Humanizing the plight of Afghans

If, as a comedian recently noted, war is God's way of teaching us geography, then film is the artist's way of bringing that lesson up close and personal.

In order to humanize the plight of the people of Afghanistan, Iranian director Majid Majidi has made "Baran," a film that is winning festival awards and, he hopes, the hearts and minds of audiences around the world.

Set in contemporary Iran, "Baran" is a tale of a star-crossed love that brings maturity to an immature Iranian youth and a rescue of sorts to a 14-year-old Afghan girl.

The story unfolds in modern-day Iran, at a construction site where illegal Afghan refugees eke out a daily wage while trying to stay one step ahead of authorities determined to keep them from integrating into Iranian society.

Lateef (played by Hossein Abedini) is a petulant young Iranian who finds himself drawn into the drama of one of the families employed on the site when he discovers that a youth who can't handle the heavy manual labor is actually an Afghan girl named Baran.

He finds himself attracted to her and spends the rest of the film finding ways to help her family, even giving them his wages. Ultimately, he succeeds in giving the family, including his new love, enough money to return to their homeland. It's a bittersweet ending for a young man in love.

Though the film has a political message, Mr. Majidi says love tells a much more universal story than politics. "An overtly political film, criticizing the political situation in Iran, wouldn't have been productive," says Majidi through a translator.

"The government in my country already says we have too many Afghans."

What the award-winning director wanted to show was the plight of Afghan refugees around the world. "It has been the fate of Afghans for many years to have their innocence exploited and dominated," Majidi says. "I wanted to show that this was one more example, but make it bigger. I wanted to engage the audience, but get them to empathize with this situation."

The conclusion, which finds the young girl on her way back to a war-torn Afghanistan, is anything but a happy ending. That, Majidi says, is part of the modern Afghan story.

The film is more like a parable than it is realistic. In every culture, he says, love has its own particular manifestations and power. In Iranian culture, he says, love has an element of mysticism.

"I had other considerations in creating 'Baran,' " the director says. "Maybe," he says, "[Baran] didn't even exist, but was just an angel sent to transform Lateef, from a selfish loafer to someone who could redeem his life."

The film has many layers, he adds. "Like Afghanistan itself, she [Baran] is an image that both exists and doesn't exist."

While he doesn't expect its political message to appeal to everyone, "Love is something everyone can understand, everyone has experienced," he says.

The 14-year-old actress who plays Baran (Zahra Bahrami), is now a 16-year-old celebrity in Iran, her country of refuge, adds Majid with a smile. "The film has helped to transform the image of Afghans in my country." Majid hopes it will do the same abroad.

"Baran" already has won best-picture honors at the Montreal Film Festival in August - and won the director his third Grand Prix of the Americas, which he also won for two previous films, "Children of Heaven" and "The Color of Paradise."

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Majid has also undertaken a documentary about Afghanistan, which he is currently finishing.

But, he says, he hopes that "Baran" will find the kind of audience that art has always sought.

"In all historical times, art has played the role of cultural ambassador between nations," the director says. "The cinema can establish contact between people."

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