In this period of greater nuclear tensions between Israel and Iran, who would have guessed that Israel’s foreign-language Oscar submission would be mostly in Farsi? “Baba Joon” is a coming-of-age drama from debuting feature writer-director Yuval Delshad set in a Persian-immigrant moshav in the Negev during the early 1980s. Although some may find it a tad too sentimental and under-nuanced, the film depicts the ways of a community infrequently seen on Israeli screens. More universally, it provides a metaphor for the struggle between the migrant generation, which is holding on to the past and traditions from another country, and the sabra generation born into a new identity and seeking out a fresh path. Expect generous fest and niche arthouse play offshore.
Three generations of the stubborn Morgian family struggle to manage a ramshackle turkey farm in an isolated desert community of Farsi-speakers. There’s the aging grandfather (Rafael Faraj Eliasi), who built the place with his own two hands and is still the family’s fearsome patriarch; Yitzhak (Navid Negahban, “Homeland,” a bit too shout-y here), who bears the brunt of running the farm, having long ago had his father’s desires beaten into him; and 13-year-old Moti (Asher Avrahami, an appealing non-pro making a strong debut), who has a talent for bringing old cars back to life and dreads having to work in the turkey barn, an attitude that Yitzhak regards as personal rejection. As designated peacekeeper, Moti’s smiling mother Sarah (Viss Elliot Safavi) is mostly relegated to the sidelines, brought on every now and then to utter lines such as, “Don’t be so hard on him, don’t you remember when you were a boy?”
But Yitzhak, who moved from Iran when he was just a lad, mostly remembers how his father forced the job on him when older brother Darius (Fariborz David Diaan, “The Stoning of Soraya M.”) fled the country rather than stay and talk turkey. As Yitzhak makes it his mission to impose the family business on Moti, Darius pays a visit from America and catalyzes a chain of events that undermine the familial harmony.
Delshad, himself the son of Iranian immigrants, was raised in a village much like the one depicted onscreen. His semi-autobiographical screenplay raises questions of upholding tradition as an immigrant and the obstacle it poses for personal independence, of the pride of the father within his family and his “tribe” and of the difficulty in honoring and loving in the midst of the inter-generational conflict. It also, rather delightfully, incorporates the Persian love for proverbs, with adages such as, “If you hit a brick too hard it breaks,” and, “A tree that can’t bend in the wind won’t last the storm,” aptly describing the Yitzhak-Moti relationship.
The cast mixes professionals and amateurs to credible effect, with Avrahami replying in Hebrew when the older generation speaks to him in Farsi. Non-pros Avrahami and Elliasi both hail from Zrahia in southern Israel, the hometown of helmer Delshad, while the main adult stars are non-Israeli Iranian thesps based in the West.
Strikingly shot on location in the harsh environs of the Negev by helmer Joseph Cedar’s go-to lenser Ofer Inov (“Beaufort” “Campfire”), the pic also benefits from a strong, naturalistic production design. One can practically smell and hear the turkeys. And in the scene where Yitzhak clips their beaks, the sizzle of the machine and the distress of the beasts is palpable.
Another standout in the attractive craft package is the haunting score by Eyal Saeed Mani, which incorporates ancient Persian instruments such as the tar, santur, zarb, ney and kamancheh, alongside surprising harmonies from guitars, bass, keyboards and drums.
“Baba Joon” captured five of Israel’s recently announced Ophir awards, including kudos for film, cinematography, art direction and score. The title is a Persian term of endearment, which a son might address to his father.