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I'm Short, Not Stupid Presents: 'The Black Balloon'

Josh and Benny Safdie’s The Black Balloon follows a lone black balloon as it intersects randomly with damaged New Yorkers in slice of life moments.
September 30, 2014, 1:45pm

I love balloons—party balloons, animal balloons, hot air balloons, condom balloons… They’re wonderful to pop with sharp objects. But perhaps most importantly, they can sometimes soar in a truly magical way. In 2012's The Black Balloon, 100 colorful balloons are accidentally released into the New York City sky. But a lone black balloon manages to get caught in a tree. Will it be set free again? Will it be taken in and given a home? No, it is thrown into a garbage truck compactor and sent to a landfill. However, it’s not over for the balloon. Emerging from the trash, the balloon, now with a mind of its own, sets off on a search for companionship through the alien landscape of Manhattan. Like a kaleidoscope of the city, the balloon intersects randomly with people in slice-of-life moments and quickly finds itself the partner of a number of damaged people. They literally drag the rubbery fellow into their problems. Josh and Benny Safdie’s The Black Balloon is the gritty New York portrait of a balloon that mirrors Albert Lamorisse's lovely 1956 French classic The Red Balloon.

Set almost in an alternate reality to the psychedelic sounds of Gong, the city’s hard luck citizens are not only able to acknowledge and communicate with this black balloon, but act as if it weren’t out of the ordinary. Similar to much of the Safdie’s previous work, the characters and story represent the fringe of emotions and society. They paint a specific, yet naturalistic portrait of New York—warts and all. At 20 minutes, the film is a slight investment. But you get to see a balloon rob a store, which is cool.

This is the perfect time to watch The Black Balloon, considering the US premiere of the Safdie brothers' new feature film, Heaven Knows What, is happening this week.The film screens at the New York Film Festival at 9 PM this Thursday, October 2nd, and 8 PM this Sunday, October 5th. Before they made The Black Balloon (2012), they made the feature documentary Lenny Cooke (2013), about the greatest has-been basketball player, and the feature narrative Daddy Longlegs (2009), which premiered at Cannes Film Festival and played Sundance. They make a heck of a lot of other short films and cool shit as part of Red Bucket Films. Check out my little interview with brother Josh Safdie and a fascinating video that traces the The Red Balloon's shooting locations via Google Maps below.

VICE: Why balloons? 
Josh Safdie: Rubber prevents conception, usually. Here it breeds life. Sometimes I’m described as a gassed up helium balloon. Throughout my childhood, I was told to calm down. The Red Balloon was an early film that shook us (our father grew up in Italy/France). Because it was one of the first movies we saw and we were already familiar with the book (the child-novelization of the film), it was very deep for us. Lamorisse’s classic taught us about loneliness and the human condition, all through the companionship of a balloon.

Andy Spade sent us a video on his phone of a black balloon determined to stay alive in the midst of a busy avenue. Cars kept running it over and it kept narrowly escaping. He wrote me, "You know The Red Balloon? How about a film about a black balloon?"

The film is ostensibly from the point of view of the balloon, but you also have these slices of life in which the balloon is peripheral. How did the arc come about?
After Andy sent us that video, Benny and I were interested in this sci-fi element to a creature… like a lifeless piece of rubber living among humans. We were also most interested in the personal monologue, i.e.: people who would talk to a balloon. I talk to many things—anyone or thing that will listen. But then again, I’m pretty alone. The characters we’re attracted to are islands. The balloon is just an extension of our own perspective and attraction to human life.

I love how much you vary the balloon's perspective. Sometimes you use close-ups, wide shots, while other shoots seem voyeuristic. What were all of the techniques you used to film a semi-animate object?
There weren’t many “techniques.” Often we talked with Sean Price Williams about the balloon and referred to it as “he” so it was no different than establishing perspectives and shots for any other character in a film we had done. Because the balloon lives on the streets, we were mostly relegated to our perspective of him via street photography.

Did you have any serious mishaps with your titular star?
Sure, he died and came back to life a bunch of times. Thanks to John Furgason.

What are you guys working on now?
We’re currently unleashing Heaven Knows What, another street opera. It's a feature film that follows Harley (based on the real-life memoirs written by Arielle Holmes, who plays Harley) through her self-imposed dramatic life on the streets and her love with both Ilya (a beautifully evil and destructive boyfriend) and heroin (the not-so beautifully evil drug).

Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's currently the Senior Curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.