'Fremont': Babak Jalali & Anaita Wali Zada On Their Delightful & Comically Offbeat Sundance Gem [Interview]

One of the most delightfully warming and comically offbeat films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Babak Jalali’sFremont” tells the story of Donya, a former Afghan translator for the U.S. government who’s felt adrift in the titular California city since resettling there to evade the Taliban. 

READ MORE: ‘Fremont’ Review: An Afghan Insomniac Tries To Find Purpose In A Refreshingly Unique & Jarmuschian-Esque Indie Dramedy [Sundance]

Living in an apartment complex alongside other Afghan immigrants, working at a Chinese-American fortune cookie factory in San Francisco, and spending evenings alone at a local restaurant that plays Afghan soap operas, Donya — portrayed, in a captivating debut performance, by real-life Afghan refugee Anaita Wali Zada —longs for companionship. Left isolated by her daily routines and struggling with insomnia, Donya pushes her way into sessions with a curious psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), who slowly uncovers the source of her melancholy. After she’s promoted to writing fortunes at work, Donya attempts to take destiny into her own hands by placing a personal note and her phone number inside one of the cookies. Eventually, she encounters an auto-shop owner (Jeremy Allen White) and forges a surprisingly profound connection. 

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Redirecting the deadpan sensibilities of independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch to unpredictable new ends, Jalali lets “Fremont” play out at a leisurely pace, with cinematographer Laura Valladao shooting in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio. “Fremont” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival recently in the NEXT section for “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling,” with programmers further stating that films in the category will shape a “greater new wave in American cinema.” With an elegant visual style and endearingly dry wit, in both respects striking a delicate balance between darkness and light, “Fremont” makes quotidian poetry of an immigrant’s roundabout search for belonging. 

Below, Jalali and Zada spoke to The Playlist about finding the film’s eccentric tone and working with its stacked cast of supporting players. 

Where did “Fremont” originate for both of you?
Babak Jalali: We started writing the project four or five years ago. When we were writing, Anaita was in Afghanistan, much younger. We didn’t know her. Originally, we were planning to shoot in the summer of 2020, but then the pandemic happened, and it was shifted to the side. Last January, we got the call that the producer I was working with, Marjaneh Moghimi,  had fallen ill. With other producers, I rushed to get the film going. 

I went to the Bay Area, and we started prepping. We didn’t have a cast; we didn’t have a crew or anything like that. The role of Donya occupies pretty much every single frame of the film. I’ve worked with nonprofessional actors on my previous films — and let’s just say the pool of professional acting talent of Afghan origin is quite limited in North America — so we did an open call through social media and through Afghan community and cultural centers all through the United States. We met and interviewed several different young Afghan women, and none of them were quite right. And then, suddenly, Anaita sent an email saying, “I got this post from a friend. I’m interested.” 

We got on Zoom, and from that initial Zoom, it was quite clear that she was perfect for the role. There were certain things relatable to the character of Donya; Anaita had, five months prior to this call, arrived on an evacuation flight when the Taliban came back, and she’d resettled in America. But it was also just her general demeanor. She’d never acted before, but she was full of motivation to do it. She was determined to do it. Her English was not as good as it is now, so she had all these obstacles; we told her, for example, that 80% of the film is in English. But she was very much determined. We Zoomed a couple of times, and then she came over to the Bay Area.

Anaita Wali Zada: I got information about the movie from one of my friends, the one who helped me to come to the United States. I sent an email to Babak, and we had some calls. After that, I went to California. I was excited to be a part of this movie because it’s about Afghan women. It makes people think about Afghanistan once again and also think about those people who came from Afghanistan, knowing nothing about their future. I worked as a journalist in Afghanistan. I’d had experience in front of a camera and microphones, so I wanted to start doing that again. 

Much of “Fremont” plays out as a series of dialogues. Babak, writing the script with Carolina Cavalli, how did you find the right rhythms for a conversation-heavy piece that moves in these deliberately paced interludes?
Jalali: When we were writing it, we were clear on the tone we wanted. The story could be quite heavy-going. It’s about a young Afghan woman resettling alone in America. One of the things that drew me to it was meeting actual Afghan translators in Fremont several years ago. Their plight is quite sad. Yes, they got their visas, but once they got here, they were completely abandoned. So, of course, the story is a serious one. But I believe that, instead of presenting it in a way where the audience pities the subject, feeling sorry or guilty, we should normalize such stories and characters as well.

Most translators I met in my initial research were men, but I knew Afghan women were also translators. And, whether in cinema, TV, or media, the representation of Afghan women has not been of a group with a sense of agency. It’s more like, “They’ve been oppressed, and they can’t do this or that.” Being Iranian and having been around Afghans my whole life, I’ve met many Afghan women who are very strong. They’re powerful; they’re mighty; they take charge; they’re ambitious… We wanted to show Afghan girls that a young Afghan woman is like an American girl of the same age — or a German, French, or Danish girl of the same age. 

In order to tell the story, whether in the conversations with the psychiatrist or her interactions with other people throughout the film, the humor wasn’t to lighten it. It was just more representative of the absurdities that exist in life. If you read the newspaper, it’s fucking absurd what’s happening. If you watch the news, it’s completely bizarre. Life itself is riddled with those moments. 

Anaita, what was it like for you to strike that tone in your performance? Was your background in journalism helpful in acting out all the conversations Donya is a part of throughout the film?
Zada: My background helped me to learn the way Babak wanted me to act as well as to do it. The way Babak wanted me to act was to show the feeling of being new, in a new country, facing new people, and how that experience can be. We shot it in California to show how the lives of Afghan women are there and how they can start over again in a new country. It’s a really important story to tell.

Jalali: She’s being quite modest about her journalistic background. Had the whole film been done in Farsi or Dari, that would have made things easier, clearly. She was planted in a film set, with the crew and cast in a language that she was still new to. It was an enormous challenge to learn all those lines and also to be prepared to pace them out or express them in a specific way. I was blown away by the fact that she was able to do that on our first go. We shot this film in 20 days, so it wasn’t a situation where she had all the time in the world to get used to it. 

Zada: I try to be honest and do what I can. I tried to pronounce exactly what was there [on the page,] and Babak helped me with the pronunciation. Before shooting, I started practicing together with our producer Sudnya Shroff; our producer Rachael Fung was sometimes [reading the part of] Dr. Anthony, and sometimes it was Sudnya. Those were the hardest lines in the script.

Babak, I wanted to ask about your collaboration with the director of photography Laura Valladao. The film was shot in black-and-white, and what you were able to achieve with light and shadow is striking. 
Jalali: She’s been living in New York for a long time now, but Laura is originally from Fremont. It’s the first time I’ve worked with her, and I think she’s brilliant. When I was writing the script, I imagined the film would be in color. The lookbook we made way back was, at first, in color. But then, a couple of months before we were going to make the film, I felt in my gut that it would work better in black and white. And I found in my first conversation with Laura — before going to the producers because it can freak people out to ask, “Are we doing black and white?” — that we were both completely on the same wavelength.

We started sharing black-and-white still photography by photographers we liked, then we started sharing films that we liked that were in black and white. The Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, the [American] photographer Shelby Lee Adams, and the Lithuanian photographer Antanas Sutkus — regarding stills photography, it was mainly them and a lot of medium-format photography. Our aspect ratio at the end was influenced by the amount of black-and-white photography we were referencing. As far as films went, we were looking at Béla Tarr’s films, especially “Damnation” and the more recent film “Ida” by Paweł Pawlikowski, as well as, of course, “Stranger Than Paradise” by Jim Jarmusch. The black-and-white photography of Béla Tarr is something I’ve always been crazy about, especially. We also looked at more recent black-and-white films, such as Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” and Rebecca Hall’sPassing,” to compare modern black-and-white films that have been made to those older films. We didn’t go back to looking at pre-color black-and-white films but instead looked at ones that have been made since color became an option.  

Our discussions organically led to us agreeing on how everything should look. Ideally, I would have shot this on film, but we couldn’t do so. My fear in the beginning of shooting black and white digitally was that, often, it doesn’t look very pleasant. Laura developed in-build LUTS that were very close to what you see in the final film. You don’t want to riddle it with grains to make it seem like it’s shot on film. It’s not; you have to be respectful of that as well. The LUTS, I think, allowed for a very nice balance between the digital and the film. Every location had its challenges with lighting and shadow, but Laura and her team were constantly on top of it because of the level of preparation she put into it prior. She was taking stills of the different locations — the streets of Chinatown, the factory itself, interiors — and the biggest compliment I can give is that I edited the film myself, and I never discarded a scene or a take because the lighting was bad or it didn’t look right. It was either because of the acting or because of the pacing that I would ever choose an alternative idea.

I love the setting of the fortune-cookie factory floor. “Fremont” is a film that explores the American dream, and Donya works within all this machinery built to produce inspirational platitudes in cookie form. It’s such an ironic occupation for her to have. 
Jalali: It alludes to possibilities. A lot of times, what you read in a fortune cookie is ludicrous. Sometimes, you find one that makes you think, or you save it secretly. A lot of the film was about possibilities, about what may become, and the fortune cookie itself doesn’t make promises, but it alludes to something other that could happen, that could be there in the near or far distance.

Zada: The idea of fortune cookies [being made by] Afghan girls is so interesting. Just last week, I was thinking about how it came into Babak’s mind to bring those ideas together. Fortune cookies are culturally [connected] to China and Japan, but Afghan girls sit and writing messages in fortune cookies, which are going out to people… Afghanistan and China share a border, and we share similarities with China’s culture. But it’s about possibilities, and it’s about hope. I have had lots of fortune cookies myself, and when you start reading some of them, it gives you a good feeling. 

Could you discuss collaborating with Gregg Turkington? 
Jalali: I’ve been a fan of Gregg Turkington’s work for years through Rick Alverson’s films. He’s a director whose work I really like. And I’ve been familiar for a while with Gregg’s standup work as Neil Hamburger and in “On Cinema.” I did not expect him to come, because I’d also heard that he really doesn’t do many films. He prefers to focus on his own work and “On Cinema.” But we sent him the script, he read it, he liked it, and he said he would like to have a call. He said, “I’m down. I’ll come.” From the word go, he was one of the most amazing, kindest human beings you could meet. I had expectations that he would be like the personas, but he’s just so different from those people. I definitely didn’t want him to be Neil Hamburger as a psychiatrist, for example. But he totally got the character of the psychiatrist and how we wanted him to be. 

One of the greatest gifts Gregg has is that he knows how to take it to that place right before it becomes over the top. When he’s saying, “Oh, what a joy this exercise was,” perhaps in someone else’s mouth, I’m not quite sure he would have come across the same way. As a director, it’s far easier for you because you have someone who totally gets it from the beginning. He’s amazing, and he came over to Park City; he’s been a great support. He and Anaita shared so many minutes on screen together, and he knew the score. He knew this was the first time Anaita was acting. Not once did he show a lack of patience or get annoyed. He was always very calm with you. He was very supportive, saying, “We can do this as many times as you want,” and putting her at ease.

Zada: Gregg understood me because he knew it was my first time acting. I wanted it to be perfect, and he was so patient with me. Sometimes, with some words, I made mistakes, and I had to start over again, but he was really supportive.

I could ask along similar lines about working with Jeremy Allen White, who enters “Fremont” during the film’s latter half and has this extraordinary chemistry with you, Anaita. I believe he has less than 15 minutes of screen time, but there’s an insularity and sense of longing your characters share.
Jalali: I think one of the best things that happened in the film was that Anaita’s first scenes of acting were in front of Jeremy. We actually shot those right at the beginning of the shoot. Jeremy is a  lovely guy and very patient, but Anaita was thrown into the deep end right away. She’ll speak for herself, but I think that was helpful to her. It’s not about stepping up your game, but it’s about thinking, “Okay, this is happening. This is how it is” They had several scenes, and a lot of those scenes were in silence. Silence is always far more difficult to pull off than actual talking. In those moments, in the few days Jeremy was there, I was thankful it was the beginning of the shoot. I think it was helpful for Anita, and it was helpful for the crew because we really did see Anaita act and didn’t have any worries. We knew she could do it.

Zada: The first day of shooting, Babak told me about Jeremy. I didn’t know a lot about him, but Babak said he was really famous in the United States. He’s worked for years. There was a scene where we were drinking coffee, he was looking at me, and I was looking at him quietly. And suddenly, in that minute, I just laughed. But he understood me, and he knew it was my first time. Looking into his eyes without saying anything was really funny for me, and it was so hard to be quiet enough.

Jalali: She was bursting out laughing, and Jeremy was laughing too. It was a surreal moment.

“Fremont” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking distribution.

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