Cinema Without Borders: A place in the mind
Her droll presence, and a circumscribed daily life, far from blunting or obviating the human tragedy that she is a part of, lend it a singular poignancy
Fremont in California is known for its proximity to Silicon Valley. It is also known for being home to Afghan immigrants. In Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali’s Fremont, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, it becomes a place in the mind. Fremont is the feverish inner world of the refugees, squaring up with the trauma of displacement, searching for belongingness away from home, and trying to strike new roots in fresh soil.
Jalali locates a community’s anguish in the stolid presence of its stricken people. He renders it specifically from the standpoint of a young woman Donya (played by a real-life Afghan refugee Anaita Wali Zada), once a translator for the US army in Kabul, now working in a Chinese-American fortune cookie-making factory where she is given the onerous task to write fortune messages.
Her droll presence, and a circumscribed daily life, far from blunting or obviating the human tragedy that she is a part of, lend it a singular poignancy. In much the same way Jalali’s stylistic choices, the black and white palette, beguiling characters, terse, muted narrative punctuated with meaningful moments and an atypical, unpredictable way of addressing the immigrant crisis don’t turn his work slight or insignificant.
There is deep despair in Donya’s persistent request for sleeping pills from her therapist. Just as the prosaic mentions of visits to the psychiatrist by other residents of her Afghan cluster are enough to hint at the enormity of their shared mental injuries and pain. They all seem to be living in a pandemic of insomnia fueled by the guilt of having left their near and dear ones behind, wallowing in the feeling of being a traitor to the family, country, and fellow countrymen and unable to stop worrying about them despite trying out the available distractions like the television soap operas. Yet the film has a delicate way of easing off, if not entirely erasing the communal remorse.
Is it normal to think about love when Kabul is burning, wonders Donya. So long as her beautiful heart is willing to bear the burden of suffering, it’s her right to fall in love, she is told. It’s these ghosts that Donya is haunted by that also give her an edge. Her Chinese-American employer values her for her quiet, unresolved memories. “People with memories write beautifully,” he says.
One of the residents, Salim (Siddique Ahmed), tells Donya how the stars on his window back in Afghanistan were static, fixed, while in the US they aren’t constant. “How do people feel safe in a place where the stars change so much?” he questions. The irony couldn’t be starker, given the frailty of human life in his home country and the refuge granted in the US.
There’s something admirable about Donya negotiating her own way out of the emotional deadlock, breaking out of the reality of the ghetto. There’s an awareness and stoic acceptance of the situation and an effort to try and work around it. Donya must connect, and seek out companionship.The isolation, however, is not hers alone. Jalali locates it within an all-embracing loneliness, a kind of civilizational scourge.
The brief to her for writing fortune messages is very clear—they should neither be lucky, nor unlucky; shouldn’t kindle undue hope, nor offer unending hopelessness, given the fragility and tenuousness of the lonely minds that might be reading them.
There’s Donya’s colleague who keeps going out on blind dates just to keep meeting people. The mechanic (Jeremy Allen White) she randomly meets admits talking a lot when he gets those rare, sporadic chances to be with others, in one shot crystallizing the alienation at the heart of Fremont. But is solitariness such an abnormal feeling? Wouldn’t it be odd if people never felt lonely?
All characters in the film are kindred spirits, who, as Donya would put it, are “desperate for dreams”. Life in Fremont is like a dance in which humans are frantically seeking other fellow beings to jive with. But a dance that is wistful and quaint than sprightly.