My poems and songs have no flavor without you.”

The above quote comes from my coverage of this past July’s Indy Shorts International Film Festival in Indianapolis. The words were uttered at the end of the short documentary “Ayenda” (which translates as “future”), directed by Marie Margolius. This is a documentary about a group of teenage girls in Afghanistan who are members of the Under-18 Afghan Women’s Football Team. When the Taliban invade their home in the summer of 2021, a rescue mission begins to get these girls out of the country so they can do what they love without being in danger. The film kept me on the edge of my seat until the end, and its hopeful message empowers. “My poems and songs have no flavor without you,” really encapsulates what their home means to them, the place inhabited by the people they love.

I took that film with me into my interview with Anaita Wali Zada who plays an Afghan refugee named Donya in Babak Jalali’s “Fremont.” I knew that I had to keep my questions concise because of time and the language barrier, as English is not Anaita’s first language (her first language is Persian). But I did get to learn a lot about her story as we talked about her character. Anaita and Donya, similar to the Afghan girls, left Afghanistan in 2021 when the Taliban took rule. Anaita was a journalist in her country, and her and her sister were well-known for their work as journalists onscreen. This made Anaita a target for the Taliban who have been taking away women’s rights for education, working outside the home, and how they dress.

It was important for Anaita to raise awareness in the US about the situation in Afghanistan. Acting seemed to be a good way to do that, and when she heard about Babak’s film “Fremont,” she auditioned and got the part. The film is about Afghan refugee Donya who comes to America for a new life after working as a translator for the US Army. She now works at a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco, but lives in the Afghan community in Fremont, California. Like a fortune cookie, there are some magical elements to the film, but it is grounded in Donya’s day-to-day life. 

We talked about her experience as a first-time actor collaborating with screen veterans like Jeremy Allen White (“Shameless”, “The Bear”) and Gregg Turkington (“Entertainment”). Carolina Cavalli, director of “Amanda,” co-wrote the script with “Fremont” director Babak Jalali. The film is lensed in gorgeous black and white that brings a mysticalness to the world Donya finds herself in.

“Fremont” is now playing in select theaters across the country, and is produced by Music Box Films.

Anaita Wali Zada

What brought you to “Fremont”?

I escaped from Afghanistan in 2021 when the Taliban started taking over. And after five months of being in the United States, I was looking for some work to get started in my new life here. The role of Donya came from me looking for new opportunities. I talked with my friend who is from Afghanistan about work as an actor. He got me connected with some auditions, and one of them was “Fremont.” I sent an email to Babak Jalali saying I was interested in the role, and was a 22-year-old from Afghanistan.

I told him I had no experience with acting before, but I did have some experience being onscreen as a journalist back in Afghanistan. I wasn’t expecting that he was going to write me back, or respond to my email, but I tried anyway. Then to my surprise, he sent me an email back and we had a zoom meeting two times. During the zoom, I did the audition. When we were on the zoom, just talking, Babak encouraged me to speak Persian with him. I thought it was just the two of us talking, but little did I know that the producers were also on the zoom. So then they offered me the part and I moved to the Bay Area to start shooting the film.

Anaita Wali Zada and Gregg Turkington in FREMONT. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

I interviewed Carolina Cavalli, who co-wrote the script with Babak, about her feature film “Amanda.” Knowing her work, I could sense her influence in the script with your character Donya. In what ways do you feel similar to Donya?

One similarity is that we both moved from Afghanistan, and came to a new country to start a new life. Something I share with Donya’s character is her strength and her willingness to be herself. Carolina and Babak told me that when they created this character, they compared her to a flower blooming more and more each day. You can see this analogy from that first day when she is with the psychiatrist. She is quiet and just sitting and looking at him, while he is doing most of the talking. And at the end of the film, you see her transformation as she is doing more talking during their sessions, and her look has evolved. She is styling her hair and is wearing a dress. So yes, I feel similar to Donya by being in a new society with new situations, and coming into your own. 

I read in the press notes that the first time you’ve shouted in your life was in this film. How was that for you?

I feel okay with shouting now. I learned to be more myself in making this film. One thing that I learned from Donya was you can shout, you can have a loud voice, you can argue, and it’s okay.

How was it filming the scene where Hilda is singing, and you are getting emotional and teary? It was a remarkable performance and I cannot believe you’ve never acted before. 

I didn’t know that Donya was going to cry until I got on set. Babak asked me if I could cry, and I was hesitant since this was my first time acting. I asked, ‘How can I do that? I’ve never done this before.’ He said, ‘Try it. If you can cry, that would be good, but if you cannot, that’s fine.’ But I wanted to show the emotion representing a woman from Afghanistan, so I tried it. The tears came from my eyes, and I felt that it was real moment with Joanna [played by Hilda Schmelling], when she was doing the karaoke. The reason why I was able to cry was because I was able to channel all the things that I left behind in Afghanistan, like my colleagues, my family, my friends, my childhood memories, and so many things.

Anaita Wali Zada in FREMONT. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

What do you hope people see in this film and your character Donya?

I hope people see that Afghan women are strong. What’s going on right now in Afghanistan is so hard to explain, so we have to read more about it, we have to see more, and have to talk about it more. I’m happy about this film because it doesn’t show Donya as a victim. Because she’s not, she’s a strong woman. She’s doing the same thing as men, both in Afghanistan or in any other place as a working person and finding their way in the world.

Let’s not forget Afghanistan because it’s not the time. Women are being held hostage in Afghanistan because of the Taliban rule. We have to talk about it. There is so much going on, especially with women. They are banning women from education and working outside the home. Women don’t even have the right now to wear anything colorful, just black. It’s important that we talk about this, and I hope people will start conversations around this film. Let’s not forget Afghanistan. 

Anaita Wali Zada and Jeremy Allen White in FREMONT. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

How was it working with Jeremy Allen White and the other actors?

It was great working with him, and the rest of the cast, including Gregg Turkington. With Jeremy, I didn’t know a lot about him, and I didn’t do my research on him. I didn’t realize he worked for many years as an actor. He knew that I hadn’t acted before, and he was very supportive to me, along with Gregg. 

I had an experience one day on set where fans were screaming his name. I asked one of the producers why they were yelling, and they said, ‘We’ll talk to you later about it.’ [laughs] After we wrapped up on set, I got to see his work, and learned about how famous he was.

I think it was good that you went in not knowing anything about him. Your performance is so great and so authentic. There is such a great onscreen chemistry between you two.

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