Filmmaker Babak Jalali speaks to Nick Chen about his captivating new film, which follows a 23-year-old Afghan refugee as she battles with insomnia, loneliness, and a delayed coming-of-age
At a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, the wise owner, who himself speaks like his one of his snacks, declares that people with memories write beautifully. Thus Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), one of his employees, is promoted to pen the mantras inside the biscuits. An Afghan refugee with PTSD, Donya already has memories aplenty, which may explain her insomnia, the way she stares solemnly into space, or the maturity that she possesses as a 23-year-old. It also means that, as her boss predicts, her fortune cookie messages pierce the hearts of strangers, even if the words themselves are rather undramatic.
In a way, Babak Jalali’s Fremont, one of the most captivating films of the year, pulls off a similarly minimalist trick. A deadpan delight that eschews ostentatious set pieces and favours sombre reflection, the black-and-white comedy recalls Jim Jarmusch at his most droll, but with Jalali’s own esoteric rhythm and flavour. All is made possible, of course, by Wali Zada, a first-time actor who, like Donya, is also an Afghan refugee. “When I first saw Anaita on a video call, before she spoke, I found her presence intriguing,” the British-Iranian director recalls. “There was a sense of melancholia in the way she carried herself.”
With Donya radiating world-weariness merely through her gaze, Fremont is able to embrace tranquillity in its mise-en-scène. Often, the camera is stationary, as are the characters, many of whom are immigrants or fellow refugees speaking Cantonese or Dari. No one overly recites their lines for laughs, not even Gregg Turkington, who plays a therapist who turns to Jack London novels instead of Jung. In a supporting role of few words, The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White forms an alliance with Donya – not through what he says, but more what he doesn’t.
It helps, too, that Jalali’s three previous features starred mainly first-time actors – well, depending on how you count Lars Ulrich’s role in Radio Dreams, a 2016 comedy-drama about Metallica’s diehard Iranian fanbase. “It’s easier with non-professional actors,” explains Jalali. “If they start very dramatic, bringing it down is a problem. But if you start by just literally telling them, ‘Look blank-faced and says this’ – then you can build it up.”
However, Donya, a former translator, isn’t a walkover, and, when necessary, she drives the story forward, even if the plot synopsis could barely fill the slip of paper inside a fortune cookie. When she speaks, it’s of significance, such as the trauma of a friend who died before making the evacuation flight, or the guilt of living safely, perhaps even dating, in the city of Fremont when wars are fought around the world. “Donya has memories that she’s carrying with her,” Jalali says. “But I didn’t want it to be a thing where the baggage of the past is dominating her present to the point where she can’t fully function and exist.”
As for whether he believes people with memories write beautifully, Jalali admits that the line was borrowed from a William Saroyan play, The Time of Your Life, in which someone is described as “a young woman with memories”. Ironically, he’s unsure if that’s the right play – no one’s asked him before. “I think people who do have a sense of remembering things, and if they’re able to incorporate it in a way that is not, let’s say, too self-indulgent, I think that helps.”
As a child, Jalali, now 45, grew up in Gorgan, meaning he was closer to the capital of Turkmenistan than the capital of Iran. His first feature was 2010’s Frontier Borders, a drama set around the edges of Iran. “I’ve had a lifelong fascination with borders. You have more in common with people across the border than with people in your own country who are further away.” The subject is relevant as Afghanistan and China share a border, thus connecting Donya with the Chinese family who own the fortune cookie factory. Jalali notes, “Fremont is a microcosm of the Bay Area. It has the biggest community of Afghans in North America, but also long-established Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, and Latino communities who’ve lived there for generations.”
On a research trip in San Francisco, Jalali and his cowriter, Carolina Cavalli, visited a fortune cookie factory for personal amusement, which led to Cavalli suggesting it could be Donya’s workplace. “Carolina was saying: ‘If you think about it, the story we have is about the idea of possibilities, and that’s what fortune cookies essentially are.’ On a superficial level, I was struck by the visuals, because they were working on the same machines that they were making cookies on 50 years ago, which are the machines we have in the film.”
Of note, Cavalli wrote and directed the 2023 comedy Amanda, which Jalali edited. In Amanda, a 25-year-old woman lives a life of luxury but has zero friends; under Cavalli’s direction, it’s ultra-bright, snappy, and has a colour palette that’s the opposite of the monochrome Fremont. Together, they formed a double act. “Carolina literally can come up with interesting dialogue without even thinking about it. Some of it, I toned down, and sometimes I was too opaque and she built it up. It’s not just veering off wildly into the comical, or staying at a very sober level. It’s to find a balance.”
Then again, could Fremont and Amanda be in conversation with the other? Both films follow young, lonely women undergoing a delayed coming of age as they try to forge human connection as adults. It’s just that one character is comically privileged, the other is a refugee who escaped a warzone. “They’re from very different backgrounds,” says Jalali. “But they’re lost and don’t quite belong in where they’re lost.”
There’s also Jarmusch, a filmmaker Jalali declares to be an influence, particularly his early black-and-white features. “Stranger than Paradise showed me the possibilities of a very moving story that could be so simple. I was quite young when I watched it. The films I was watching around then were so many things condensed into an hour and a half. But Stranger than Paradise made me feel like it’s possible to have an effect by not overcomplicating things. It’s the same with the films of Aki Kaurismäki, who is my favourite director. They’re done in a very subtle, deceptively simple way.”
After all, Kaurismäki’s films are famed for outsiders who survive their poverty and isolation through cigarettes, dangerously strong alcohol, and befriending a stranger. While Donya prefers coffee, she smokes during her sleepless nights, sometimes conversing outside her apartment building with fellow insomniacs about why their bodies are wired to a different time zone. The fortune cookie messages are ultimately an extension of Donya reaching out to other lost souls – one even includes her name and phone number.
“At the core, it’s the story of a displaced human being,” says Jalali. “Oftentimes, in cinema, if it’s a refugee tale, it’s an invitation for the audience to pity the character. I didn’t want that to be the case here. She’s a 23-year-old woman from Afghanistan. But her core wishes and aspirations are no different to a 23-year-old from Germany, England, Canada, Ecuador, or wherever else. Her basic desire is a sense of being at ease, having something to do, and potentially having companionship. Beyond that, things are a bonus.”
Fremont is out in UK and Irish cinemas now