A Childhood on the Run

Kaim Alizadeh plays a 14 year old orphan on the run from border guards in Afghanistan in Delbaran (2001) from Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili.

Although released in 2001 and greatly admired by many prominent film critics, Delbaran, directed by Iranian filmmaker Abolfazl Jalili, is not nearly as well known as other Iranian prize winners such as Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) or Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001) but deserves to be. The story focuses on Kaim, a fourteen-year-old war orphan trying to survive in a desolate Iranian village near the Afghanistan border. And the film is in the grand tradition of other renowned classics that feature child protagonists caught up in the madness of war such as Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). The difference is that Delbaran is much more austere and understated than those better known masterworks.

A Russian youth (Aleksey Kravchenko) is captured by German troops in the harrowing WWII drama Come and See (1985), directed by Elem Klimov.

When we first see Kaim, he is sleeping in the back of a pick-up truck that is transporting him somewhere. It is one of the few times we see him inert and resting; most of the film he is in constant motion, running here and there on some desperate errand or fleeing those who would send him back to Afghanistan and possible death. As the film progresses, we learn about Kaim’s back story in bits and pieces but- day routine of daily life in this Iranian border town known as Delbaran and how the war has affected its inhabitants, especially the recently arrived Kaim.

The bleak setting of the 2001 Iranian film Delbaran, directed by Abolfazi Jalili.

After a new road was built between Afghanistan and Iran that passed by Delbaran, the village became a center for black market profiteers and illegal workers. In this unstable new environment, Kaim has been taken in by Khan (Rahmatollah Ebrahimi) and Khale, a kindly older couple who run a small café and enlist Kaim’s help in various odd jobs. Meanwhile, the local police officer is charged with apprehending all illegal immigrants from Afghanistan and sending them back across the border. It’s only a matter of time until Kaim attracts the attention of the immigration official.

Abolfazl Jalilil plays a young refugee who tries to survive in a war torn region in the Iranian film, Delbaran (2001).

To attempt to describe Delbaran in terms of a storyline is probably doing the film a disservice since it is virtually plotless compared to most commercial films. It is actually much closer to a character study rendered in concise but splintered moments of time. In comparison to the heart wrenching dramatics of Forbidden Games or the epic horrific tragedy of Come and See, Delbaran is a dispassionate but evocative tone poem. I’ve seen the film three times now and, on the basis of this movie alone, I want to see Jalili’s other work. 

His style, at least in Delbaran, is a combination of the austere and the lyrical, the oblique and the humane. There are touches of neo-realism and the keen eye of an ethnographic documentarian on display. We never actually see any fighting or bombing or the casualties in a direct way but we always sense them and occasionally hear them, just beyond the edge of the screen…except in two cases. In one a refugee carrying his bundle of belongings tries to slip pass a sniper on a mountainous slope near the border. Instead of showing the man being killed by gunfire, Jalili cuts to Kaim being awakened by a gun shot and then the sight of the refugee’s white bundle tumbling down the hillside, finally coming to a stop on a barren patch of ground. The other scene shows a sniper’s gun jutting out of its stone-covered foxhole followed by the sound of a shot and a quick glimpse of a barb wire fence and the victim’s hand going limp on the wire.

A scene from the 2001 drama Delbaran from Iranian director Abolfazi Jalili.

Also unlike Forbidden Games and its ilk, Delbaran’s minimalistic storyline does not proceed in a linear manner and there is very little dialogue. Scenes also don’t play out in ways that give closure to what just occurred. Sometimes you only see part of what happens in an exchange or confrontation between two people and have to speculate about what transpired based on the scenes that follow. This isn’t a liability and creates a tension and a sense of expectation that infuses the film with a restless energy. 

Jalili also uses suggestive audio effects and natural sound, snatches of Persian and pop music, and a visually striking editing style to create this affecting portrait of a homeless teenage war refugee. (It’s also interesting to note that Kaim is the only child or teenager glimpsed in the film; everyone else, except for a young couple at a secret wedding ceremony, are middle-aged or elderly).

Delbaran (2001) is set in a remote village on the Afghan-Iran border where most of the inhabitants are dirt poor elderly villagers.

All of the actors are non-professionals and were most likely residents of the region where Delbaran was filmed (none of the actors playing the main characters have appeared in any other films according to IMDB and other movie databases). This is particularly impressive because Kaim Alizadeh (as Kaim) and the rest of the cast give such vivid, naturalistic performances that their faces, gestures and voices will remain etched in your memory long after the film is over.

Delbaran (2001) by Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili takes place in an arid region near the Afgran-Iran border as civil war rages in the background.

There are other things that distinguish Delbaran as well. Jalili resists political editorializing or any message mongering and he avoids anything that smacks of dramatic contrivance unless you consider his on-screen dedication to “all the children of war” heavy-handed. Yet, despite the grim subject matter the director finds a balance that results in something profound and poignant. There are moments of tenderness such as the scene where Kaim rests his head in the old woman’s lap while she applies medicine to his infected ear.

Kaim is forced to stay on the run to avoid capture by immigration officers in the Iranian drama, Delbaran (2001).

There are also Theatre-of-the-Absurd moments worthy of Samuel Beckett such as a scene where Kaim tries to help an arresting police officer jumpstart a car that is transporting him back to Afghanistan. Or the scene where Kaim pulls up desert shrub bush, assembling it on his back like a giant haystack until he looks like a tiny ant carting off a gigantic bread crumb. The act of daily survival in Delbaran is depicted in Kaim’s world is one of enormous physical exertion.

Rahmatollah Ebrahimi plays Khan, an elderly villager who helps a 14 year old refugee evade Afghan officials in Delbaran (2001).

Delbaran comes full circle in the end with Kaim till rootless and on the run. The final shot of him reminds me of that freeze frame of young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, looking off into the distance toward an uncertain future. What will happen to Kaim? He is clearly resilient, resourceful and has an innate goodness that is slowly giving away to a more hardened attitude and why not? His childhood has been stolen from him. Even though he is only fourteen, he is already older than his years and more cunning and adept at survival than most of the adults he encounters. Will he end up finding stability in his life, a home, love….or will he become a sniper on the hillside?

Kaim, a 14 year old war orphan, tries to survive under desperate circumstances in the Iranian drama Delbaran (2001).

In an interview with Giovanni Fazio for The Japan Times, director Abolfazi Jalili described his working methods: “Most films today are telling you the story through words. You can tell what’s going on without even looking at the screen…And people who are used to that might not get my films: the lack of dialogue, how each scene is so short, and how they don’t connect directly. But that’s what I like.” He further elaborated on his filmmaking aesthetic, stating “When I was younger, I used to think of it like architecture, like drawing a blueprint for a house. But instead of several supporting columns, I’d design it around just one column. Lately, though, I feel like I don’t even need one!…A floating house, that’s where I’m headed.”

Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili

As previously noted, Delbaran was praised by many influential film critics and industry scribes such as A.O. Scott of The New York Times who wrote, “Mr. Jalili’s film is grounded in the workaday facts of individual and communal life. Its rhythms are those of daily life, and its scale is deliberately modest. Life in Delbaran is harsh, repetitive and often dull, but ”Delbaran,” though quiet and slow-moving, is none of those things. It is somber and dignified, with some moments of surprising humor and beauty.”

A scene from the austere and haunting drama Delbaran (2001) by Iranian filmmaker Abolfazl Jalili.

Jamie Russell of the BBC stated, “For all its stillness, “Delbaran” is captivating because of its poignant force. The artistry lies in Mohammad Ahmadi’s beautiful cinematography, which conveys more than any actor, script, or commentary could ever manage. The result is both haunting and poetic – a glimpse of a community that struggles to exist on the border of two different worlds.” And David Parkinson of Empire Magazine added this, “Pitching humorous humanism against the arduous tedium of surviving in extremis, this is a fractured, reticent and impeccably played study of the courage needed to trust.”

Abolfazl Jalili’s drama Delbaran (2001) is set in a war torn region near the Afghan-Iran border.

Unfortunately, Delbaran remains relatively obscure in the U.S. outside of the film festival circuit and a limited art house run when it was first released here in 2008. In Iran, however, Delbaran has been banned and remains unseen in that country along with Jalili’s previous films such as Dance of Dust (1998, aka Raghs-e-khak). In the previously noted Japan Times interview, the director jokingly noted, “Maybe it’s just bad luck…but no matter what film I make, I can’t get permission [from the government] to show it. It’s like I’m on a blacklist – if my name’s on it, they don’t even bother to watch it. So I’ve given up trying to figure out what’s wrong. Now I just make what I want, and at least it opens overseas. Iranians will often say, “Jalili’s making films for foreigners.” And when I return, the media will say, ‘Oh, he’s back in Iran for a vacation.’

Kaim Alizadeh heads a cast of non-professional actors in the Iranian drama, Delbaran (2001).

Prior to Delbaran, Jalili directed seven features and contributed a segment to the anthology film Ghesse haye kish (1999) which was nominated for a Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and since 2001, Jalili has directed three more features; the most recent of which is Hafez (2007). The good news is that here is a wonderful body of work to explore. The bad news is that none of Jalili’s films except Delbaran are available for viewing in the U.S.

Delbaran was released on DVD in 2008 by Facets with no extra features and is still available. You can also view it on Netflix. There is no word yet on whether it will be available on Blu-Ray in the near future.

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