An Afghan woman living in California dreams of new adventures in Babak Jalali’s fourth feature


Source: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival


Dir: Babak Jalali. US. 2023. 91mins

“I know I am lucky…” says Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), formerly an Afghan translator for the US army, now an immigrant who was forced to flee her country after the Taliban returned to power. But she doesn’t feel lucky. Her new life in Fremont, California, is lonely; the long, insomniac nights stretch endlessly. On a whim, Donya uses her job in a fortune cookie factory to send out a message to the world. The fourth film from Iranian-born director Babak Jalali is a droll, low-key charmer that shares some themes with his previous films – there’s a definite kinship with the melancholy immigrant disconnect of Radio Dreams – while also feeling like a significant step up in terms of ambition, reach and commercial potential.

A significant step up in terms of ambition, reach and commercial potential.

Radio Dreams won best film in Rotterdam in 2016 for Jalal and he has also directed Frontier Blues (2009) and Land (2018). But this pensive character study, with its gentle wisdom and unassuming humour, is likely to raise his profile considerably. Having premiered in Sundance, Fremont plays in competition in Karlovy Vary before going on to screen in the closing night slot of Edinburgh’s slimmed-down festival, and has sold to several key territories, including the UK (Modern Films), the US (Music Box) and France (JHR). The presence of Jeremy Allen White, the breakout star of the Hulu series The Bear, in a key supporting role certainly won’t hurt the prospects of this Jarmusch-ian deadpan drama.

But the film’s main asset is the mesmerising Anaita Wali Zada, in her first film role. An Afghan refugee herself, Wali Zada brings a watchful stillness and an emotional intelligence. There’s a parallel between this character and the writer protagonist of Radio Dreams who, as an immigrant to the US, finds his vocabulary and identity stripped away by his crude attempts to communicate in a second language. As a translator, Donya can speak the language fluently. It’s just that she seems to have run out of things to say.

This is a problem during her sessions with her eccentric and slightly needy psychiatrist, Dr Anthony (Gregg Turkington). His delicately probing questions are greeted by her measured gaze and silence. When all other attempts fail, he’s reduced to tearfully reading passages from his favourite book, Jack London’s ’White Fang’. Fortunately, Donya finds insight and wisdom elsewhere – from melancholy fellow insomniac Salim (Siddique Ahmed) and from her boss Fan (Avis See-tho), who encourages her to find joy in the fortune cookie factory and love for herself. Fan sees potential in this quiet, serious young woman and promotes her, giving her the responsibility of writing the cryptic mottos that are enclosed in the sugary shells. One day, Donya sends a call out to the world with the message “desperate for a dream”, followed by her name and number.

It is subtle, unshowy filmmaking, shot in restrained black and white, with a boxy aspect ratio that suggests the restricted horizons for Donya and other Afghan immigrants like her. But there are little moments of magic, humour and human connection: a heart-rending karaoke version of Vashti Bunyan’s ’Diamond Day’ performed by Donya’s workmate and friend Joanna (Hilda Schmelling); an encounter with a sweet, sad car mechanic (Jeremy Allen White) that sparkles with promise; and a brief moment that breaks the fourth wall, with Donya staring straight into the camera lens, that feels like an invitation to fall head-over-heels in love. 

Production company: Butimar, Extra A Productions

International sales: Memento International

Producers: Marjaneh Moghimi, Sudnya Shroff, Rachael Fung, George Rush, Chris Martin, Laura Wagner

Screenplay: Carolina Cavalli, Babak Jalali

Cinematography: Laura Valladao

Editing: Babak Jalali

Production design: Rob Riutta

Music: Mahmoud Schricker

Main cast: Anaita Wali Zada, Gregg Turkington, Jeremy Allen White, Hilda Schmelling, Avis See-tho, Siddique Ahmed, Taban Ibraz, Timur Nusratty