Set in a shantytown on the outskirts of Tehran where a factory owner employs a horde of illegal Afghan workers, “A Few Cubic Meters of Love” is an earnest but affecting social-issue drama centered on a forbidden relationship. This debut feature from Afghanistan-born, Iran-based helmer-writer Jamshid Mahmoudi and his producer brother, Navid, does a good job of depicting the tensions that arise when refugees are deprived of their rights and subject to arbitrary abuse. Further fest play beckons for Afghanistan’s foreign-language Oscar entry, which nabbed awards for first feature and direction at Fajr.
Orphaned teen Saber (Saed Soheili) is part of an Iranian team laboring at a ramshackle scrap-metal workshop run by the genial Mr. Sabahi (Alireza Ostadi). Afghans work alongside Iranians, making wheelbarrows, buckets and basins for the construction industry, but they receive only half the salary of their local counterparts because they have no working papers. Moreover, if police come to inspect the facility, they must quickly grab their children and tools and hide in a drainage pipe, knee-deep in water.
Sabahi lets the Afghans, many of whom are part of an extended clan, live on site, in whatever makeshift shelter they can devise. Saber, whom Sabahi has helped raise, lives among them and is accepted by most of the Afghan men and invited to their celebrations.
But it is unlikely that the Afghan men would look so kindly upon Saber if they knew that he and the motherless Marona (valiant non-pro Hassiba Ebrahimi) were involved in a chaste but charming courtship. The two youngsters meet daily, hiding from prying eyes inside an empty, rusting container in the cargo yard next door, where they exchange gifts, share confidences and make plans for the future. But Marona fears the consequences if Saber were to ask her dour, ailing father Abdolsalam (Nader Fallah) for her hand.
Without belaboring the point, Mahmoudi’s screenplay makes clear that the (at best) second-class status Afghans have in Iran and how this rankles their pride. For many of them, forced to flee by war and having lost family and possessions, their dignity is the only thing that remains and their women folk represent their honor. Still, some introductory text might be useful for audiences outside the region, noting that Iran is home to nearly 3 million Afghan migrants, with less than a third of that number registered with the right to work, and some 250,000 deported in the last year alone.
Mahmoudi graduated from Tehran’s prestigious U. of the Arts and cut his teeth helming a number of shorts and TV pics produced by his brother. Here, shooting in an actual location where Afghan refugees live and work, he displays a dynamic, muscular style of direction that makes this dusty, dirty landscape as vivid as the backdrop in “Slumdog Millionaire,” and which suits his mixed cast of thesps and non-pros.
Playing younger than his age, personable TV thesp Soheili is highly convincing as a naive young man so in the grip of first love that he is emotionally deaf and insensitive to the more complicated feelings of his elders. Standing out among the impressive craft credits is the lensing by Morteza Ghafouri, whose prowling camera emphasizes the confined and constricted worlds of the characters with every shot. Also worthy of note are the evocative sound design and the plaintive score.