Majid Majidi's sweet miniature of a romance, Baran, celebrates the (unrequieted) love between impoverished adolescents employed on a hellish worksite in Tehran. Kalif, an Irani boy of Turkish descent, gets a mad crush on the titular Baran, an Afghani refugee living in Iran pre-September 11. "We had decided from the beginning that they wouldn't speak, that their love is beyond the physical," explained filmmaker Majidi (The Children of Heaven, The Color of Paradise), an intensely friendly man, at the 2001 Montreal World Film Festival. For his movie to succeed, all depended on the casting of his down-and-out Romeo and Juliet.
For Kalif, Majidi brought back Hossein Abedini, whom he had used once before in Father (1993). Then and now, Abedini is not a professional actor. "When I found him, he was twelve years old, had quit school, and worked in a fruit market. When The Father was screened, he was very happy, and said, 'I'm going to get famous, and when a truck of watermelons arrives, everyone will buy from me!' We encouraged Hossein to go to school, but it's now his tenth year still in the fruit market."
For Baran, Abedini took an extended break from his regular employ. Majidi: "He was asked to play a boy like himself, ethnically Turkish. But in life he'd lost his accent. For three months, he was a laborer among Turkish workers to get his accent back." At Baran's release, Abedini won a Best Actor award at a prestigious Irani film festival. "There was resentment from many professional actors," said Majidi, "who complained it's not serious to choose a non-actor. But at no time did Hossein get an attitude. He's very simple, never taken over by 'I'm a star.'"
The casting of Baran, was a complex saga, the search for "a girl not exactly beautiful but with something spiritual in her face. My assistants had all read the script, had video cameras. 'Concentrate on the eyes!' I told them. 'I want someone very strong but with a tender look in the eyes.'
"We started the search in Tehran, with schools where mostly Afghanis go, and we looked for a month-and-a-half. We couldn't find anyone, so we went to the suburbs, to look among mostly peasants and workers. Then we decided to go to Mashad, near the border with Afghanistan, where there were two big Afghan refugee camps in the desert. I went to a camp director and asked, 'Please, can you get all girls, 13-16, to come to one place so I can look at them?' The director called them together with a loudspeaker, and I was on the side, watching a huge crowd, about 500 girls passing by. I saw this one girl with a black-and-white veil, and, as she disappeared into the crowd. I thought, 'That's her!'"
Moments later, Majidi was standing before Zahra Bahrami. "She started to speak, and she had a very strong personality. She'd lived in camps since age one, but she was at school, and her knowledge of the region was amazing. She knew who I was and all the films I'd done. She'd seen me as an actor in some old films on television. We went in a car to meet her family, and they were extremely nice and friendly. They had two rooms, a kitchen, a common bathroom outside. As did every refugee family, they had a black-and-white TV.
"The whole family of five came to Tehran. We got them an apartment, we found a school for her brothers, and a private tutor for Zahra during the shooting. Her father acted in the film, playing one of the workers on the building site. And Zahra became like my daughter. She comes to me for advice and likes me very much. If she could go to the US, she'd be the best ambassador for Afghans."
And for Afghans in Iran? "They were very grateful for the film. When the photograph of Zahra as Baran came out in the newspapers, all the papers were sold out, because people glued the picture onto the walls of their apartments. It gave them a lot of pride."
Meanwhile, back on the set. When Baran was being shot, what happened off-screen between these two young people, cast so carefully, who look longingly but never touch or talk in the movie?
Majidi smiled, remembering. "Zahra was always saying of Hossein, 'He's a much better actor than me,' or 'He's a bad boy! He's strange!' It was subtle, but we felt that there was something between them, even though in four months, they never said a single word to each other. But they were looking! One day, it was freezing cold, so we told them to go together into a room to get warm. After a time, my assistant said, 'Come see!' They were each in a corner of the room, looking away from the other at a wall!"