‘In the Land of Brothers’ Directors on Afghan Refugees in Iran 5

In the Land of Brothers, the feature debut of young Iranian directors Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi, sets itself apart both from contemporary Iranian cinema and from other stories of refugees, by focusing on a community that has until now been all but invisible on screen: the millions of refugees from Afghanistan who have found shelter in Iran, the “land of their brothers.”

As one might expect, the situation for Afghans on the ground is not so fraternal. The feature traces the stories of three refugees from an extended family, each told as a vignette set 10 years apart, and set around a different historical milestone in Afghanistan, starting with the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and ending with the Taliban takeover of the country in 2021.

The first story follows Mohamed, a sensitive teen and avid student with a crush on fellow Afghan refugee Leila, who gets picked up by the Iranian police and pressed into free labor because of his status as an immigrant. The second picks up Leila’s story a decade on. Now a mother to a young boy and a housekeeper for a rich Iranian family, she faces a tremendous tragedy that she has to hide from her employers, and the Iranian authorities, over the fear that she could be deported. In the final third of the film, set in 2021, Leila’s older brother Qasem deals with a tragedy of another sort, experiencing grief that brings with it an unexpected hope for his wife and children.

In the Land of Brothers premiered in Sundance and won Amirfazli and Ghasemi the directing prize for the World Dramatic competition. The film has yet to sell for the U.S. Alpha Violet is handling world sales.

Ahead of the movie’s European premiere at the 58th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the directors spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the untold stories of Afghan’s forgotten refugees, the decision to cast three unknowns in the lead roles, and their decision to leave Iran to join the diaspora.

This film is set in the Afghan refugee community in Iran, a group that numbers in the millions but is rarely seen on screen. What were your connections to his community and what inspired you to tell their stories on film?

Raha Amirfazli: Both Ali and me had personal experiences since childhood, knowing friends from the Afghan community from a very early age. And we always knew that the story of these people has not been told in Iranian cinema. There’s been no good representation of them. They are either portrayed in very cliche, sad stories that show them as passive characters, as just victims, or they’re portrayed in comedies, which is worse. We wanted to tell the real stories of their lives and their situation in Iran.

Alireza Ghasemi: I think we both had many stories to tell from Afghan refugees in Iran. I personally used to work with the Afghan community in a theater group, where we put on Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, and I had some documentary film classics with Afghan refugees. I remember a lot of their stories, a lot of their difficulties. Difficulties they still have, many of which are very basic, regarding access to the health system, to education, and even to transportation – problems which are due to basic negligence and government failure.

We both realized that no one in Iran talks about these things. There are so many untold stories, and it is very difficult for the Afghan community to tell their own stories because the government doesn’t want these stories to be told. So Raha and I started sharing our thoughts and sharing our stories. Then we started to talk to the Afghan community about making this film.

Hamideh Jafari as Leila in In the Land of Brothers


There is government censorship in Iran, but there is also a thriving underground filmmaking community. Why haven’t there been films before about the lives of the millions of Afghan refugees in the country?

Ghasemi: For filmmakers, there are a lot of issues to address in Iranian society. Any subject you choose, there will be someone saying: “This shouldn’t be the priority, we have more important things to focus on.” But what’s made me happy is that in making this film, and having shown it to a lot of Iranians, but also a lot of Afghan filmmakers from around the world, we’re showing that you can make films like this, you can tell these stories. I hope this film can change the perspective of Iranian filmmakers, and Afghan filmmakers, to forget about the comedies and the cliches and start telling the real stories of this community.

Amirfazli: But portraying life as it is, telling the stories in a realistic way, is not an easy task under the Iranian government. It’s only been in the past couple of years that some Iranian filmmakers have had the courage to make films outside the official censorship system, to shoot without permits. This is a very recent movement. People doing it take a lot of risk. It’s risky for Iranian filmmakers but the risk for an Afghan filmmaker would be enormous because they have no real rights.

Why did you choose this form, telling the story in three interconnected chapters, spanning a total of 20 years?

Ghasemi: We were really keen to tell something in a Kafkaesque way, as a series of stories where, like in Kafka’s short stories, the same patterns repeat and repeat. Because the Afghan refugee experience is like being in a Kafka story. After the Soviet Union invasion, a huge wave of African immigrants came to Iran. Then came the Taliban, driving out the Soviets, and there was another wave of refugees. Then the American invasion, then the Taliban came back. Each time, we had another group of refugees coming to Iran, and each time the same things happened to them again and again. The same bureaucratic and administrative hurdles, the same government negligence. So we tried to tell their story in chapters with themes that repeat and repeat.

Raha Amirfazli

Raha Amirfazli

Alireza Ghasemi

Alireza Ghasemi

How did you get around official Iranian censorship to make this movie?

Amirfazli: We worked under the censorship system but in the underground way, so we had shooting permits but we got the permits for a different script than the one we shot. Our official script was a rosy love story. And we shot some scenes without permits.

How did you cast your leads — Mohammad Hosseini as Mohammad, Hamideh Jafari as Leila, and Bashir Nikzad as Qasem — who are all non-professionals?

Ghasemi: We first met a theater director from the Afghan refugee community, who has this theater troupe that meets every Friday to rehearse and put on plays. We asked some of them to come to our office and audition. They introduced us to members of their families, their cousins, and their sisters, and they came to our office to audition. We ended up meeting this huge community of Afghan refugees. And as they shared their stories with us, we started to change the film to fit their experiences.

Amirfazli: From the beginning, we were looking to cast from the Afghan community because of their life experiences. We didn’t want to cast Iranians or professional actors to play our Afghans The three people we chose as our main characters were the people whose life experiences were most similar to their characters. The casting process and the writing process became intertwined. Neither Ali nor me have had the life experiences that these people had.

So for about six months, we had people coming in and telling us their life stories. We’d listened to them and shared the script with them. They understood deeply the experiences that our characters went through and, with their help, we would reshape the characters to fit the real people. We were very lucky to find them because they were able to draw from their own life experiences.

Virtually every single man who came in to audition had had the experience of being picked up by the police and having to do forced labor, like Mohammad’s character. This is a very common experience in the community. When we eventually made our choice, we worked closely with the actors to develop their characters and worked with them on the scripts.

Was it the idea from the beginning to have the actors play the same characters throughout the entire 20-year lifespan?

Ghasemi: No, we didn’t think that would work initially but then we did this makeup test, we had very good makeup artists, and that convinced us it would work.

Amirfazli: It also helped showcase to the audience how the situation for Afghan refugees hasn’t changed, it hasn’t gotten any better. At the start [of the U.S.-led] war [in Afghanistan that started in 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks], 20 years ago, when Mohammed’s story starts, that was when Iran welcomed in a large number of refugees, and the first welcome was very warm. It was like: “Oh, come in, we’re all brothers, we will host you until you can go back to your country.” The “until you go back” was the key point. When the government realized they weren’t going back, they began to impose laws to push them out.

What we wanted to do most was to showcase how the situation for these people is unchanging, throughout this whole period. No matter who is running Afghanistan, who is ruling Iran, or what is happening politically, the laws are the same, they’re strict, and they’re cruel to this community of refugees inside Iran.

Bashir Nikzad as Qasem in In The Land of Brothers


Ghasemi: I want to add that two of the three key characters of the film were actually born and raised in Iran. But despite that, they do not have Iranian citizenship. They are not accepted as Iranians in Iran, and they are not accepted as Afghans in Afghanistan. This is particularly cruel. Things haven’t changed after 30 years, 40 years. It’s clear something is not working.

Amirfazli: Our main characters and the stories are centered around the Hazara community in Iran, which is an ethnic minority group inside Afghanistan. As Ali said, they aren’t treated well inside Afghanistan either. We are talking about a group of people who find that they don’t really belong anywhere.

You both left Iran when you were finishing this film and now live outside the country. Do you feel a deeper understanding of the characters that you portrayed in your film, being a member of a diaspora community yourself?

Amirfazli: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I wish I had this experience while I was writing the script. I sometimes find myself rewriting the script in my head after having this experience of being a minority in a country other than my own.

Ghasemi: For me, the writing process of the film was about knowing something whereas now it’s more about feeling something. The knowledge of the situation from the outside and the feeling of it from the inside is the difference for me. That feeling of otherness you have as a refugee, as an immigrant, that desire to integrate, to simulate the culture you are in. So many of the things we put into the film are now part of my real life.

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