How ‘Fremont’ director wound up setting acclaimed film in East Bay

“Fremont” filmmaker Babak Jalali admits he knew nothing about the titular East Bay city until he traveled to Berkeley in 2016 while making another acclaimed indie movie “Radio Dreams.”

“I mean, to be honest, I had never heard about the city of Fremont,” said the acclaimed Iranian-born director, whose fourth and most recent film is the low-key B&W Sundance Film Festival breakout.

The quirky Jim Jarmusch-like dramedy opens Aug. 25 in the Bay Area and relates in deadpan manner the journey of Donya (newcomer Anaita Wali Zada), a 22-year-old Afghan immigrant and former interpreter for the U.S. military who is seeking meaningful connections in her life that venture beyond a rote job at a San Francisco fortune cookie factory.

It didn’t take long, though, for Jalali to start hearing about Fremont, a city that’s sandwiched between San Jose and Oakland and includes a district rich in film history, Niles, considered by many the first Hollywood.

What originally piqued Jalai’s interest in Fremont was how it’s home to the biggest Afghan population in the nation, a designation that paired well with “Radio Dreams,” which involves a  Bay Area Farsi-langue radio station and an Afghan rock band’s connection with the influential Bay Area metal band Metallica.

Director Babak Jalali found a fascinating story to tell in Fremont. (Music Box Films) 

Jalali, who lives in London, took advantage of Fremont’s tasty Afghan restaurants while in the Bay Area, and says he’s always felt an affinity with Afghans since they share similar cultural traits and, often, the same language as Iranians.

In a recent Zoom interview, Jalali spoke about discovering that there were former translators who had fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took control and then settled in Fremont. The idea for “Fremont” was born after he and co-screenwriter Carolina Cavalli read a Sacramento Bee series on Afghan translators moving into the region after having been granted special immigration visas.

“(Many Afghans) resettled in Fremont,” he commented. “But once they were there they were kind of left alone. It was a pretty grim situation for them because you know, their lives had been in danger over there and also, even amongst the Afghan population there were mixed feelings towards them. Even the ones who were not pro-Taliban.”

That animosity subtly confronts the independent-minded Donya who’s grappling with her past and loneliness, and the circumstances that led her to Fremont.

To tell their story, Jalali and Cavalli decided to raise the voice of someone not commonly heard from in news reports — female interpreters.

Having lived in Iran and been surrounded by Afghan people there until he was 18 and abroad, Jalali realized there’s a need to give more robust portrayals of Afghan women than what’s often seen in media images.

“Most of the ones I’ve met were very strong, very independent and very different to the representation of Afghan women we see in the media, which rightly so, it exists. I’m not denying that. … But it was a real wish of mine to also show a sort of Afghan woman who I had seen a lot.”

The two agreed to make their lead character female but didn’t want to focus on her military job and hone in more to “the idea of being a stranger in a strange land and then trying to get things going again at a young age (elsewhere).”

The film includes a variety of Bay Area locales. Niles subbed in for Donya’s road trip to Fresno, which included an important stop off at a mechanics shop, Dino’s Family Restaurant providing the backdrop for conversation and Oakland Fortune Factory in that city’s Chinatown served as the place where Donya worked. And, yes,  the apartment building where Donya lives does exist in Fremont.

The Bay Area gets further represented with a cameo from Oakland filmmaker/musician Boots Riley, who reads a fortune cookie message. Jalali was also hoping to land Metallica’s Bay Area notable Lars Ulrich for that scene (since he appeared in “Radio Dreams”) but the band was on tour.

And in one of the film’s most memorable exchanges, between Donya and a therapist, Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), the doctor references Bay Area literary legend Jack London’s “White Fang,” since he sees Donya’s plight paralleling the one of the San Francisco-born author’s famous wolf-dog.

“(Cavalli) turned to me and said ‘You know ‘White Fang’ is one of the greatest immigrant stories ever told.’ And I go: ‘What?’ And then I just started thinking about that and I said he can be seen as that. He is displaced. He is living away from his family.”

As for his lead, Jalali searched for a professional Afghan actress from North America to portray Donya but when that didn’t work he held an open casting call on social media and Afghan community centers. When he talked via Zoom to Zada — who had never acted before — he knew he had found the lead. Zada not only impressed him but her background of having resettled in Maryland after fleeing Afghanistan on an evacuation flight when the Taliban moved in, resonated.

“We did a read through of one scene and it was obvious she could pull it off,” recalls Jalali, who said he prefers not to rehearse scenes but do them cold. “I think the fact that she could relate to the character because of her own background really helped the role.”

What he hopes that audiences take away from “Fremont” is how the Bay Area, for the most part, represents and cherishes a robust diversity where people from different cultures and lands can retain their identities and live in a mostly inviting environment.

He wrote during a time when the tenor was far from welcoming — in 2020 during the election of Donald Trump and Brexit leaving the European union.

“I think the whole focus by politicians and the media was to instill a fear of God into regular people; to be afraid of otherness,” he said.

“Fremont,” he hopes, opens eyes to the reality that Donya’s needs and wants are no different than anyone else.

“You just want to have a sense of stability, have something to do during the day and companionship” along with dreams, he said.  “But on a base level,  she’s no different than any other 22 year old you know.”

Note: Director Jalali and producer Sudnya Shroff will appear at several Bay Area “Fremont” screenings this weekend; including at the Roxie in San Francisco for the 6:45 p.m. Aug. 25 and 1:10 p.m. Aug. 26 screenings; at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael for the 7 p.m. Aug. 26 screening; and at the Cine Lounge Fremont 7 Cinemas in Fremont for the 4:40 p.m. Aug. 27 screening.

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