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  • Ali Moosavi

The Silhouettes (2020)

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

By: Ali Moosavi

The plight of Afghan community in Iran has been the subject of much debate in recent years. They are mostly refugees from their war-torn country. Though they speak the same language and share the same religion, they are treated as complete aliens. Even though many Afghanis have lived in Iran for decades, they are not given emigrant status and enjoy very limited rights in their adopted new home.

In The Silhouettes, director Afsaneh Salari spends time with such an Afghani family. Their story is told by voice over by one of the sons, Taghi. He is 34 and has spent his last 33 years in Iran. Though a bright engineering student, he laments that once graduated, he is not allowed to work as an engineer. The only jobs available to Afghanis, he says are manual labour or self-employed work like his father who is now a tailor, having been a labourer for 28 years. Afghani children are also restricted in where they can go to school. In a poignant scene, the family is watching a documentary about the seasonal emigration of birds from one place to another, and the father says, “even birds are called emigrants, but we are still called strangers”.

Taghi’s parents left Afghanistan for Iran once the Russians came in and the war with Taliban started. Gradually they expanded their family and other close family members joined them. In the documentary, there are 15 of them living in a house with three floors. Taghi likens his situation to “a bird grown up in the neighbour’s nest.” Taghi is increasingly influenced by programs on Afghan TV where they tell those citizens who have fled to Iran that Iran doesn’t need you, your Homeland does. Taghi’s father justifies their remaining in Iran by pointing out to the insecurity in Afghanistan and Iran’s relatively secure environment.

Taghi decides to visit his birthplace before the defence of his thesis at university. He is clearly overwhelmed when arriving in Kabul. He calls the place “my earth, my sky” and adds, “people look like us, talk like us, I feel I am at home”. As his father points out earlier, Aghanis in Iran, though speaking the same language, are instantly recognizable by their “almond eyes”.

Director Salari shows us both sides of Afghanistan; the beautiful countryside, friendly people and vibrant youth and also the violence which has torn the country. During Taghi’s brief stay, he joins a demonstration asking the government for better conditions. A suicide bomber among the demonstrators causes death and carnage. Events like these highlight the difficult choice that the Afghan refugees in Iran face: bear the racism and injustice for the sake of safety in Iran or go back to the Homeland with all the risks that it entails.

According to the film, there are 13,000 Afghani students in Iran. One of Taghi’s sisters, who is a student, has a best friend who is an Iranian girl. We see how they work together on their homework and are happy in each other’s company, but the Afghani girl is plainly aware that there is a mountain of difference between their relative status, conditions and future prospects.

Director Salari has achieved the golden rule of good documentaries: we don’t feel her presence even though she is with the family at all times. Her unobtrusiveness allows us to feel much closer to the family and share their joy and sorrow. It is a sad and shameful fact that people from Middle East and in general many Third World countries, rich or poor, specially refugees, can emigrate to European and North American countries and obtain their citizenship but their countries do not provide the same facility to refugees arriving in their land. The Silhouettes informs, entertains but most of all highlights an issue which many prefer to lie hidden under the carpet.

The Silhouettes received a Special Mention (International Competition) at the 2020 Visions du Réel. Afsaneh Salari is the co-founder of Docmaniacs collective in Tehran and works as a documentary director and producer both in Iran and in France.


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