In their feature debut, In the Land of Brothers [+], showing in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition, directorial duo Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi focus on three Afghan refugees – Mohammad, Leila and Qasem – who set about starting their lives in Iran, full of hope, only to face decades of hardship.
Cineuropa: Why did you want to tell a story – or, rather, stories – that take place over decades? It’s generations’ worth of trauma.
Raha Amirfazli: We started by writing about Leila. We wanted to turn it into a short, but we understood it wasn’t the whole story of Afghan refugees in Iran. You couldn’t convey all the hardships and mistreatments this way. We had to come up with another structure to convey a much bigger picture.
Alireza Ghasemi: We both have a personal connection to Afghan refugees in Iran, but after we delved into it more and more, we noticed it’s a very repetitive, disastrous situation. You would think that after 40 years living in a country, you would be granted citizenship. That’s not the case for them. When you talk about different generations, you can address it better.
You show people who are in never-ending purgatory. We saw the same thing happen in the USA or after Brexit. You wait and wait, and never fully belong.
AG: It’s a situation we are both in the middle of: Raha is based in New York; I’m based in Paris. In Iran, so many try to emigrate, and then we have people from Afghanistan or Pakistan trying to get in. This sense of “otherness” is very common. With Afghan refugees, there are so many connections. We speak the same language, share the same culture. And yet suddenly, when this political border comes in, people start to think they are on different sides.
These are “invisible” characters. They never scream; they whisper. Did you always intend to focus on smaller stories?
RA: So many aspects of this film became more personal to me after I left Iran. This feeling of being homesick often translates to missing one’s family. That’s why the relationships in the film work the way they do. You should be able to talk to your family, but they can’t. These stories might be small, but the consequences are big.
AG: If, as a refugee, you can’t become the president of your new country, it’s probably unfair, but smaller obstructions can be even more painful. So many Afghan refugees can’t open a bank account! Five years ago, I read that they couldn’t even buy metro tickets, because they didn’t have the same IDs as the Iranians. The government ignores even such basic needs.
Which might explain why everyone here seems so lonely. Leila, for one, has to deal with unimaginable pain while others are celebrating. There is no one to turn to.
AG: The opposite of togetherness is loneliness, but also otherness. People go into panic mode and can’t ask for help – I think that’s their reality at the moment. You are not allowed to address your problems, because addressing them will cause more problems.
RA: When people see you as “the other”, they feel you are not one of them. It’s a concept that mainly the immigrant community has to deal with, and I think it will keep happening even more often.
Were you trying to involve the Afghan community in the film? Was it important to you?
RA: We were lucky to connect with a local theatre that works with them. They stage plays and watch movies together. We started to see a lot of people. It was six or seven months of casting because everyone would then introduce us to their cousins [laughs]. The people you see are either Afghan Hazaras [from the northern mountains of Afghanistan] or they were born in Tehran as second generation.
I talk to directorial duos a lot these days, whereas even a few years ago, it was rarely the case. Was it easier, making this film together?
RA: People think that having a co-director makes things easier, but basically you need to double the amount of pre-production. Still, if you find the right partner, you can get great results.
AG: We have been collaborating for seven years now. We met in film school and started to work on each other’s projects, then we made the short Solar Eclipse. I guess I like it because it brings a lot to a film.
Do you think the movie might be controversial, especially locally? You are airing many dirty secrets here.
AG: I am worried about it, but I don’t care. Whenever I talk to someone from Iran about this situation, they either claim it doesn’t exist or say: “We have other problems.” In such cases, you need to be blunt and direct. It will be controversial, yes, and I don’t have a problem with that. Before, I was online and noticed that Afghan people were already talking about the film. But they immediately assumed it would be against them.
RA: During casting, many said: “Yes, this story happened to me, too.” We couldn’t hold back – we had to tell the whole truth. With Ali being in Paris and me being in New York, there is no way we can go back to Iran now.