Director: Babak Jalali
Screenwriters: Babak Jalali, Carolina Cavalli
Starring: Anaita Wali Zada, Gregg Turkington, Jeremy Allen White
The closing gala of the 76th Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), Fremont, marks the end of what has been a tumultuous year for not just the film festival but film in Edinburgh as a whole. Given last year’s announcement about the closure of the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and subsequently the film festival, the state of cinema in the Scottish capital seemed at risk. However, here we are a year later and with the closing of the film festival comes the opportunity for a statement. Though the film festival could present itself merely as a showcase of the best cinema both locally and internationally, the future of Edinburgh’s film culture has been a major talking point of this year’s festival, with the programme viewed as somewhat of a manifesto. Has it been a success? Does Fremont perfectly bookmark such a mission statement?
The latest film directed by Iranian director Babak Jalali follows Donya (first time actor Anaita Wali Zada), a young woman from Afghanistan who previously worked as a translator for US troops and has since moved to Fremont, California. Her humdrum life takes a turn when she gets a job writing the fortunes at a fortune cookie factory.
Presented in a 4:3 ratio and in black and white, the film presents itself as an art flick but is actually more of a dark comedy. This interesting choice to juxtapose the style of the film with the tone of the script is made even more interesting by director Babak Jalali’s choice to use first time performers at the head of his cast. Almost like a real-time Kuleshov effect, the blunt performances he brings from his inexperienced cast reflect exactly what Jalali wishes, with Donya’s blank glare often capturing numerous emotions all with a different effect. The bluntness also reflects the loneliness that is pertinent throughout the entire feature. Just as Donya has left her loved ones in Afghanistan and struggles to fit into her new surroundings in the United States of America, it is clear that everybody else feels just as Donya does… alone.
This form of blunt storytelling won’t be for everyone, with Fremont offering less of a narrative to follow and more of a journey for us to go on. The film is less concerned with showing us Donya getting from point A to point B, and is instead focused on taking us on these experiences alongside Donya, inviting us to watch and study her as a human being. It may alienate some filmgoers expecting a more traditional feature narrative, but it does encourage an appreciation for the director’s vision and execution.
The impact and quality of the central performance from newcomer Anaita Wali Zada cannot be downplayed. Although Jalali’s casting and direction certainly plays a part in some of the great performances, Zada’s power as an actor is clear from the moment we first see her on screen. Her performance is blunt, but her chemistry with every other actor creates an electric atmosphere, and her versatility – jumping between comedic and heart-wrenching – illustrates a great understanding of the artform and proves that Zada may be a special performer to keep our eyes on.
Admittedly, she does have two wonderful actors to bounce off of in Gregg Turkington and Jeremy Allen White. Although their experience should not undermine the performances from those without such experience, it is undeniable that these two give the film’s best performances, with White arguably giving one of the best screen performances of 2023. Turkington plays Donya’s incredibly dry therapist whose attempts to understand Donya through fortune cookies lend the film some of its funniest moments. White, on the other hand, plays a lonely mechanic that Donya meets by chance on her way to a blind date. White’s performance is not only one of the best in the film but truly ties the story together through his wonderful portrayal of isolation and hope for connection.
Just as this year’s EIFF is a story of rebuilding something in the face of adversity and working hard to find hope in this world, so is Fremont. Just as the entire festival searches for hope that it will survive to the next year, and looks for meaning through the form of a manifesto, Fremont presents this in the form of an Afghan rebuilding their life in the United States. Perhaps this film is in of itself a manifestation of what the film festival must look for in their search to reignite the cinematic flame of Edinburgh; paying respect to the roots of cinema (the black and white imagery in a 4:3 frame) all the while pushing the form forward and innovating by breaking rules (non-traditional narrative structure and unusual performance styles).
It won’t be a film for everyone, but there is a charm to Fremont that is difficult to resist. Babak Jalali executes his vision in a unique way, creating a funny, heartwarming and bittersweet story of hope and loneliness in the United States of America.