razieh says. I want a fat goldfish. A beautiful white one with chubby cheeks and big fins – so big that it looks as if the fish is dancing in the water. That is the goldfish Razieh wants to buy. Eighty-five minutes is the exact time she has to find the goldfish of her dreams – and eighty-five minutes is the exact duration of Badkonake Sefid.

Razieh whines and whines and cries and begs her mother for money. No, no, no, the answer is still no. But then Razieh’s older brother appears. He promises to try and get some money from their mum – if Razieh does him a favour in return.

Their plan works. Razieh finally has money to go and buy her fish.

And she runs.

Faster than the wind, she runs through the alleys of her neighbourhood. Suddenly she stops. She is fascinated by those dangerous snake charmers her parents had warned her about – never go near them, girl! But Razieh does not listen. I was so curious, she will tell later, I wanted to look only because I was not allowed to look. These words are an unconcealed reference to the Iranian regime, which forbids just about everything but in doing so makes people all the more eager to do what is forbidden.

Razieh’s money is nearly stolen by the snake charmers, who are dirt-poor and want some extra cash to celebrate Noruz. But an old man with a good heart gives Razieh her money back.

She runs to the shop where she spotted the big goldfish with the chubby cheeks. The man behind the counter is poor. He lies to Razieh about the price of his fish: he too is poor and wants to give his children a nice meal for Noruz. No, sweet girl, this fish does not cost 100 but 200 toman.

But it doesn’t matter anymore. Razieh’s money has vanished from the fishbowl she had carefully hid it in.

Where is the money?

Razieh runs.

Time is getting up. It’s almost Noruz.

To find her bank note back, she follows the route she had just taken. In the cellar grid of a shop, she sees her money but just as she wants to grab it, a boy on a scooter is whizzing by. The wind makes the bank note disappear in the cellar of the shop, which is closed today.

What to do now?

Razieh enters the neighbouring shop. A tailor and his customer are having an argument. The tailor yells at his customer because he is wasting his time – he has to continue his work, he has to earn money for his family, the new year is about to start and he wants to buy presents. Panahi confronts us with another poor Iranian who is having problems to make ends meet in a country that is plagued with constant inflation.

Razieh addresses the tailor ands begs and begs and begs – please, please, help me. Yes, girl, yes, next week I can help you, but now I have to go, don’t worry, no one will find your money in that dark cellar, and now I’m off to celebrate Noruz.

And Razieh no longer runs.

She goes and sit on the cellar grid. And she cries. A soldier comes and sits next to her. He feels homesick – he comes from a small village very far from Tehran. The soldier wants to help Razieh to take the bank note out of the cellar. He too needs money. But suddenly, his lieutenant-colonel appears in a big jeep. The soldier has to return to his barracks.

The Afghan boy is alone in the big city of Tehran. He is a refugee with no money. But he helped someone, and soon he himself will be helped

Then Razieh’s brother comes on stage again. He has a plan. He notices an Afghan boy selling balloons and stops him. With the stick his balloons are attached to, he wants to fish the money out of the cellar.

But how do you do that?

With chewing gum!

The Afghan boy starts running to go and buy chewing gum. The children are happily laughing and decide to have a little competition. They tear the chewing gum in three parts; the one who manages to take the bank note with his chewing gum, can keep the money.


And Razieh’s brother wins.

And Razieh runs.

On her way to the goldfish, on her way home, on her way to Noruz.

The last shot of Badkonake Sefid shows the Afghan boy sitting on the cellar grid. He has only one balloon left. The white balloon. The rest has disappeared, just like his last coins which he used to buy chewing gum in order to help Razieh. It is Noruz, and he is alone.

Always, Panahi is telling is, always there is someone who needs our help.

A girl who wants a fat white goldfish with chubby cheeks, but who has lost her money. And a little boy, an Afghan refugee with chubby cheeks who wants to sell a white balloon.

Many Iranians are poor. Inflation is rising every single day. People all want some money to make the holidays enjoyable. That’s understandable. Every human being first and foremost takes care of himself and the people he or she loves. But still, Panahi says, still we have to help each other.

The Afghan boy is alone in the big city of Tehran. He is a refugee with no money. But he helped someone, and soon he himself will be helped.


Because he has one balloon left.

A white one.

White is the colour of hope.

Everything will turn out fine.

Everything should and shall always turn out just fine.

He who helps someone to buy a dancing goldfish will see his own white balloon dancing.

Badkonake Sefid is a masterpiece showing what I myself have witnessed so many times in Iran: even when faced with utter despair, Iranians keep hoping. That is why we should now watch this movie again, at the time that Jafar Panahi is arrested, at the time that Iran is going through very dark days but millions of people are refusing to cease their resistance. Where there is despair, there is always room for hope. In his poem ‘The fish’, Ahmad Shamloo perfectly phrased how much people can dream and hope when they are surrounded by chaos and despair: I don’t suppose/
my heart was ever/
warm and red/
like this before./
I sense that/
in the worst moments of this black, death-feeding repast/
a thousand thousand well-springs of sunlight/,
stemming from certitude,/
well up in my heart.

If despair, dear Mr. Panahi, enters your heart, think about Razieh and her fish, and a smile will color your face.

Tehran Review
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