A few days earlier, when I met him on a noisy balcony overlooking the Croisette, the storm clouds were gathering over the sea. "I can feel that the town is getting sadder and sadder," he said, through an interpreter (he speaks no English). "The rain makes it look as if the city is crying." It was the first time he had left his own country, and all he had seen of Cannes so far was this single street. Heaven only knows what he must have been making of Western culture (although perhaps, on reflection, it reminded him of a souk).
The White Balloon provides us with a vivid snapshot of a world that will be equally exotic to most British viewers. Iran produces 70-odd films a year, Panahi says, but they are barely seen abroad, apart from the work of the cinema's elder statesman, Abbas Kiarostami, a regular on the festival circuit: he wrote the screenplay for Panahi's picture.
Set during the 90 minutes leading up to the Iranian New Year (the story takes place in real time), it tells of the adventures of a small girl who sets out to buy a goldfish but loses her money along the way. In her search for it, she meets a parade of amusing and eccentric individuals who give a sense of what it's like to live in Tehran today.
Several of the New Year traditions resemble our own, but viewers will note that Iranians enjoy a balmier climate: their year begins on the first day of spring. The festive meal consists of fish, rice, fruit and sweetmeats, and the decorations are any seven objects beginning with the letter S, plus a mirror, the Koran and the all-important goldfish: as the New Year strikes, the fish is supposed to swim on cue in a circle around its bowl. Their holiday lasts even longer than our own; 13 days. "On the 13th day," Panahi says, "everyone leaves the city, in an attempt to cleanse it of all evil." It sounds like an excellent idea.
The White Balloon mixes this kind of local colour - snake charmers, vendors, street musicians - with characters (an Afghan refugee, a soldier from the Turkish border who lacks the bus fare to join his family for the holidays) that speak of a country whose rural communities are fragmenting and whose population is on the move.
Panahi cites the neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves as his favourite movie and, if The White Balloon is a little more oblique in its social observations, there are also obvious similarities between them. It's all filmed on location (like most Iranian movies) and uses non-professional actors. The budget imposed a tight shooting schedule, but Panahi spent many, many months in pre-production finding exactly the right faces to populate his story.
"There are no little roles; all the roles are important, even the extras passing through the background of the frame. And I believe that for every character there is only one perfect person: when you find that one person in the crowd, you know he is right. But you really have to look hard. For the little girl's brother we had to test 2,600 boys. I walk around the streets, talk to the kids with a video camera and try to bring out their character. For the soldier I went to a place 1000km from Tehran. For the fish-seller I went all the way to the north of Iran. The man who played the tailor had been making shirts for 10 years."
There are strict limitations on the films Iranian audiences are allowed to see: no female nudity, or even bikinis (Pamela Anderson, baring her all just down the beach in Cannes, will not be on view there), but Panahi has had no brushes with the censor - "so far, so good" - and has himself seen most of the classics from the Western canon at film school. He politely disagrees with my rather patronising assumption that he might feel shut out from the mainstream of contemporary world cinema. "Not only are we not cut off from the rest of the film world in Iran, but we're trying to bring a new face that will add to it."
Despite the flurry of interest caused by his film, he has no desire to make films in America, or anywhere else for that matter. "I only want to work in Iran, as long as I can continue doing so. There are so many things to say about what's happening there that my life isn't long enough to tell them all. My only aim today is to respect the audience and not to lie to them." That might not sound like much, but one wishes there were more film-makers around with the same modest ambition. We take our leave of each other and, courteous to the last, Panahi thanks me for the interview.
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