Why ‘Fremont’ is the film of the year
The drama about an Afghan woman in California sees British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali beautifully depict the experience of displaced individuals, says Hanna Flint
Saturday 16 September 2023 By Hanna Flint
When I sat down to watch Fremont, I really didn’t think it would end up becoming my favourite film of the year (so far). Yet here I am, two days later writing this column. And I’m still experiencing a contact high from just how much I adored this little delightful story about the big themes of displacement, loneliness and the paramount importance of human connection.
British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali and co-writer Carolina Cavalli zoom in on Donya (Anaita Wali Zada in her screen debut), a young, single Afghan woman living in the eponymous town, but working at a Chinese fortune cookie factory in San Francisco. She lives in a nondescript apartment building populated by a fair few Afghans who’ve similarly escaped the turmoil in Afghanistan for a safer life. There’s a poignant moment early on where Donya’s neighbour Salim (Siddique Ahmed) reflects on the night sky. ‘Don’t you feel like the stars always change here? They don’t stay in one place,’ he tells Donya. ‘I don’t know how people feel safe in a place where stars change so much.’
The beautiful simplicity of that observation says so much about the experience of displaced individuals. They might have escaped the violence and oppression of home, but the psychological impact of leaving and who they leave behind causes many scars to form.
Donya’s immigration to the US was approved after working as a translator for the US military. In doing so, she had to leave her family behind. She might be safe, but she’s alone and has had insomnia ever since. But Donya’s not one to make a fuss. Every day she goes to work and listens to the inane babble of her coworker. Then, she watches Turkish soap operas over dinner with Aziz (Fazil Seddiqui), the elderly owner of an Afghan restaurant, before attempting another night of sleep to no avail. Shot digitally in black and white, by cinematographer Laura Valladao in boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the mundanity of Donya’s smalltown life is given a wistful filter.
The monochrome enhances the melancholy behind her circumstances, while the mostly static framing of each scene reinforces how trapped Donya is by the walls she’s put up around her. Everything we glean about who she is behind her dark, penetrating eyes is through off-hand interactions with the somewhat ridiculous people around her. We know she has a college education thanks to her coworker Joanna (Hilda Schmelling), a well-meaning yet awkward woman who still shares a bed with her mother, but frequently dishes out life advice. Through her White Fang-loving psychiatrist Dr Anthony (Gregg Turkington), we also learn of the sacrifices Donya made to come to the US, as well as the PTSD and survivor’s guilt she pretends she doesn’t feel.
This might sound like quite a gloomy sort of drama, but the script’s deadpan humour, brilliantly executed through the overtly naturalistic delivery of its stars, ensures even the most depressing moments never dwell too long in the dark. The tone feels like a cross between Napoleon Dynamite, Limbo and a Yorgos Lanthimos film where no line is superfluous to proceedings. And so many jokes catch you off guard, like Aziz, the restaurant owner, saying flatly he’ll poison Donya’s food if she tells anyone he watches soaps.
Around midway through the film, Donya’s stagnant existence is given a kick up the backside thanks to a new job opportunity to write the fortune cookie messages, as well as a blunt assessment from Aziz. ‘There’s no reason for a young girl like you to spend evenings watching television with an old man,’ he says, essentially telling Donya to get a life, so she puts herself out there by sending a message in a fortune cookie.
That wilful act catapults the story towards one of the most amusing and heart-squelching final acts I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. That’s in part down to the late-stage arrival of Jeremy Allen White bringing all his Carmy of The Bear charisma to an earnestly cute mechanic Donya randomly encounters. It’s those wide eyes, guys. How can you not get lost in their depths? But Wali Zada’s perfectly understated yet enchantingly endearing performance keeps you invested throughout. She’s a breath of fresh air and Donya is an unflashy, undramatic sort of female character whose complexities are not screamed but whispered.
In a cinematic climate where most Western-made films focus on the explicit pain and suffering of those escaping oppression, Jalali and Cavalli prove humour, heart and peripheral storytelling can do an extraordinary job of relating these human issues without judgement or trauma porn.
So, if you’re looking for a life-affirming time at the cinema, Fremont is just the tonic.
Visit our screenings page to find out where you can watch Fremont at the Houses.