By Rachel Poels, Second Year, Sociology and Philosophy
Babak Jalali's Fremont is a quiet, thoughtful film that follows Afghan refugee Donya as she seeks connection and meaning within the mundanity of her life.
Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) works every day in a fortune cookie factory. She shapes the cookies, places messages inside them, talks to her coworker Joanna (Hilda Schmelling) then goes home to her flat, where every night she cannot sleep.
Her neighbour Suleyman (Timur Nusratty) leaves her an appointment card for a therapy session, which Donya (Zada) attends, hoping a doctor can prescribe her some sleeping pills. But counsellor Dr Anthony (Greg Turkington) suspects that the problem runs much deeper. The therapy session becomes part of the structure of Fremont, allowing small glimpses into Donya’s past as a translator for the US Army in Afghanistan. These sessions simultaneously help Donya, and the audience, to understand how her guilt has affected her. An important change comes for Donya when she is hired to write fortunes for the cookies. Inspired by Joanna’s pursuit of romance via blind dates, she writes her name and number on one of the fortunes.
She receives a text from ‘the Deer,’ and, showing it to Joanna, is encouraged to meet with this mystery date. Along the way, she meets reclusive mechanic Daniel (Jeremy Allen White) and the two make an awkward, yet sweet connection, before Donya must continue the journey to meet her date.
While Fremont lacks a typical structure, instead it is a film that consists of a slow, emotional journey, with the ‘date’ as a kind of climax. Donya takes the time to dress up and practice her conversation, only to discover that the date was for her to collect a ceramic deer, orchestrated by the factory so that they wouldn’t have to pay delivery.
The moment of realisation is just as quiet as the rest of Fremont, yet Donya’s disappointment is felt acutely by the viewer, despite any obvious display of emotion. Yet Donya preserves the optimism she felt when she first received the message and decides to bring the deer to Daniel, a gesture that is both sweet and a little absurd, as are many moments throughout the film.
Fremont is a slow, meditative film. It lacks excessive visual flourish, yet each shot is perfectly constructed so that they never appear busy or cramped.
This simplicity extends to the sound design and dialogue; each line of dialogue is surrounded by a pause, allowing the viewer to really consider what is being said. This is especially effective during Donya’s sessions with Dr Anthony where she explains, simply and bluntly, why she had to leave Afghanistan.
These pauses also reinforce the disconnect between Donya and her environment. Even when surrounded by other Afghans, the guilt she feels as a former translator for ‘the enemy’ lingers in her mind. She asks neighbour Suleyman if she even deserves to fall in love, while others suffer back home, and he assures her that as long as she does not forget the past, she should seek it out.
Much of the emotional weight of Fremont is carried through gestures. Donya’s slight smiles, glances and hand movements consolidate her clipped dialogue, allowing the viewer a little further past her façade of silence.
Donya’s silence takes on a new meaning when she meets Daniel; the two of them are able to understand each other without sharing many words. When Donya goes back to see him, it is because she realises she had already found love. These moments of sweetness in Fremont are rewarding and optimistic, which is necessary within a film whose themes are especially bleak.
Fremont emphasises the humanity of Donya; she is more than her survivor’s guilt, and her complex feelings deserve our attention.
Fremont is showing at Watershed until 27th September.