“The United Nations estimates that Iran now hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees. Most of the younger generation was born in Iran and has never been home.”
These words fill the opening screen of Baran, a 2001 film about undocumented Afghan workers in Iran. Directed by the Iranian filmmaker, Majid Majidi, Baran tells the story of a 17-year-old Azeri-Iranian laborer named Lateef who works on a construction site as a tea boy, fetching bread and cooking simple meals for the crew. He’s a tough, streetwise kid, a troublemaker and always eager to pick a fight – especially with the Afghans, who work illegally for little money and no respect.
Lateef’s troubles begin when an Afghan boy turns up one day to ask for a job. Fourteen-year-old Rahmat has come to replace his father, who was injured in an accident on the job and is now unemployed. Rahmat is small, frail, and too shy to speak a word with anyone, clearly not cut out for the hard labor the job requires. But he earns points for effort.
The site foreman takes pity on Rahmat and gives him Lateef’s much easier job. But this means that Lateef must do the heavy lifting now, hauling bags of cement, mixing concrete, lugging cinderblocks about. In his resentment, he performs small acts of revenge: dumping bowls of scummy water over Rahmat, sabotaging the cooking pots and kitchen supplies.
Until one day, Lateef discovers Rahmat’s secret and why he never utters a word. He’s really a girl named Baran, desperate to do whatever it takes to feed her crippled father and four younger siblings (her mother is dead). There is something about this lovely girl and her fierce sacrifice that awakens compassion in Lateef, and instead of betraying her secret, he becomes her protector, guarding her honor when other men try to get too chummy, risking his own safety when the authorities come to arrest her for working illegally. Without ever exchanging a single word with Baran or even touching so much as her hand, Lateef falls in love.
Director Majidi has the eye of a poet, able to see beauty and joy in the bleakest of environments. The love story in Baran unfolds in silence. Neither Lateef nor Baran can express their feelings for each other. But their love is clear on their faces as they share surreptitious glances, and in small acts of kindness. Baran leaves glasses of tea in the spot where Lateef likes to take his break, and she thoughtfully arranges the sugar cube on a piece of paper rather than leaving it on the dusty cinderblock. And in one scene, where Lateef is hiding behind a bridge piling, watching Baran struggle to haul heavy rocks out of a turbulent, icy river, the tears rolling down his cheeks are utterly heartbreaking.
In the hands of a lesser artist, this poignancy could easily fall into sappiness. But it feels perfectly natural in the world of this film. Lateef is helpless to come to Baran’s assistance in any direct way because to admit that he knows her secret would be an unforgivable violation of the strict moral codes that govern his world. And she can’t acknowledge his awareness of her situation without putting herself and her whole family at risk.
In both Farsi, the dominant language of Iran, and Dari, the Afghan version of Farsi, Baran is not just a woman’s name. It means “rain,” and the wintry world where the story unfolds has its share of downpours – and snow and blustery wind. The unfinished building, still lacking outer walls, is open to the elements, the only warmth provided by open fires burning on every floor.
Life is a daily struggle in this gritty environment. The construction workers are a mixed bag of Iranian minorities: Kurds, Lurs, Persians, and Turkish-speaking Azeris like Lateef. Ethnic tension is always simmering under the surface.
Most of the men live on the construction site, in rooms separated by ethnicity, a joyless existence without the comfort of families or wives. Only the Afghans, who are not supposed to be there in the first place, must make long treks twice a day from a nearby village. Whenever the building inspectors arrive, someone yells “Afghans, hide!”, and half the crew dives for cover.
Baran tells a universal love story (who doesn’t remember the tingling joy of first love) against the backdrop of human hardship that, unfortunately, is equally universal. Like Iran, every part of the world has refugees, people who have been driven from their homes by war, famine, or economic desperation, and must struggle to survive in a country that offers them only grudging welcome.