An Iranian Director's Tribute to Destitute Afghan Refugees

© 2002 The Washington Post Company
Friday, January 18, 2002; Page A22

Iranian film director and producer Majid Majidi first visited the town of Mirjaveh, eight miles west of the Afghan border, in 1991. The searing images of destitute refugees were unforgettable.

The corpses of Afghan men killed while crossing the border at night were scattered along back roads. The men had been hit by drug dealers sneaking in in trucks that had their lights off. He saw fathers tuck their children into grave-like ditches, warmed by burning tires; many died anyway from the biting cold winds, Majidi recalled. Because of drought, tribal wars and Taliban rule that came in the 1990s, the number of homeless Afghans flocking into Iran swelled to 1.4 million by official counts, although Majidi estimates the figure is 4 million.

A film Majidi shot two years ago, titled "Baran," shows the hardships of Afghan day laborers working illegally in Iran: arbitrary crackdowns, local hostility and exploitatively low wages. "I felt obliged to write about their conditions and pay tribute to their suffering. They were down and out, and some had to resort to criminal activity to get by. I wanted to raise awareness among Iranians," Majidi said Wednesday. The film was honored as best picture at the Montreal Film Festival last August, and it won him his third Grand Prix of the Americas, following "Children of Heaven" and "The Color of Paradise."

The first Washington screening of the film was sponsored by a nonprofit women's organization, Vital Voices Global Partnership, at a Union Station theater Wednesday.

Baran, which means Rain, is the name of a 14-year-old Afghan girl in the film who has to work at a construction site, disguised as a boy, to feed her brothers and sisters after her father falls out of a window and breaks his leg. A tale of secret love, boundless altruism and sacrifice, the film unfolds amid the dusty piles of cement and rowdy scuffles among the laborers. An Iranian teenage boy, Lateef, at first resents the presence of the new worker. But after Lateef glimpses Baran brushing her hair behind a swaying curtain as she sings to herself, he turns into her protector.

Later, Lateef sells his valuables at a bazaar, makes wooden crutches for Baran's father, and gives the father his last savings. The family decides to return to Afghanistan. Broken-hearted, Lateef shows up to help them load their belongings onto a pick-up truck.

Actress Zahra Bahrami, 16, who plays Baran, was 2 months old when her own family fled to Iran and ended up in Torbat Jaam, the largest Afghan refugee camp. She sent a note with her director to foreign audiences. "I closed my eyes on my childhood and ignored everything," she wrote. "When I opened my eyes . . . adolescence. I found myself living in a place called a camp. . . . I didn't know what crime I had committed. Maybe being an Afghan was my crime. Now that I am a young woman, I don't want to also miss this sweet period, the way I lost my childhood."

Melanne Verveer, the director of Vital Voices, told Majidi after the screening, "It shows such a powerful case of humanity in the worst circumstances." The Vital Voices group, which is partly funded by the U.S. government, is devoted to fighting human rights abuses against women worldwide and to expanding their role in politics and society. The organization is helping Afghan women raise awareness about challenges they still face. It also provides field training at its new institute at Georgetown University so women can play central roles in rebuilding Afghanistan.

Majidi said attitudes toward Afghan have started changing in Iran, two months after the film was released in Tehran.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company