A classic of the Iranian New Wave, and in its day, the most successful and acclaimed Iranian film to be released in the U.S. ever, Jafar Panahi's masterpiece "The White Balloon" looks to be AWOL from American screens, big and small. Maybe someone out there knows the status of U.S. home video distribution rights for this important film, but according to my research, "The White Balloon" appears to have vanished into the ether, available for purchase only on obscure Iranian movie websites and in Spanish PAL versions.
Released by Jeff Lipsky and Bingham Ray's October Films in 1995, "The White Balloon" was hailed by critics for its simplicity of storytelling and delicate touch. Few saw it for its supremely subtle and artfully crafted political perspective–a precursor to Panahi's equally excellent and more overt social commentaries (i.e. "The Circle," "Crimson Gold" and "Offside"). It was Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a lengthy review in the Chicago Reader, who saw past the film's more obvious neorealist aesthetic, discovering something far more complex:
"Critics who describe this movie as fluff or as conventional realism — and a surprising number do, even some of the film’s more enthusiastic partisans — have to ignore a good deal of what happens to arrive at such conclusions," he wrote.
"They have to overlook such peculiarities as the sound editing, which periodically foregrounds the radio reports about how much time remains before the New Year — reports that, unless I missed something, are never accompanied by any visible radio. They have to repress Panahi’s formal decision to shoot all the action in the streets and alleys of a small patch of Tehran, apart from the airy interiors of a couple of shops…. and some of the strange consequences of that decision: for instance, we never see Razieh and Ali’s father, even though we hear him. These critics also have to overlook the highly unconventional swerve in the film’s narrative trajectory that ultimately leaves us not with Razieh or Ali, who run off to join their parents, but with an Afghan balloon seller (Aliasghar Samadi), who becomes an important character only in the film’s final act."
The film is a strong example of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema and for students of Iranian film and the work of Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami, who wrote the script, it is essential viewing. Given the fact that Panahi still remains under house arrest for an indeterminate time, facing nebulous and ominous consequences for his art and his activism, "The White Balloon" deserves proper DVD distribution, if not a full-fledged restoration and re-release from a major art-house DVD distributor. I'm not sure what happened to the rights after October Films went under, but the last trace I've seen of a U.S. release was a VHS copy distributed by Evergreen Entertainment in 1997.
Someone, please give me an update on this important film.