Delbaran: By Iranian Director Abolfazl Jailili’s Tale of Teenager Refugee

Socially poignant, Delbaran, the new Iranian film from helmer Abolfazl Jailili, was one of Locarno Festival’s undisputed artistic highlights.

Continuing the tradition of recent Iranian films about children, the story centers on a 14-year-old Afghan refugee, caught in the political chaos that describes life on the border town, which gives the feature its title.

Though not as powerful or arresting as Kandahar, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Cannes-premiered feature, which also explored in serio-comic manner the current plight of Afghan refugees, Delbaran is certain to play well with appreciate audiences in the global festival and arthouse scenes following its screening at Toronto next month.

After crossing the border, Kaim finds shelter in a tavern at Delbaran, a village surrounded by a vast desert. He’s quickly adopted by the owners, an elderly couple, Khan and his much older wife Khale, who treat him like their son. Extremely industrious, Kaim seems to be constantly working, repairing tires, lending a hand in the kitchen, and accompanying the disabled Khale to the doctor. The villain of the piece, who, like all the other characters is eventually humanized by Jalili, is police officer Mahadavi, whose job is to track illegal laborer. In one of the film’s strongest–and funniest–scenes, Khale, a harsh woman unfazed by any authority, demands that Kaim be released from jail after he’s arrested by the cop.

Ironically, Delbaran means lovers. Indeed, not so long ago, the place was a romantic spot, where people courted and planned their hopeful futures. However, when a new road was built between Iran and Afghanistan, it passed around the Delbaran’s tavern, changing the site into a center for illegal workers and smuggled drugs and goods, the most valuable of which are car parts. Since trucks rarely stop there anymore, the point is depressingly empty; in retaliation, Khan spreads nails across the new road to damage the vehicles using it. The film’s recurring visual motif is that of broken trucks with flat tires in constant need for repair.

At first, the film seems shapeless, but gradually it becomes clear that the casualness with which the events are presented is most suitable for the film’s broader goal.

Delbaran boasts a symmetrical beginning and ending, in which Kaim is shown, running along the road, lost, both literally and metaphorically, in the magnificent expanses of the desert. The end credits signal an arbitrary closure to a story that has no ending, encouraging the viewers to contemplate the fate of Kaim–and other immigrants in exile.

It’s to Jalili’s credit that Delbaran achieves lyrical quality while depicting the most painful and devastating reality. Indeed, the film describes the “routine” existence of people overwhelmed by the shock of exile, whose ordinary lives are anything but ordinary.

Jalili’s earlier movie, the prize-winning Dance of Dust, shot in 1991 and shelved by the Iranian government until 1998, was an almost silent film, with minimal dialogue, in its portrait of the mundane existence of a group of brick makers in a dusty, godforsaken spot. Similarly, based on sparse verbal communication, for long stretches of time, Delbaran carries itself exclusively through its vigorous visual imagery.

In a press conference, Jalili said, “It was an accident that I chose an Afghan boy for the leading part.” Yet, his decision not only adds a realistic dimension to the story, but also contributes to its overall effect. Delbaran belongs to a well-established genre of world cinema that centers on children in dire economic existence and political upheaval.

And while it’s not as devastating as Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (aka The Young and The Damned) or Hector Babenco’s Pixote, to name two landmarks pictures, Jalili’s film is remarkable in its refusal to sentimentalize its teenage protagonist in the manner that Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and other Neo-Realist films about children did in the late 1940s. Endowed with native intelligence and animalistic survival instincts, Kaim achieves nobility of spirit in the most catastrophic conditions.