MONTREAL, Canada — Iranian director Majid Majidi has been haunted by the plight of Afghanistan since 1992, when he shot his first feature film on the Iran-Pakistan border and saw dead Afghan refugees on the road, hit by cars traveling without lights. In his new film, "Baran" (Rain), which opens today in Los Angeles, he explores the plight of Afghan immigrants in a dismal construction site where a feisty Iranian teenager falls in love with a fellow worker, a frail Afghan girl disguised as a boy.
But even as Majidi was savoring the successful international response to "Baran"--the film opened earlier in other countries--he took off early in November to film the life of women and children in two refugee camps inside Afghanistan and is now editing 900 hours of footage for a documentary, "The Color of Hope."
A trip to Afghanistan was certainly not on Majidi's mind in August when he talked about "Baran" at the Montreal World Film Festival, which awarded him the Grand Prize of the Americas for the third successive year. The new production is a considerable departure from his best-known works, the heart-tugging but unsentimental "Children of Heaven" and "The Color of Paradise."
There are no resourceful tots in "Baran," but its unrelenting depiction of those exploited Afghans would come as no surprise to those who saw Majidi's first feature, the daring "Baduk," a Dickensian tragedy about a teenage Afghan brother and sister who have been smuggling illegal merchandise across the Pakistan-Iranian border when they are kidnapped and sold to slave traders.
Speaking softly through his interpreter, the modest Majidi, 42, said that in "Baran" he wanted to show "that love and affection can put people together, beyond borders and political conflicts." His empathy for the strangers in his land was eloquently expressed in a note from his diary after he interviewed a prospective Afghan performer for the film: "There is no remedy for the pain of living in an alien land. I wish to hear the story of your life, of the devastating war raging in your homeland, and of the pains of leading the vagabond life of an immigrant."
Between 1 million and 3 million Afghans currently live in Iran. They seek the most menial and lowest-paying jobs, often taking work away from Iranians. Despite that, there is less prejudice and tension than is commonly supposed, Majidi said. "Considering the fact that Iran went through eight years of war with Iraq and has a very difficult economic situation ... the Iranian people have been fairly open to the Afghans."
However, since the Taliban have been driven from Kabul and other major Afghan cities, Iran has accelerated the forcible expulsion of refugees and recently deported several thousand immigrants in violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which bars countries from returning refugees to a homeland where they might face political persecution or physical danger, according to a recent United Nations report.
The fear these refugees face about being expelled by immigration officials is graphically depicted in "Baran." Other Iranian directors have chosen a different way of approaching the Afghan situation, notably Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar," which explores the condition of women under Taliban rule and Hassan Yektapanah's "Djomeh," about an Afghan immigrant's infatuation with an Iranian girl in a rural village.
During a bleak period after the Islamic revolution when Iranian filmmaking was practically nonexistent, Majidi said he and Makhmalbaf saw a lot of foreign videos that were smuggled into the country and "worked together in acquiring knowledge." As film production resumed in the 1980s, he appeared in three of Makhmalbaf's early productions, starring memorably in "Boycott" (1985) as an imprisoned revolutionary who is forced to reconsider his early beliefs.
When he began planning "Baran," his fifth feature, Majidi knew he wanted to have all displaced people speaking different languages in the cast and that the Afghan girl would never utter a word but would have "something strong and tender in her eyes." Hossein Abedini, who plays the male lead, is of Turkish origin. When he was 13, he dropped out of school and was helping in his father's fruit store when he landed a minor role in another Majidi film.
To fill the role of the Afghan girl, Majidi searched in two large refugee camps in the desert for more than a month. When he finally found Zahra Bahrami, he was surprised by her strong personality. She'd been brought up in that refugee camp since she was a year old and had never been to a city, but she had seen Majidi act in some old films that were replayed on television.
"With money from the film, we got her a private teacher and bought the family a house in Mashad, where they are now living. And she became a little bit like my daughter," said Majidi, who has a 17-year-old daughter and a son, 13.