On Wednesday, February 24th, the 26th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival commenced with an opening night featuring the new Israeli film, Baba Joon at AFI Silver. Despite the weather, the crowd as well as the praise for the film was quite substantial. Baba Joon was this year's Oscar entry from Israel for Best Foreign Film (but did not make the cut) and was the Ophir Award (“Israeli Oscar”) winner for Best Picture. The film is set in the Negev in the 1980s and tells of a Persian Jewish family who own a turkey farm. The Morgian family speak mostly in Farsi with Hebrew thrown in intermittently but purposefully (much like the way Gettjuggles Arabic, Hebrew, and French). The young son, Moti (Asher Avrahami), speaks mostly Hebrew and responds to his parents' Farsi with Hebrew. Director Yuval Delshad, himself an Israeli Jew of Persian descent, is making his major directorial debut and uses language here in such an interesting and nuanced way.
Much of the film’s delicate intimacy and tension happens between Moti and his father, Yitzchak (Navid Negahban, known mostly for Homeland). The film opens with the pair driving along in the desert and barely speaking. It soon becomes apparent that Delshad’s style is deliberate and intricate. The camera barely moves and so many of the film’s shots have rich mise-en-scene. It makes sense that cinematographer Ofer Inov (known for such films as Beaufort, Campfire, and Time of Favor) won the award for best cinematography, although Baba Joon is more reminiscent of the 2010 film The Wanderer, where every frame seems gorgeous and thoughtful. So too, here, shots of turkeys, the desert, the barn, the synagogue, and everything else come across as more beautiful or interesting than if other choices had been made.
The film’s major tension concerns Yitzchak’s inability to let go and allow Moti the freedom to be a boy and to grow on his own. Yitzchak wants Moti to help out with the turkeys since that’s what he had to do when he was a boy and Moti wants to build cars using spare parts. Even though Moti’s passion and talent are obvious, Yitzchak is blocked and part of this has to do with his own father, Baba, and his demands on him. Baba represents being stuck in the past and holding onto a life that is no longer real. Baba is a fascinating character because he yearns to go back to Iran and at the same time is devoutly observant and cares deeply about Jewish tradition. While the term ‘Baba Joon’ typically means ‘grandfather’ or ‘father’ in Farsi, the film plays with this meaning and oscillates the term between characters. This flip is most noticeable when Moti and Yitzchak fight, apologize, or share some other tender moment. Yitzchak calls Moti ‘Baba Joon’ perhaps because he is sometimes wiser or more capable of problem-solving.
Two other noteworthy characters are Sarah, the wife/mother character and Dariush, the brother/uncle character. Both of these people serve as intermediaries between Yitzchak and Moti and each have their own agendas as well. Dariush lives in America and has no desire to come back to Israel because of Baba’s repressive parenting style. Sarah wants Yitzchak to sell the farm so they can embrace a beach-lifestyle that Tel Aviv or Netanya would offer. Things of course, are not simple and Delshad manages to find closure and resolution for his characters in a realistic, understated, and heartfelt way.