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Wednesday, April 3, 2002

A pure story, lovingly built image by image


Rating: * * * *
Director: Abolfazi Jalili
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: Farsi
Now showing

Refugees: We read about them in the pages of our newspapers daily, generally as depressing statistics and intractable problems, occasionally as a plaintive human-interest piece buried amid columns of government-based reporting. Yet how many of us can truly imagine that existence: the exile, the fear of deportation, the daily hustle to survive?

News photo
Kaeem Alizadeeh in "Delbaran"

Along comes Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili with a realistic yet beautiful look at a young Afghan refugee eking out an existence in a desert town on the Iranian side of the border. "Delbaran," like Jalili's "Dance of Dust," which opened in Tokyo last year (and was No. 1 on my Top 10), is the work of a director at the peak of his talents. Jalili again manages to combine a hands-on understanding of the real places and people he records, while somehow rendering the work into something far more beguiling.

As with "Dance of Dust" (and so much of current Iranian cinema, with its neo-realist roots), Jalili employs a nonprofessional cast playing roles very similar to their own situation in life. At the center is a captivating performance by Kaeem Alizadeeh, playing a 14-year-old boy who flees the fighting in Afghanistan, his mother dead from bombing, his father off fighting the Taliban. Kaeem settles in the truck-stop town of Delbaran, a small desert settlement and smuggling hotbed adjoining a road running across the border. He works at a cafe for an old man named Han, doing odd jobs and trying to stay one step ahead of Mahdavi, a cop trying to weed out illegal immigrants.

What makes Jalili's film unique, though, is how he takes this almost documentary-level realism and conveys it in a way that's surprisingly poetic. Gracefully and subtly, the story is almost nudged into being. Jalili loves the jump-cut and the single shot, and watching "Delbaran" is like seeing a mosaic being created tile by tile.

News photo
Fimmaker Abolfazi Jalili

In an interview with The Japan Times, Jalili discussed his singular style. "Most films today are telling you the story through words. You can tell what's going on without even looking at the screen," observed the director. "And people who are used to that might not get my films: the lack of dialogue, how each scene is so short, and how they don't connect directly. But that's what I like."

It generally takes a moment to catch Jalili's rhythm, but once you do, it sweeps you away. Everything is done with a minimum of means. Jalili establishes his location in virtually two shots alone. The border? Barbed wire and the sound of a gunshot. Cut. A cafe? A glass of mint tea and a bubbling water pipe on a table. Cut.

One suspects Jalili carefully storyboards everything, but the director produces several small memo pads from his pocket to display his working methods. Covered in scrawled Farsi and small pictures, these represent his next "script." "I always carry these around with me," explains Jalili, "and I jot down ideas as they hit me. But I don't really write stories. If I have an idea, I'll spend a long, long time- considering how to communicate visually -- it's like I'm painting pictures inside my head. So when I put it down on paper, it's mostly to recall these images."

The visual style of "Delbaran" was honed by Jalili in the earlier "Dance of Dust." At that time, the director felt that a lot of his previous films' meaning had been lost in the subtitles, and he wanted a more direct means of communication, one that was primarily driven by images.

The similarities don't stop there: Both films also feature young boys who are cut off from family, home and friends, but somehow find the strength to not only survive, but remain open to the possibility of affection and trust. "People without hope: They're breathing, but they're not alive," says Jalili. "That's the most important thing in life, that feeling of expectation."

"Delbaran" also shares with "Dance of Dust" the curious situation of winning awards overseas at festivals while remaining unscreened within Iran. "Maybe it's just bad luck," muses Jalili, "but no matter what film I make, I can't get permission [from the government] to show it. It's like I'm on a blacklist -- if my name's on it, they don't even bother to watch it. So I've given up trying to figure out what's wrong. Now I just make what I want, and at least it opens overseas. Iranians will often say, 'Jalili's making films for foreigners.' And when I return, the media will say, 'Oh, he's back in Iran for a vacation,' " he says with a grin.

Despite his problems with the Iranian government's cultural authorities, Jalili is quick to decry the usual media representations of Iran, of flag-burning militants and "women in black chador who aren't allowed to talk or laugh." Jalili points to the recent spontaneous rally of thousands of youths bearing candles to express sympathy with America's loss on Sept. 11 as evidence of another reality. Similarly, "Delbaran" shows us an Iran where even the cops can choose to overlook a few rules to help some people out. When will the mullahs ever figure out that their filmmakers are Iran's best ambassadors?

Beyond the politics though, it's film -- and its ability to move people -- that really gets Jalili cranked up. After his second glass of tea, he offers the following example to illustrate his approach to making a film: "When I was younger, I used to think of it like architecture, like drawing a blueprint for a house. But instead of several supporting columns, I'd design it around just one column. Lately, though, I feel like I don't even need one!" he says, laughing. A floating house, that's where I'm headed."

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