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These two sisters fled the Taliban and found a new dream — acting

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Making the rounds of prominent film festivals is a gem of a film critics are embracing. It's called "Fremont." The drama follows a young Afghan woman who came to America on an evacuation flight in the chaotic days after the Taliban's return. Her name is Donya. She lives in the California city of Fremont, a longtime destination for Afghans escaping troubles in their country. NPR's Renee Montagne has the story of the movie and also its star, who actually did flee Afghanistan.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: When we meet Donya, she is folding cookies in a fortune cookie factory, expressionless, responding only with a wry smile to her friendly co-workers' loopy chatter. Back in Kabul, Donya had been a translator for American troops. Now she is isolated, unable to sleep or create dreams for her new life. Shot in a luminous black and white, the film feels like a fable with a heroine suspended between the past and the present.

BABAK JALALI: When we wrote the film and also when it came to directing it, I didn't want it to become a kitchen sink or a very hyperrealistic refugee story.

MONTAGNE: Filmmaker Babak Jalali did want this tale to be quirky.

JALALI: Generally speaking, I am very much interested in, let's say, understated humor, dry humor.

MONTAGNE: And there is enough dry and droll humor scattered throughout that one admiring reviewer at Sundance dubbed it semi-enchanted deadpan. The movie is populated by Donya's helpful Afghan neighbors, wacky co-workers and an eccentric therapist trying to cure her persistent insomnia. And since the main character is pretty much in every frame, Babak Jalali says the big challenge was to get the right actress for the part.

JALALI: When we were casting for the role of Donya, for me, it was crucial that the lead was played by an Afghan. So what we did was we put out open casting calls on social media and through Afghan community centers all around the United States.

MONTAGNE: And that is how a young Afghan refugee came to hear about the casting call. Anaita Wali Zada wasn't an actress, but she had thrived in Afghanistan's vibrant media. Both she and her sister Taban Ibraz were highly visible TV journalists in Kabul. Both had created entertaining talk shows. Both were also highly aware that as journalists, they could be targeted and killed by the Taliban, as others were. Then, came August of 2021, and the Taliban were suddenly at the gates of Kabul.

ANAITA WALI ZADA: I was at my office, and our boss came to the room, and he said, OK, you have to go to your house. Be safe because Taliban there are near to us. So I got out of the office with my colleagues. People were running, and everyone were scared. And they were trying to find a way. Everyone.

MONTAGNE: Did your family ask you to stay? Or did they really want you to go?

ZADA: They really want us to go and leave Afghanistan. Especially my mom, she was scared. She was really scared.

MONTAGNE: It was just a few months after the sisters became refugees and had settled outside Washington, D.C., when Anaita Wali Zada made a bold move. She emailed filmmaker Babak Jalali about the casting call.

ZADA: When I knew about this story - it's about an Afghan woman. She were a translator in Afghanistan. She came here to start a new life like me. That was like, OK, I'm good with it. I can do it.

JALALI: I think when we found Anaita, it felt like a miracle because we had seen quite a few people, and I was really convinced that the ideal person will not be found. I mean, when she contacted us and when we met, it really - yeah, it felt like a eureka moment, where we thought, OK, this is exactly who this character should be.

MONTAGNE: Which is a beautiful young woman with hidden depths and an awkward sense of humor. In this scene, a therapist asks Donya why she makes such a long commute to San Francisco for a dead-end job in a fortune cookie factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FREMONT")

ZADA: (As Donya) I wake up, I see Afghans. I go to sleep. The last people I see, they're Afghans. And I thought it would be lovely to see Chinese people sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You don't enjoy being with Afghans?

ZADA: (As Donya) Some of them, yes. Some of them, no.

MONTAGNE: One big difference between the isolated character Donya and the actress who plays her - Anaita is not alone. Not only did her sister Taban flee Kabul with her, Taban is also in the movie. She plays a young Afghan mother under the thumb of a dominating husband, a destiny Taban refused to accept in real life. Their parents married in the 1990s, the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, when their mother was only 15 years old.

TABAN IBRAZ: When she had me, she was 16. And, you know, a lot of parents didn't have the choice. You know, it was war. But she accepted every risk just to support me, just to not let her go to have the same life.

MONTAGNE: By the time Taban Ibraz was a teenager, everything had changed. In the cities at least, young people were creating new ventures. They were mixing and meeting in cafes, fighting for causes. Women were working. Taban's desire to become a journalist took hold while watching the news.

IBRAZ: I was in love with the morning show. I was, like, obsessed with that. I was like, I'd rather to stay watch that program for two hours and not go to school. It was not just about their concept or their content. It was about a woman, that she was sitting in that chair next to a man presenting, talking freely. Her presence in that show made me to think that I can be like her.

MONTAGNE: The barrier to that was her father. He wanted his daughters to be educated and to work. But showing her face on TV unveiled and wearing makeup, that would bring shame upon the family. Still, when Taban did take a job as a TV anchor, her father became her biggest fan, even giving her notes.

IBRAZ: He told me, like, what was the good part or bad part in the show? And that was really good.

MONTAGNE: It had come to seem to an entire generation of Afghans that they were the future of their country.

IBRAZ: I saw people with passion. I saw people that they want to be a part of the big change in Afghanistan. Everyone taught that we are, including me, so they put everything in the line.

MONTAGNE: And now that generation, many scattered across the world, must invent entirely new lives. In the movie "Fremont," Donya sets in motion a new life when she dares to slip a personal message into a fortune cookie. In real life, Taban Ibraz is studying filmmaking in New York, hoping to shine a light on her country. Anaita Wali Zada is now on a path to acting even as she dreams of Afghanistan, being there one more time.

ZADA: I remember the day I left Afghanistan, and I was looking at the mountain. So I want to go back and see those beautiful mountain and those beautiful people and do something for them.

MONTAGNE: Renee Montagne, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.