Love Is a Moral Dilemma in Babak Jalali’s Exquisite Fremont
Follow the woman who served as a translator for US troops in Afghanistan.
Sundance 2023: Fremont Review
How can any of us be happy when we know others are suffering? Some of us struggle with this moral dilemma more acutely than others. The young and lonesome Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) is one of those people in Babak Jalali’s Fremont.
Though Donya’s story is a modern immigration tale, it’s more so about anyone whose heart and mind are at an impasse over which should take the lead. Jalali’s latest is patient, contemplative, and affecting. The screenplay by Jalali and Carolina Cavalli is rich with lyrical aphorisms –lines that you want to sit with and savor like a pot still whiskey or homemade brisket. Complimented by beautiful black-and-white photography, bone-dry humor, and engrossing performances, Fremont is a refreshing take on the lonely heart.
Donya was a translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan who now lives alone in Fremont, California, and works at a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco. She confines herself to those two aspects of her uneventful life in America. Her solitude is broken only when she chats with a friend at work while stuffing cookies into wrappers, watches soap operas with an elderly waiter while eating alone at a local restaurant, and commiserates with fellow Afghan immigrants at home.
She is as concise as the fortunes inside the cookies at her job. Everything she does and says seems essential; there is nothing extraneous in her life.
Donya has difficulty sleeping, which leads her to seek sleeping pills from Dr. Anthony, a White Fang-loving psychiatrist played by the great Gregg Turkington. The source of her restlessness lies in her trouble reconciling her luck making it out of Kabul with the sad fate of her friends and fellow translators who didn’t. “Is it normal to think about love when people are risking their lives,” she asks of her moral responsibility. She is also thought of as a traitor by some for working with the U.S. military. Though Donya seems as if she’s merely musing the meticulous and overly sentimental Dr. Anthony for pills, he slowly gets her to engage with her emotions.
One such opportunity comes when Donya becomes the author of the fortunes at work. The eccentric owner of the cookie factory knows about her past and believes she can put it to good use. “People with memories write beautifully,” he tells his skeptical wife. He opines to Donya that good fortune is one of balance. “Virtue stands in the middle,” he says. Dr. Anthony encourages her to use this new creative venture as an outlet.
Love is an indulgence encouraged by those around her. “When did your heart last skip a beat for someone,” she’s asked. As she begins to surrender her guard, she sends out a call for connection in a fortune like a message in a bottle.
Jalali’s pacing is unhurried and asks the audience to absorb Donya’s disquiet and longing. The specificity of Wall Zada’s performance is based on the fact that, like her character, she too, fled Afghanistan when the Taliban regained control of the country. Jalali never needs to flashback to show the pain she experienced back home because she’s draped in it every day. Her lived experience results in an empathy for Donya that becomes stronger as the story goes on. It peaks in a scene when, alone in her apartment, she practices going on a date.
The images in the film are the kind that makes loneliness romantic. Beautiful shots in stark black and white show that while the subjects may be lonesome and isolated, the camera cares about them, and so do we.
All of this is important to the film because, ultimately, it’s a love story. One that suggests that maybe love isn’t completely letting go of your worries and concerns but finding someone who shares them.