Not from Around Here - "Djomeh" Review

By David Lipfert

Life isn't easy for an Afghani immigrant in Iran, but love is even more impossible when you fall for an Iranian woman, as in the engrossing Iranian import "Djomeh."

A young man in love - the story could be anywhere in the world. Djomeh (Jalil Nazari) has marriage on his mind, and his object is the nubile Setareh (Mahbobeh Khalili). Realistically, his status as an Afghani refugee in Iran won't allow him a shot at the village shopkeeper's daughter, but that doesn't keep him from hoping and trying.

Hassan Yektapanah's engrossing recent film, making its U.S. premiere at Film Forum, follows Djomeh as he invents excuses to get away from the dairy farm where he works to go to the general store and see Setareh. It's a tough bike ride, and he has to run a gauntlet when the village kids finally arrive. Even if he has to buy a few more cans of meat stew, it's worth it to get a few words with Setareh should she be alone. His enthusiasm even persuades his employer, Mr. Mahmoud (Mahmoud Behraznia), to act as reluctant intermediary. Not only does the plan fail, but Mr. Mahmoud feels obliged to hire the village dimwit who has just gotten married, possibly to Setareh. It's a big slap in the face for this inconsolable young man. Djomeh's older cousin and fellow refugee Habib (Rashid Akbari) trots out his full repertoire of feel-good sayings but to little effect. By the end of the film, Djomeh has become so simpatico that we hope he will luck out very soon.

Besides offering well-drawn characters with genuine feelings, Hassan Yektapanah's script skillfully addresses important topics in contemporary Iranian society. On their daily milk-buying runs through late winter landscapes, Mr. Mahmoud and Djomeh have time to exchange views on marriage and the situation of Afghanis. Djomeh is eager to follow the Islamic tradition of wedding early. Iranians including Mr. Mahmoud are more laid back about the timing of that event. They generally prefer to wait until housing and employment are secure. (Waiting - another Islamic virtue, patience - also dovetails nicely with the national push for family planning in Iran.)

Djomeh is a lover of women, and it is a story he had with an older woman that has pushed him to leave Afghanistan. Most Afghanis in Iran, however, are fleeing war, drought and a fanatical regime. Constituting the world's largest refugee population at around 2 million, Afghanis can be seen throughout Iran doing jobs natives mostly won't do. In Tehran you can see Afghanis plastering walls, cleaning streets and washing cars. The employment of choice in the countryside is agricultural, which is the focus of this film set in northeastern Iran. Tensions between locals and Afghanis can run high, especially in a micro setting. By focusing on the daily conversations in the pickup truck between Mr. Mahmoud and Djomeh, Yektapanah seems to suggest that more dialogue is the solution.

"Djomeh" won the Cannes Film Festival's Camera d'Or for best first feature, and it is easy to see why. The long shots of blank walls and off-screen voices recall the cinematography of Abbas Kiarostami, whom Yektapanah assisted. Here the similarity ends, because "Djomeh" proposes a dialogue on issues that go far beyond Kiarostami's absorption in the individual. Other films such as "The Cyclist" (Mohsen Makhmalbaf) and "The White Balloon" (Jafar Panahi) have each explored the plight of refugees in Iran. But while those examples maintain their distance from the Afghanis shown, Yektapanah gives dignity to his subject through the other characters. Mr. Mahmoud treats Djomeh with respect and kindness. Setareh (whose name means "star") shows as much interest as she can given the customary restrictions on contacts with the opposite sex in rural locations. Only Habib uses the age card to enforce submission. It's a sympathetic portrait and one clearly designed to promote understanding. We could use a little understanding in how we deal with refugees and immigrants here in the U.S., too.

Originally Published September 5, 2001

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