TALES OF LOSS AND LOVE. Babak Jalali is a film director, producer and editor based between London, Paris and Rome. Born in Gorgan, Iran, he was raised primarily in London and gained a degree in East European Studies and an MA in Politics before attending the London Film School. His award winning work includes “Heydar: An Afghan in Tehran”, “Frontier Blues”, “Radio Dreams”, “Land”, and his 2023 release “Fremont”.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Babak Jalali, you wrote your most recent movie “Fremont” with the Italian script writer Carolina Cavalli. How would you describe this film and why did you make it in black and white?
I wish I had an intellectual reason to make it in black and white, but it was purely in my gut. I felt the tone and the atmosphere of the film would come across better. The film is a story of a girl who’s displaced from Afghanistan, where she was a translator for the U.S. military. She’s restarting her life in the Northern California city of Fremont, which is home to the biggest Afghan population in America. For the past 40 years, since the Soviet invasion in the late 70’s, they have come to Fremont in different waves of immigration.
You are Iranian English, why do you choose Afghan people as your subject?
The Afghan element in all my stories stems from my first feeling of shame and guilt as a child in Iran. We share a border and have a huge Afghan population in Iran. We share history, languages and culture with a large proportion of the Afghan population. When I witnessed the treatment of the Afghan people by Iranians and felt that as a general immigrant population they were mistreated, as a child I didn’t understand why, and no one can explain to you why. My family were also dismayed by this. There was this strong first instance of feeling of shame, and since then I’ve been drawn to Afghan culture and the Afghan people. Even when I moved to England, it’s always been in the forefront of my thoughts, whether when I watch the news or when I read about their history.
“I always considered myself a lucky one. I questioned: why me? Why couldn’t my cousins leave?”
FREMONT – A Film by Babak Jalali
Babak Jalali, the young protagonist of “Fremont” is called Donya. She is played by Anaita Wali Zada who is not a professional actress and is herself an Afghan refugee. How did you cast her?
I don’t like auditioning, and to find the actress to play Donya we did an open casting call on social media and through Afghan community centres. We got a lot of call back from young Afghan women all around the country: Arkansas, Nebraska, California, New York, Florida, but most of them were second generation Afghans born and raised in America, so they didn’t speak the language well and they spoke English too well. Anita Wali Zada sent me an email saying she is 22 and was evacuated on one of those planes we saw on the news in August 2021 when the Taliban returned. She had been resettled in Maryland, had never acted before and her English was not great, but she was interested. On a video call with her, the moment I saw her I thought she could relate to the world of Donya, the way she presented herself, and the similarities in her own life. She was not a former translator but she had left her entire family behind and was starting from scratch at a very young age. we decided to cast her without having seen her in person physically.
Donya abandons her family in Kabul and as a very young girl goes to America by herself of her own will. She doesn’t have a great life in America but feels guilty because she has a free life?
With migration, as a refugee or by choice, there comes a sense of guilt. Your thoughts go back to people who you left behind and who don’t have your freedom. When I moved to London with my immediate family as a child of 8, my extended family were all still in Iran, and I always considered myself a lucky one. I questioned: why me? Why couldn’t my cousins leave? There was the Iran-Iraq war at the time. That sense of guilt stayed into adulthood. I couldn’t bring myself to fully appreciate things or enjoy anything.
Nevertheless, your film is beautiful and funny. It doesn’t focus on the misery of a displaced person, and Donya goes to work in a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown?
When Carolina Cavalli and I were writing the film we were clear that it was going to have a mixture of melancholy and humour. This is essentially a film about a displaced person, but often you can’t relate to the people in such films because they solely focus on the grim realities. We want to tell the story of someone who has baggage from the past but also has determination and she has hope for what’s coming. The sense of absurd humour makes the characters more relatable to the audience. Donya as a 22 year old Afghan girl is not dissimilar to a 22 year old girl from England or Poland or Germany or wherever, because what you want is go to sleep at night with a sense of ease, have something to do tomorrow, and find some companionship. Everything else is a bonus.
Donya is searching for love and doesn’t complain about her job.
It’s a menial job and she enjoys it. Carolina and I went to Chinatown to see a fortune cookie factory as tourists. It was still using the machinery that they’d been using for decades and I saw it could be aesthetically amazing on film, but it was Carolina who saw that Donya working in a fortune cookie factory was interesting, that a girl in search of possibilities herself is entrusted with writing about the possibilities for other people. Also, the Chinese community in the Bay Area is long-established, and a new arrival Afghan meeting an older established immigrant community would be a nice interaction.
“That sense of being lonely is relatable to being displaced, where everything is different and new, which in itself can also be exciting.”
Babak Jalali, in “Fremont” we don’t see much of Chinatown or San Francisco or Fremont. Why do we just see the factory, the apartment, the building?
It was a distinct choice. A lot of people in Fremont commute to work in San Francisco and there is industry in Fremont – the original Tesla factory is there – but with all due respect it’s quite a bland city, whereas San Francisco is iconic. I didn’t want to make it seem like Donya is stepping into the big beautiful cosmopolitan city of San Francisco and everything’s going to be wonderful. It seldom is. You go to work and you are clocking in and clocking out, it’s not like she gets into San Francisco and sees the bright lights.
A large part of the plot comes about because of the jealousy Donya creates in the factory owner’s wife?
The jealousy was the factory owner’s wife not understanding the intrigue that the factory owner had towards Donya. He says things such as she’s a brilliant writer, although he has no idea if she can write. Our intention was to show a more paternal than romantic care. The owner’s wife doesn’t understand what he sees in her.
With Hawaiian music playing in the car Donya drives to go on a blind date and stops at a garage workshop where a mechanic works in the middle of nowhere. Were you somehow inspired by Jack Kerouac, author of “On the Road”?
When I was a teenager I became obsessed with the Bay Area because of Kerouac and the Beats like Ginsberg and Burroughs. “On the Road” was a novel I really loved. I haven’t read it for a very long time, but the idea that it implanted in me is in all my films, that going from A to B on a barren road. It’s a show of a sort of euphoria, of something unknowable, something exciting that could potentially come out of it. It could be something completely dangerous and alarming too. All those things are possibilities which are unpredictable, and that’s the nature which I like.
You studied in England, worked in Europe, in Paris and Rome, but it is America that fascinates you. Why?
I’ve stayed for long periods in Middle America. Whether it’s Wyoming or South Dakota or Oklahoma I find those places equally fascinating and terrifying. For example, there’s a documentary called “Harlan County U.S.A.”, which was made in Kentucky in the 1970s when the mining community went on strike. People stuck up for people in their own community and Harlan County back then was staunchly Democrat voting. When we started writing “Fremont” in 2016 Harlan County was almost 90% Trump. Something happened in these 35 years where a sense of fear was instilled in the kind and welcoming people of Harlan County. They suddenly became afraid of otherness. The media, the tabloids and the politicians told them to be afraid of that person. In Middle America I found incredibly kind, welcoming people – a lot of times until I said where I’m from, when there was a shift. I noticed that shift. It was always very fascinating to me, because they were entirely kind and decent people, very welcoming, who inherently didn’t have anything against me.
Do you want to show that nowadays everybody’s displaced and the world is no more as it was?
It’s not a lamentation of it used to be better back in the day. All the characters in “Fremont” are on the periphery. They’re all lost or lonely. That sense of being lonely is relatable to being displaced, where everything is different and new, which in itself can also be exciting. It doesn’t mean you have to be a refugee. You can be also alone in the middle of nowhere as a mechanic and find common ground within that sense of being out of place and find each other. Whether platonic or romantic, those things are possibilities.
FREMONT – A Film by Babak Jalali
FREMONT – A Film by Babak Jalali
FREMONT – A Film by Babak Jalali
FREMONT – A Film by Babak Jalali
“Sometimes you can convey what you’re trying to tell with subtlety.”
Babak Jalali, what is your next project?
So far I’ve only either written or co-written the four films that I’ve directed. I am curious about potentially directing something which I didn’t write, so I’ve been reading scripts that others have written. I don’t know what my next film is going to be yet.
What is the role of a director today?
To tell a story that you connect with, and you hope the audience will also connect to it. There’s different ways and genres, but I have always been interested in the idea that less is more. You can tell a story with impact or move people or make people laugh by not being too over the top. Sometimes you can convey what you’re trying to tell with subtlety.
Do you see your character Donya as a poetic person?
Certainly as a romantic person. In media or cinematic representation of Afghan women are always shown as oppressed and you never see an Afghan woman leave the house. Afghan women do leave the house, they have jobs and have dreams, fall in love. Donya is like many other young Afghan women. She’s a romantic. She wants to fall in love. She wants to identify as a human being.
Did you want her to be someone who had left the horrors and we don’t need to know what those past horrors were?
We mention in the film that if you experience those horrors they never entirely leave you and in the immediate timeframe there is that sense of post-trauma. When you’re young and you have been told that that sense of freedom of a young woman, of being in love, of holding a boy’s hand, that all these things happen over there, not here, you think to yourself, why not over here? Why can’t I have them? Which is a valid question. Donya is there. She has trauma because it’s fresh, but she is also determined. She wants to fall in love. She wants to sleep with a man. It’s with that hope that the film was made, that she can eventually, soon. Without getting too bogged down in the horrors of the past, because everyone’s different. It depends how long it takes for horrors like that to pass.
Is this the story of rebellion against your own destiny?
In my country, in Iran, in the past year you saw what happened with the women about the head scarves. It was them saying, I don’t want this destiny that’s been forced upon me. And as you saw with Iranian women and Afghan women this rebellion is against a destiny that essentially takes away choice. Someone can wear a headscarf if they want. It’s a choice. I don’t think it should be forced upon them. A woman should have a choice to hold someone’s hand that she’s not married to. Donya wants to have that choice in her own destiny. And she’s determined to.
Thank you very much.
“Fremont” was released in American cinemas at the end of August 2023 and also came out on Video on Demand in America so people can watch it in cinemas and also at home. It came out in England in cinemas in September 2023 and in November it will go on Video on Demand. “Fremont” is currently out in cinemas in Czech Republic, Switzerland and Austria, and is coming out in other territories like Greece, Germany and France in December 2023.
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