- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

The consequences of political instability in Afghanistan and the problems confronting refugees along the frontiers of Iran preoccupied Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi for several years.
Mr. Majidi was shooting a documentary about the situation in Afghanistan when the United States went to war with the Taliban regime last October. In drafting a "director's note" for the American release of his poignant feature "Baran," playing at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, Mr. Majidi tried to summarize his concern.
He wrote that "Baran" was "a glimpse at the Afghan refugees who have been living in Iran for the past three decades. The International Red Cross' statistics say 1.4 million Afghans are living in Iran, but the real number borders on 3 million. The savage rule of the Taliban in recent years has displaced a great number of Afghan people. Young generations of Afghans have inherited nothing but war and blood. The years of the Soviet occupation and mass murders have been followed with civil wars and now the genocidal reign of the Taliban. If the American military actions bring about the downfall of the Taliban, we should all rejoice, but only if this is achieved without inflicting more harm on the innocent people of Afghanistan."
Mr. Majidi came to Washington recently to promote the movie, with university professor Jamsheed Akrami as translator during the session at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.
The principal setting of the movie is a building site in northern Tehran where the teen-age protagonist, Lateef, loses a relatively soft job as errand boy and canteen custodian to a frail Afghan youth. His resentment is transformed to adoration when he belatedly discovers that his rival is a girl in disguise, the Baran of the title.
"For the past 22 years, there's been a steady stream of refugees, which has overwhelmed the Iranian capability to receive them. We have Iranian refugees as well, and our own economic problems," Mr. Majidi says.

The Soviet invasion started a wave of migration that crested with the Taliban regime. "Before the Taliban takeover, it was much easier for Iranians to be receptive. Afghans would be given work permits and move toward legal status in an orderly way," Mr. Majidi says. "But after the Taliban, there was such a huge increase that the authorities realized they could not accept so many people. Since then, it's much more difficult for both the refugees and their hosts."
Zahra Bahrami, the exquisite young woman cast as Baran, was found at one of the refugee camps. It had been her home since she was 2 months old, when her parents fled the Soviet conquest.
"Afghans live all over the country, but the largest groups are concentrated in Mashhad and Tehran," Mr. Majidi says. "Many Afghan men enter the work force through building trades, as we depict in the movie. They're often found in any job that is tough to do, jobs that not so many Iranians are crazy about doing road building, asphalt work, putting pipes in the ground. With regard to the women, it's more limited to farming, growing vegetable gardens, things like that. Few do meaningful work outside the home because of biases within their community about women seeking employment. Also, many women are illiterate and not equipped for jobs."
Miss Bahrami, 16 at the time she was cast as Baran, has moved to Tehran with her family in the aftermath of the film's completion. "She happens to be from an open-minded family. Even though both parents are illiterate, they didn't have a problem with her playing in this movie," Mr. Majidi says. "She herself was familiar with my earlier movies. She saw them while growing up in one of the large refugee camps."
Mr. Majidi identifies Baran with the Hazara ethnic group. "They are mostly from Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Iranians would regard them as distinguishable from themselves," he says. "The Pashtuns look much more like Iranians, but their accent is very discernible when they speak Farsi. That distinction tends to fade with children and younger Pashtuns who grow up in Iran."
The character Lateef can barely communicate his sudden affection for Baran, who disappears from his life almost as quickly as she invades and alters it. Mr. Majidi does not regard a romantic attachment as insurmountable in their circumstances but says such a relationship would be rare for an Iranian and an Afghan.
"It seems that it just doesn't happen. Lateef is a Turkish Iranian, from a province that was historically connected to Azerbaijan, although it's a part of Iran. A Turkish population is concentrated there. At one point when Lateef is bitter about Baran, he reflects a typical prejudice and yells, 'I won't allow you Afghans to take away my job.'"

Mr. Majidi, a native of Tehran, began his career as a juvenile actor in films and television. He began making dramatic shorts in the late 1980s. His first feature, "Baduk," was released a decade ago. He became a prestige name within the Iranian film industry with the release of his second feature, "The Father," in 1995.
"The Father" dealt with the conflict between a teen-age boy and his new stepfather, an army sergeant. It was the first of four Majidi movies to win the annual top award at the Fajr Film Festival, a showcase for domestic features held in Tehran.
"Children of Heaven" in 1997 proved Mr. Majidi's breakthrough with international audiences, including art-house moviegoers in the United States.
He explains that all his pictures are considered art films in Tehran. "They have their own category, apart from purely commercial films," Mr. Majidi says. "Action-adventure films and comedies are the major attractions, but my films do pretty well."
Mr. Majidi's documentary project, briefly interrupted by the outbreak of war, is called "The Power of Hope." To make it, he entered an area of Afghanistan where Zarang is the major population center. "I'm looking at the refugee situation mostly through the eyes of the children. Showing how, despite the devastation of war, they display a deep passion for life," he says.


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