A grumpy little girl with the face of a disgruntled granny under her white headscarf, looking as though she had the weight of the world on her shoulders is the image Alexa Dolby remembers best from the International Film Festival in Cannes.
Seven-year-old Aida Mohammadhkani was the "star" of Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon), the first film directed by Iranian Jafar Panahi. In common with many first-time directors in countries where film makers are subject to scrutiny, Panahi made a child his central character. A child is a clean slate, and it's safe to portray its innocent reactions to what it sees.
Unusually for Cannes, where generally there's little or no consensus of critical opinion, everyone loved The White Balloon. It won two prizes for best film and the International Critic's prize. In Iran it had already picked up four awards. At Cannes it was snapped up by 12 countries and is high on the shopping list of festivals around the world.
Panahi was Abbas Kiarostami's assistant on the award-winning Through the Olive Trees in 1994, the first Iranian film selected to compete at Cannes. It was with Kiarostami's help Panahi wrote the screenplay for Badkonake Sefid and found financing.
In a story described by the British newspaper The Guardian as "so simple it verges on the sublime", little Razieh goes out alone through the backstreets of Tehran to buy a goldfish for New Year's Day, drops her family's last bank note down a grating in the street and tries to fish it out again. The action takes place in real time and is more gripping than the best Hollywood thriller. In the packed cinema where I saw the film the spell-bound audience clapped spontaneously when Razieh finally managed to retrieve her money.
The story is truly universal. It portrays the human condition. Razieh already has a pool full of goldfish, but is convinced only the one she's set her heart on will do, even though it takes all the money her mother has left. She is forbidden to visit the snake charmers, but does so anyway because she "wanted to see what it was not good for me to watch".
Panahi described the beatings he received from his father as a child for going to the cinema: "I wanted to see what it was that was not good for me to watch." Now, to his father's consternation, his son is crazy about popular western action movies and makes the same reply!
The theme evokes De Sica's classic Bicycle Thieves, Panahi's favourite film, with the twist that the quest in that film...