"Delbaran" - Abolfazl Jalili (2001)

Almost from the outset of Delbaran (2001), an Iranian film written, produced, directed, and edited by Abolfazl Jalili, it is evident that the film’s mise en scene will dominate the film narrative.  That is, the film’s visual style and pacing will be more significant to the viewer’s experience than any specific events shown on screen, which depict an Afghani boy’s experiences as an illegal refugee in Iran.

Much of the film  consists of relatively long lasting (mostly 7 to 15 seconds), static camera shots from fixed positions and without much action in the frame.  Some of these compositions are extreme long shots of a vehicle traveling down a road or the Afghani boy, Kaim, running across a wide landscape.  These shots are sometimes intercut with extreme closeups of various objects of artefacts in the scene.  I will return to discuss some more aspects of this mise en scene and how it works on the viewer later on.

The events in the film take place around the tiny Iranian village of Delbaran near the Afghanistan border, where an elderly resident, Khan, runs a truck stop.  Kaim is a fourteen-year-old refugee from the ongoing war in Afghanistan (recall that in the 1996-2001 period Afghanistan was embroiled in a civil war between the Taliban forces and the Afghani United Front) who has found shelter on the Iranian side by doing odd jobs for Khan.  Since Kaim is from the Afghan city of Herat, he speaks a Persian dialect that is well understood in eastern Iran. 

What goes on in the everyday activities of Delbaran seem mundane and tedious.  These events accumulate with no particular order or focus, but the viewer slowly gets a picture of the local situation.  Commercial freight trucks passing by Delbaran sometimes have flat tires or breakdowns, and on these occasions Khan, with the help of Karim’s services as a messenger boy, organizes assistance and general repair jobs.  Gradually the viewer picks up other pieces of information.  Khan apparently increases his chances for tire repair service by sprinkling the highway with hand-made nails to induce blowouts.  But another, more lucrative operation of  Khan’s is his involvement in smuggling Afghan refugees across the border.  Once inside Iran  these Afghani illegal aliens appear to be doing some kind of low-paid work in the area, which is another part of Khan’s operations.  An Iranian government official who is suspicious of this illegal human traffic in Afghanis makes periodic visits to Delbaran, but Khan shrugs him off and manages to keep his own clandestine smuggling business pretty well concealed.

As for the drivers passing through, sometimes they smoke opium with Khan, sometimes they play cards, or sometimes they just relax and listen to Western pop music.  These are activities that are not exactly sanctioned by the government authorities, but they are part of the routine world of these ordinary people in the villages remote from the centers of authority.

The viewer also gradually learns a few things about the taciturn Kaim, on whom circumstances have forced a level of maturity well in advance of his fourteen years.  His mother has died in a bombing attack, and his father is in the army fighting against the Taliban.  Although he has a younger sister staying with relatives back in Afghanistan, Kaim has no wish to return to that war-torn country.  He is struggling to survive by doing whatever he can to say in Iran.  In his interactions with others, the boy tries to show his toughness, but he is generally even tempered and hard working.
There hardly seems to be any narrative progression at all, but there are a couple of activities that seem more noteworthy than usual. 
  • The government official is ambushed on the road near Delbaran and  robbed and left tied up with his own handcuffs.  Kaim usually keeps out of sight of the suspicious official, since his illegal status makes him exactly the king of quarry that the official is always looking to arrest.  But on this occasion the boy unthinkingly provides the kind of  assistance he provides everyone at the inn, and after some effort he manages to pick the handcuff lock and free the official.
  • The government official, however, soon discovers that Kaim is an Afghani illegal alien, and he repays the boy’s earlier assistance by arresting him.  But in Iran just about everything is negotiable, and so Khan’s old wife rushes to the constabulary and insistently nags the official until she is able to secure Kaim’s release.  
  • There are also some repeated shots of heavy earth-moving and grading equipment vehicles engaged in some road-building.  There doesn’t seem to be any motivation for these shots, but the viewer eventually learns that the government for some reason has been in the process of building a highway bypass that will cause the road to Delbaran to be closed.  At the end of the film the bypass is finally opened, and this means the end of the Delbaran inn business and the end of Khan.  Kaim’s fate at the end of the film is left unresolved, but he goes back to work sprinkling the custom-made nails on the road again.
What one comes away with at the end of Delbaran is not really a story, but more of a mood piece about the hard life in that quarter, especially for the poor Afghanis whose lives are racked in violent turmoil.  A person like Kaim is just trying to be of use to people so that he can have a life.  This brings me back to the film’s visual style. 

As I mentioned the film shows long, static, fixed-camera shots of the tedium in the small settlement and inn.  These are interspersed with long-shot camera pans of people traveling across the landscape or of Kaim running to attend to his latest errand.  Despite the slow pace of life in the area, Kaim is always running at top speed just to attend to his chores.  Noone else in the vicinity moves at anything other than a snail’s pace.  There is almost no dialogue in the film.  All of these things emphasize Kaim’s isolation and powerlessness in the vast landscape in which he finds himself. 

Moreover, there are few medium shots or two-shots, so that the jumps back and forth from long shots to tight closeups of objects entails no visual continuity.  There is never a cut on action, or a point-of-view shot.  The camera shots that might be thought to be establishing shots are from non-focalizable camera positions – there is no logic of motivation associated with the perspective of most of the shots in the film.

All this adds up to being a maddening challenge to the viewer.  The viewer must try to piece together some sort of narrative thread from the scattered, unmotivated visual fragments that Jalili gives them.  On the other hand, I am willing to concede that this visual presentation does not appear to be simply the result of carelessness.  The visuals are carefully arranged and framed.  The sound editing is very crisp and significantly fills the gaps left by the absence of dialogue.  Taken together, these effects are reminiscent of the films of French filmmaker Robert Bresson, who also emphasized deliberate visuals and accentuated sound in order to establish a unique mood and sense of presence.   But I didn’t come away from this film with the sense of wonder that Bresson’s films elicit.  The narrative drift was just too disorganized in Delbaran to make it a compelling experience for the viewer.  Perhaps there were cultural nuances that I missed, but for me Delbaran was an interesting attempt that missed the mark.

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