Distinguishing itself from other immigration narratives by telling a story set in an overlooked part of the world, “In the land of brothers” introduces two distinctive new filmmakers in Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi. In their feature debut, which earned them the directing prize at the Sundance World Drama Competition, the pair follows in the footsteps of such recent films about the journey to a new land as Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” (which tracks African migration to Europe) and “I’ll take you with me” (one of many about America’s flight to the United States). With deft storytelling and assured filmmaking, they tell the story of an extended family from Afghanistan and their 20-year odyssey to find refuge and home in neighboring Iran after the 2011 US invasion.
The film is divided into three vignettes, all set in Iran, although each at a different time and around a different historical milestone in Afghanistan: from the aforementioned invasion to the Taliban takeover in 2021. In 2001, Sensitive teenage student Mohamed (Mohammad Hosseini) is harassed by Iranian police into working for free due to his immigrant status. He also has a sweet, innocent flirtation with another teenager, Leila (Hamideh Jafari). Ten years later, Leila, now the mother of a child, is grieving the death of a family member, while she attempts to avoid Iranian authorities due to her illegal immigrant status. In the final third, the film follows Leila’s older brother, Qasem (Bashir Nikzad), as he deals with another grief and the promise of finally settling legally in Iran with his wife and children.
The script by Amirfazli and Ghasemi is economical in terms of dialogue, but rather plot-oriented. In each section of the film, many situations develop with dire consequences for the three protagonists. What keeps the audience interested is that the script, although full of melodramatic tragedy, clearly reflects the varied emotions of the characters; fear, love, sorrow, anxiety, sweet relief. For this to be successful, the actors must carry most of the weight. Although identified as non-professional actors in the press releases, Hosseini, Jafari and Nikzad emerge as accomplished actors, capable of giving “In the Land of Brothers” the dramatic weight it needs.
Hosseini subtly anchors the film, his eyes a well of emotion through which the audience can read everything he feels. Without this grounded performance at the beginning of the film, the rest of it wouldn’t be as memorable: we miss Mohamed when he’s gone, and part of our investment in the other two stories is trying to figure out what happened to him. (The directors evocatively answer that question in a fleeting moment later in the film.)
While Hosseini remains still throughout his scenes, Jafari has to navigate Leila’s busy life with constant movement. She works as a maid for an Iranian family in a coastal city, while taking care of her son. She is never alone; There is always someone asking him to take care of something. Yet despite all the unease surrounding her character, Jafari maintains an expression rich with emotional meaning. Nikzad has an ending that, while as sad as the rest of the film, also brings a lot of hope to this family. He skillfully straddles the line between sadness and relief, single-handedly filling the end of the film with optimism.
The filmmakers are smart to keep the same actors playing the same roles throughout the 20 years in which the story takes place, thus maintaining an emotional throughline throughout the film. They do this by ensuring that each of the three has a minor role in the stories they don’t lead. Except for an unfortunate case of too much hair and beard dye (a small complaint when the performances are so strong), all three actors are believable at whatever age they play.
Using distant shots that show the harshness of the terrain, juxtaposed with intimate close-ups that center the actors, Amirfazli and Ghasemi prove to be natural filmmakers. They find the story in what is not said by the characters, in the spaces between them and the places they inhabit. A loud school, a deserted beach, a government building: all of this shows the characters’ alienation and their distance from home. Setting the film in three different eras, with historical context only heard in the background on blaring televisions and radios, underscores the filmmakers’ bold insistence that they don’t need to explain much. The truth is clear in the movement of the camera and in the faces of the actors.