An Afghan Boy Cheated of Childhood - "Delbaran" Review

By A.O. Scott The New York Times

One of the hallmarks of Iranian cinema in the last 15 years or so has been child protagonists. More recently, and well before Sept. 11 and its aftermath alerted the rest of the world to conditions in Afghanistan, Iranian filmmakers began to explore the lives of the refugees from that country who live, often perilously and illegally, in Iran. "Delbaran," Aboulfazl Jalili's new movie about a 14-year-old Afghan boy living in a desert outpost near the border between the two countries, combines these two concerns. It also, like many other recent films from Iran, mixes documentary immediacy with an oblique, poetic approach to narrative.

The main character is Kaim, who comes from Herat, Afghanistan, to the Delbaran crossing, where he finds work doing odd jobs at a coffee shop catering to truck drivers. The area has a dangerous, lawless feel. The artillery and gunfire of the Afghan war can be heard in the distance; drivers on the road fall prey to unseen bandits; opium is readily available. But the truck stop itself, run by a grizzled chain smoker named Khan, seems like an oasis of friendliness and calm. Khan, for motives that are not entirely selfless, helps smuggle Afghans into the country. Periodically a government inspector drives up in his orange BMW to inquire politely over tea whether there are any illegal immigrants around. Khan routinely assures him there are none, and the inspector goes on his way until the next time.

In this environment, young Kaim sometimes seems like the only disciplined and responsible person. He is always in motion, running from one task to the next and badgering his more casual, absent-minded elders when they neglect their duties or leave a job half done. Mr. Jalili presents the boy without undue sentimentality: Kaim is a scold and a nuisance as well as a loyal, self-sufficient worker. But the portrait that emerges is quietly heartbreaking. Kaim's toughness has its comical side, but his carapace of street-wise maturity has been acquired too soon and at the cost of his childhood.

"Delbaran," which will be shown today and tomorrow in the New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art, is not overtly a work of social criticism, or even, given its frequent digressions into visual tone-poetry, an attempt at simple realism. But the cruel facts of war and prejudice are never far from its mind. Like some other recent Iranian films about displaced Afghans -- Majid Majidi's "Baran," for example, and Hassan Yektapanah's "Djomeh" -- Mr. Jalili's film is grounded in the workaday facts of individual and communal life. Its rhythms are those of daily life, and its scale is deliberately modest. Life in Delbaran is harsh, repetitive and often dull, but "Delbaran," though quiet and slow-moving, is none of those things. It is somber and dignified, with some moments of surprising humor and beauty.

Originally Published March 30, 2002

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