Iranian writer-directors Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi make an ambitious feature debut with In The Land of Brothers, bringing little-seen experiences out of the shadows. Premiering at Sundance 2024, this piercing drama follows three connected stories spanning 20 years in the lives of Afghan refugees struggling to survive in Iran.
As the film opens, we learn that Iran hosts around 5 million Afghan refugees, benignly referred to as “brothers.” Yet Amirfazli and Ghasemi peel back the euphemisms to reveal harrowing human realities. Structured as a triptych, each chapter focuses on a different member of the same extended family, gradually illuminating the systemic injustices these refugees face. Though the specifics differ, all three stories depict the precarity of people denied official citizenship and left vulnerable to exploitation or tragedy.
While undoubtedly somber, In The Land of Brothers resonates through its humane portrayal of universal emotions like love, grief and hope – as well as the resilience of the human spirit. As this compassionate drama bears witness to overlooked stories, it calls viewers to reflect on the meaning of home, family, and our shared humanity across arbitrary divisions.
Trapped By Circumstance
The first thread follows teenager Mohammad (Mohammad Hosseini), giving a view into the constant vulnerability permeating refugees’ lives. By day, Mohammad attends school, nurturing dreams like any other boy his age. At night, he works the brutal hours of manual labor jobs available to the undocumented.
When Mohammad is detained and forced into unpaid janitorial work at the police station, the injustice is chilling but unsurprising. As an Afghan without papers, he has no recourse. One officer ominously takes an interest in Mohammad, who injures himself to avoid the man’s predatory advances.
Quiet scenes between Mohammad and his cousin Leila reveal another side to his life – moments of warmth and young love still flowering against the winter cold. Yet the film refuses any saccharine illusions. When Leila shares her dream of attending university, Mohammad replies solemnly, “You know we can’t get passports or visas here.” Their hopes for the future, though vivid, are trapped in the reality of the present.
With stoic grace, Mohammad persists, attending school by day, working through the night, struggling to shelter a small space for light and joy. But the directors refuse to romanticize his plight, instead honing our gaze on the systems denying Mohammad’s basic rights and security. Through this intimate lens, the personal and political intertwine, exposing realities often relegated to the margins.
Grief in the Shadows
The second act picks up Leila’s thread a decade later, now a married mother working as a caretaker for a well-off Iranian family. On the dawn of the Persian New Year, what should be a joyful time takes a shattering turn when Leila discovers her husband lifeless in their quarters. Grief-stricken and panicked at losing her job and facing deportation, she makes the impossible choice to hide his passing.
As Leila’s employers Negin and Benham host lavish festivities, the camera cuts to her silhouette serving guests behind concrete walls,suppressing agonized sobs. The visual divide reflects the alienation Leila endures as she moved through the motions, invisible in her sorrow.
Earlier, tender moments between Leila and Negin hint at a genuine affection that transcends their unequal stations. Yet when the suspicious Negin presses Leila about her husband, social niceties vanish, the refugee staff once more viewed with suspicion and mistrust. For all Leila’s years of loyal service, she remains an outsider.
Leila’s predicament distills the inhuman paradoxes inflicted by tyrannical policies: torn between disclosing her husband’s death and protecting their son from statelessness, trapped grieving in utter isolation. Her quiet perseverance revealed tremendous resilience and love. But the film asks, at what cost? Hamideh Jafari is a revelation as Leila, wordlessly conveying fathomless wells of anguish beneath a placid facade.
As we immerse in Leila’s private agony and borrowed celebrations, the film confronting the realities of clipping millions’ wings for mere existence, denying them the fundamental rights of mourning, stability, or home. Through Leila’s story, In the Land of Brothers reveals the stranger-in-a-strange-land otherness forever shadowing even the most rooted refugee lives.
The final chapter focuses on Leila’s elder brother Qasem, opening in 2021 with news that their family may finally gain citizenship after 40 years in exile. When Qasem receives word his son Jawad died fighting for Iran in Syria, the irony pierces deeper.
For decades, Qasem’s family has been denied stability and security in the state that recruited his son as cannon fodder, hanging the hope of eventual acceptance on Jawad’s sacrifice. The government bestows honorary citizenship just as Qasem loses his only child.
The news also means confessing the truth to Jawad’s mother Hanieh, who is deaf, forcing intimate scenes witnessed but unheard by the viewer. She celebrates blissfully unaware as Qasem wrestles with shattering her world. Their wordless bond and private victory waltz with unspeakable grief poignantly encapsulates the refugees’ plight – one step from security, forever on the precipice.
Once more, In the Land of Brothers returns to the recurring image of protecting loved ones through secrets and silence. For Qasem’s family, an anguished quiet masks the gulf between public glory and personal devastation.
After following this family across thirty years toward belonging, the closing shot pulls back to reveal a cemetery for Afghan martyrs – at once a site of honor and erasure. The frame stands as a searing metaphor for the lives memorialized without seeing sanctuary. Through Qasem’s allegory, the film reveals the human cost of hollow refugees policies that exploit the vulnerable, deny full citizenship, and fail to make good on promises of brotherhood.
Illuminating Shared Humanity
While each chapter stands alone as a compelling drama, together they form a powerful tapestry – linking intimate character studies to resonant themes. The film’s recurring motifs of repression and concealment mirror the refugees’ sense of erasure from society. Yet bursts of stolen joy and camaraderie cut through, asserting the characters’ humanity.
Visual framing also enhances the narrative, drawing subtle connections across stories. Characters are often viewed through barriers like walls, fences, or windows – evoking their outsider status. Cinematography shifts from the stark winter bleakness of Mohammad’s tale to the torrid heat surrounding Leila’s perspiring silence. Quieter moments adopt a more hopeful warmth, like sunlight falling across loving glances.
Without overt speechmaking, the film elicits profound empathy for the characters while confronting complex social issues. It balances emotional storytelling with stark realities, finding grace notes that reassert the characters’ dignity and perseverance. Scenes of abuse or tragedy are largely implied off-screen, focusing instead on the resilience and interior strength revealed in the characters’ eyes. The camera bears steadfast witness, aligned with their perspective.
Yet the film refuses to present the family as blameless victims or idealized heroes. When Qasem discovers his son’s fate, his first instinct is to conceal the shameful truth – a reaction tragically learned from the same system that punishes them. Such subtle complexities assert the characters’ flaws and agency amidst dehumanizing circumstances.
Ultimately In the Land of Brothers succeeds through its compassionate gaze grounded in emotional authenticity – eschewing spectacle in favor of human revelation. As Mohammad, Leila and Qasem navigate essential rites of love, grief, and identity denied to them, the film powerfully foregrounds our underlying universal bonds that transcend borders or documentation. Their stories call us to recognize that though citizenship may be arbitrarily granted, inherent rights and dignity belong equally to all.
A Rallying Cry for Humanity
Sensitively rendered without sentimentality, In the Land of Brothers offers a piercing window into overlooked refugee perspectives, made universal through powerful storytelling. Amirfazli and Ghasemi forgo flashy aesthetics to focus intensely on the emotional truth of the characters. The result is an understated yet profoundly affecting cry from the heart.
Eschewing overt villains, the film indicts systemic injustices through the accumulation of minor dehumanizations and compromises endured by Mohammad, Leila, and Qasem. Their stories force us to confront difficult realities, made intimate through the camera’s compassionate gaze.
While exposing the specifics of Afghan refugees in Iran, the themes resonate far beyond those borders. The questions at the heart of In the Land of Brothers – who is offered sanctuary, who gets to grieve, what constitutes home – are playing out globally with growing urgency. By humanizing one family trapped in-between, this urgent drama calls viewers to recognize that the accidents of birth granting citizenship are but cosmic lotteries – our shared humanity making us all brothers and sisters.
Through its righteous indignation and grasp of complex human truths, In the Land of Brothers marks the arrival of two courageous new voices in Amirfazli and Ghasemi. Their ambitious feature debut signals a promising career foregrounding vital but overlooked stories. By bearing witness to those on society’s fringes struggling for visibility, this clarion call for justice and empathy cannot be ignored.
In the Land of Brothers
At once tender and unflinching, In the Land of Brothers builds tremendous emotional power through its compassionate gaze into overlooked stories. Amirfazli and Ghasemi have crafted an impressive feature debut that commands our empathy without ever verging into the realms of misery or exploitation. Their control of visual language and narrative complexity is stunning from such emerging filmmakers. Certain to resonate across viewers of conscience, this is a rallying cry for recognizing our human kinship that transcends the arbitrary divisions of borders or background. Through characters confronted with no-win injustice, the film channels outrage into an ethical appeal to understand the most vulnerable among us. In giving cinematic voice to the marginalized, it emerges a timely masterwork.
- Powerful emotional impact and thoughtful commentary on timely issues like refugee rights
- Strong visual storytelling and cinematography with compelling framing
- Nuanced exploration of universal themes around grief, resilience, dignity
- Standout acting performances especially from leads like Mohammad Hosseini
- Structurally ambitious yet coherent with interconnected stories spanning decades
- Balances harsh realities with empathy and humanity
- Some viewers may find the bleak subject matter overly upsetting
- Final segment less impactful compared to first two chapters
- Lacks some subtlety and nuance in its social commentary