Anaita Wali Zada plays a woman who works in a fortune cookie factory in "Fremont."

Babak Jalali’s Newest Film is Another Love Letter to the Bay Area

Writer Edward Frumkin talks to the director about "Fremont," both the film and city, and his appreciation for deadpan humor

Anaita Wali Zada plays a woman who works in a fortune cookie factory in "Fremont."

Courtesy of Music Box Films

Words by Edward Frumkin

Fremont, California, may not have household sites that attract tourists and civilians, like its Bay Area neighbors Oakland and San Francisco. Yet, the British Iranian-born filmmaker Babak Jalali emphasizes the bedroom suburb’s rich history and vibrant diversity in his newest film Fremont (2023). He juxtaposes the highly concentrated San Francisco with the breezy, open landscape of Fremont through commuter Donya’s trips between home and her work at a fortune cookie factory in the city. Like his previous road movie Radio Blues (2016), his protagonists are immigrants in pursuit of their American dream.

In the black-and-white wry comedy, ex-U.S. government translator Donya (played by the mesmerizing real-life Afghan refugee Anaita Wali Zada in her acting debut) is promoted to being a fortune cookie writer following her predecessor’s sudden death and uses this platform to heal from her trauma. In addition to this coping method and her sleeping problems, she visits the well-intentioned but slightly shallow-minded Dr. Anthony (portrayed by the cackling Gregg Turkington), who provides some meaningful assistance with her craft.

The eponymous setting is a city where 50 percent of the population identifies as Asian (with significant diasporas of Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino people). According to some censuses, they also have the largest Afghan population in the United States, where many Afghan immigrants arrived after multiple catastrophes, as early as the 1979 Soviet Invasion to the recent withdrawal of U.S. forces. 

Many immigrant tales prioritize the protagonists’ suffering, and Jalali refuses to perpetuate this pattern. Infusing wit and authenticity, he shows each Bay Area neighborhood as visually equal, where “living in a big city” is ordinary and not a spectacle. Donya’s newfound community in the Bay Area motivates her small yet attainable goals. Fremont is a soothing, relaxed film that deploys curiosity to one’s aspirations and bonds people with laughter.

I recently had a wide-ranging conversation with Jalali just before Fremont’s release in San Francisco on Aug. 25. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 1. We discuss going against kitchen-sink and Italian realist aesthetics, people uniting over deadpan humor, and Donya making her voice stand out in her writing. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Director Babak Jalali.

Courtesy of Music Box Films

Edward Frumkin: Each of your films has elements of a road movie such as characters taking a trip to achieve their goal. What got you fascinated with his genre?
Babak Jalali: The origins of it are in my obsession with borders. I'm from a border town in northern Iran. It's just filled with vast expanses of road, like these fields that go nowhere, but they actually go everywhere. They go to different countries and regions. In my hometown, the idea was always that there are so many possibilities because we're close to a border, we can actually go elsewhere. That always stayed with me: that fascination with the idea of going elsewhere. I think it's no coincidence that most of the characters in my films are in a position where they're wanting something else. I do have driving scenes in every film. A road movie, besides being something that's on the road, is about the idea of not particularly belonging somewhere and hoping for something else.

EF: Fremont is your second film shot in the Bay Area after Radio Dreams. What led you to make your second feature there?
BJ: It’s interesting because I’m Iranian and raised in England. I have yet to make a film in England, but I’ve made two films in the Bay Area. The real reason for that is someone who’s no longer here and that’s our main producer Marjaneh Moghimi, who the film is dedicated to. Unfortunately, she passed away about 10 days before we started shooting. She's Iranian and has lived in the Bay Area for 40 years. She got me to make Radio Dreams in the Bay Area. She said she can find supporters if I make a film about the Iranian community in the Bay Area and that became Radio Dreams

While making Radio Dreams, I found out about the city of Fremont because I had never heard of it. Then I found out that it's home to the biggest Afghan population in North America. I found out about the presence of former translators there. With Marjaneh and Carolina Cavalli, my co-writer, we decided to pursue this project. Previous to making films there, I had a minor fascination with San Francisco from my teens, mainly to do with the fact that I was really into the writers of the beat generation. As an adult, I'm quite fascinated by the Bay Area's diversity that exists there, like the city of Fremont. I've called it a “commuter town,” here and there, but it's very cosmopolitan. There's a big Asian community and an established Indian community. That's just a microcosm of what's elsewhere in the Bay Area. I'm very fascinated by diversity and the different stories that exist there.

Anaita Wali Zada plays Donya in "Fremont."

Courtesy of Music Box Films

EF: What were some new sides of the Bay Area you wanted to show in Fremont?
BJ: I have a big affection for smaller towns as I’m from a small north Iranian town. Although, I wouldn't say Fremont is a small town. It's a city. A lot of times it has served as a commuter town, where people live there and commute to San Francisco to work. I didn't want to show the idea of the main character Donya, going from Fremont into this big, beautiful cosmopolitan city of San Francisco and everything's okay, because reality just doesn't work that way. When you end up in New York City, San Francisco, or London, it doesn't mean life is suddenly rosy, and everything's great. The grind is the same, if not more. I wanted to equalize the idea that outside this wonderful city of San Francisco, satellite towns are filled with human beings who also have hopes and dreams like everyone else.

EF: In your director statement, you said that “the style of the film is not one that's rooted in social realism.” It can be tempting to call Fremont a work of neorealism, because it's shot on location, in black and white, and it primarily has local/non professional actors. What was your process in incorporating authenticity into Fremont?
BJ: A lot of times when stories are told about immigrant or working class experiences, what we call an angle like kitchen sink dramas and stuff, the focus is on the misery. Primarily on the aspect of “fuck, this is really tough.” The reality is that it is very tough. In Fremont, I could have made a film where we focused on Donya’s trauma and constantly only focused on that aspect. It would have not been far from the truth, it would have been a realistic portrayal. As a style of telling the story, you're better served not relying on the audience's pity for the characters. You can get people to feel what that person is going through with humor and the absurdities that exist in everyday life. 

To preserve the authenticity, it was crucial for me that the lead actress was an Afghan. Us Iranians and Afghans share a language. America is full of Iranian actresses and the Iranian population is far bigger than the Afghan population. But it was never an option for me to cast an Iranian to play the role of an Afghan woman, which is something that's been done often in cinema. This happened to our great relief because we were lucky in that the person we cast [Anaita Wali Zada] had her own real life story, which was not too far removed from the character she played. She wasn't a former translator, but she was a woman in her early 20s, who had left America five months before we started shooting, on an evacuation flight and left her whole family there—starting from scratch. Besides her, who came from Maryland, and Jeremy Allen White and Greg Turkington, the rest were local Bay Area residents. Most of them were non-actors besides Greg and Jeremy. 

We shot at the actual Chinese fortune cookie factory in Oakland, on the machinery that they still use to make cookies, and in actual apartments. When I say I didn't want to make a deeply rooted socialistic film, it was mainly about the idea of stylistically having more humor and showing the possibilities as well.

From left, Anaita Wali Zada and Jeremy Allen White in "Fremont."

Courtesy of Music Box Films

EF: I appreciate the film's deadpan humor because it adds a melancholic, meditative tone to the movie, but also the human face can express many more universalities than verbal language. How does deadpan humor, instead of other types like physical and dark humor, connect people?
BJ: I am a big proponent of deadpan humor. I think that type of humor is unexpected. You do question why you're laughing but it doesn't place a predicament on your thinking. Should I be laughing at that or not? I appreciate dark humor very much as well. But I always connected with deadpan humor, whether in the films of Aki Kaurismäki or early Jim Jarmusch films for example, because it felt like someone's not trying to tell a joke. It was a humor rooted in an everyday existence versus a humor that is put on for a show. 

EF: Anaita has such a great screen presence, where so much of her eyes and face relay the expression of her character. What were your conversations like with Anaita in bringing that to the screen?
BJ: From the first moment I Zoomed with her when she was in Maryland and I was in Oakland, it was clear to me that Anaita had that expression. When Carolina and I were writing, that was something that we very much wanted. I think it's difficult to act like that. If it's there, it's there, and it was there from the first conversation we had, in her eyes and in her stare. That was really present. The challenge, as it is always the case with non-professional actors, is to get them not to act. If you've never acted before, and they say, “Okay, you're gonna have to act out the scene,” you overdo it, because you think that's what acting is. You have to be overly dramatic if it’s a dramatic scene, for example, but the challenge is being yourself. Be the you that we saw the first time on a computer screen. She got that immediately.

Jeremy Allen White in "Fremont."

Courtesy of Music Box Films

EF: Donya has always communicated for another entity, such as translating for the U.S. government and writing fortunes for the factory. How does she bring her subjectivity to the writing of the fortunes?
BJ: When the idea came to have the fortune cookies in the film and the script, Marjaneh and I were talking about when you go to a Chinese restaurant, you open the cookies. So often what's written in them is just silly. But sometimes you get these nuggets of glory where it makes you think. Right? You kind of hold onto them and try to decipher them or whatnot. But what is important for us was the idea of fortune cookies, and Donya working in a cookie factory, is that what was written in those fortunes refer to possibilities, what's out there and what could be obtainable. No matter how farfetched they may be. You can try to grab them. When Donya worked for the U.S. military, it was a job. It wasn't something that is a politically motivated passion project, it was a job because most translators did it because jobs were scarce. This was a job that paid and also provided them with a visa to get out, which not a lot of Afghans had the fortune of being able to do. So that was a much more practical decision. Whereas in a cookie factory, it's practical because it's a job she has to do. But once she's entrusted with the responsibility of writing messages, it's almost like she has a carte blanche to do what she really wants to write. Hence, she sends that message out there in order for someone to respond to a message. It's the irony of someone who is kind of out of time, out of place, in a new place, giving guidance to other people in order for them to believe in possibilities. That's the irony that we like.

Anaita Wali Zada in "Fremont."

Courtesy of Music Box Films

Published on September 13, 2023

Words by Edward Frumkin

Edward Frumkin is a Brooklyn-based critic and filmmaker who has written for IndieWire, Frieze, Documentary Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, and elsewhere.