Edinburgh Film Festival preview: Babak Jalali on Fremont

When he was casting his new film Fremont, director Babak Jalali put out an open call on social media and ended up with newcomer Anaita Wali Zada in the lead, just five months after she had fled Afghanistan and the Taliban. “I knew she was the right one,” he tells Alistair Harkness

In a small way, this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival closing night film Fremont owes its genesis to Metallica. As unlikely as that sounds, the idea for this bone-dry black-and-white comedy about a young female Afghan translator searching for connection in the titular Northern California commuter town took root while director Babak Jalali was making his second movie, Radio Dreams, a wistful 2016 comedy about a fictional Iranian radio station in San Francisco trying to set-up a meeting between Afghanistan’s first rock group and Metallica.

“We were shooting in the San Francisco Bay Area and I heard about the city of Fremont having the biggest Afghan community in North America,” explains Jalali, who’s originally from Iran, but has lived in London since the age of eight. “During production we went over there just to have some Afghan food and then I got acquainted with several members of the community and found out about the large presence of former translators living there.”

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Their situation was, he says, quite grim. “They were granted special immigration visas by the US government because their lives were in danger – even before the return of the Taliban to power. But when they came over, they were just left to their own devices.”

Anaita Wali Zala in FremontAnaita Wali Zala in Fremont
Anaita Wali Zala in Fremont

Jalali and Fremont’s co-writer Carolina Cavalli spoke to a few of them and, in doing so, realised there were a few female translators living there too. Not many were willing to speak, but a couple did, which inspired them to make the main character, Donya, a young woman. “Representation of Afghan women in film and media has generally been one where they just focus on the fact that they are oppressed and have no agency,” says Jalali. “But being Iranian, and having met and been around a lot of Afghans, the many Afghan women I have met have been independent and powerful and have the same aspirations as women anywhere else in the world.”

That impulse also inspired the film’s deadpan tone and the lightness of touch they’ve brought to the main character’s journey. Though we learn early on Donya is suffering from insomnia and has been waiting for a referral to a see a therapist, whatever darkness she’s witnessed working with the US military isn’t exploited for some big emotional payoff. It’s defiantly not another movie about trauma.

“One of the main things we didn't want to do was make a film about a displaced person where you're inviting the audience to pity them,” nods Jalali. "This is by no means an American Dream-type film. But it is about a young woman who, although Afghan, has the same dreams or aspirations as some someone from Germany, France, Burkina Faso, or anywhere else. On a basic level, she wants to have a job, a place to live, and find companionship.”

Weirdly enough, there is an American Dream element to the film thanks to Jalali casting newcomer Anaita Wali Zada in the lead. Never mind that she’d never acted before. When she responded to an open casting call on social media, she’d only been in the US a matter of months after fleeing Afghanistan following the Taliban’s resurgence. “Most of the Afghans I was meeting were second generation,” remembers Jalali. “Then Anaita emailed.”


She told him she was 22 and living in Maryland after being evacuated on one of those flights everyone saw on the news. She was also upfront about her lack of experience and her so-so grasp of English. It was enough to convince Jalali to get on a Zoom call with her. “She had literally escaped five months earlier and was restarting her life in America and was so determined she could do it I immediately knew she was the right one,” he beams.

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By the time pre-production rolled around she was fluent enough in English to allay any lingering doubts about her ability to play someone who’s supposed to be a translator. She also proved herself on the first day of shooting by holding her own against rising star Jeremy Allen White, the much-fawned-over lead in current streaming hit The Bear, perfectly cast here as Daniel, a lonely soul mechanic whose smouldering good looks stop Donya in her tracks – though the instantaneous attraction is mutual.

“Initially she had no idea who Jeremy was,” smiles Jalali, “but then she went on social media and saw he was a big deal.”

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Turns out White was a bit of a sweetheart, making his inexperienced co-star feel at ease and setting the tone for the whole shoot in the two days it took to film his scenes. “I think one of our saving graces was the fact that Anaita’s initiation into this was across from someone like Jeremy,”

Director Babak JalaliDirector Babak Jalali
Director Babak Jalali

Jalali certainly lucked out in casting him. At the time The Bear was yet to air, but he’d known White from an early role in the acclaimed indie film Afterschool, made when White was just 16. Its director, Antonio Campos, is an old friend and when the role of Daniel still wasn’t cast with only days left until production began, Jalali called him up in desperation. “He said, ’Why don’t you call Jeremy?’” So Jalali sent him the script. “Two days later he drove up to San Francisco to shoot it.”

It’s all part of the hustle of independent filmmaking, and Jalali – who took a shot at film school instead of pursuing a career in academia – seems to relish the chance to take risks, whether in casting or choosing late in the day to shoot Fremont in black and white, which feeds into its offbeat mood in a way that’s reminiscent of early Jim Jarmusch films such as Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law. “Growing up I was obsessed with those,” confirms Jalali.

He took a risk with the aforementioned Radio Dreams too. “We started shooting before having confirmation [that Metallica would be involved] so making the film mirrored the story of the film, where everyone is waiting for Metallica’s arrival. Growing up they were my favourite band and Lars Ulrich is in it!”

Sounds like the stuff dreams are made of. Enter Sandman.

Fremont screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 23 August and goes on general release on 15 September. For tickets and more information visit www.edfilmfest.org