January 22, 2019

‘Baba Joon,’ Israel’s Farsi-language film and official 2016 Academy Awards entry, to open the Israel

The Israel Film Festival kicks off its 29th season on Oct. 28 with one of the most unusual movies to emerge from the Jewish state, with characters who speak mainly in Farsi and represent a distinct thread in the country’s ethnic fabric.

“Baba Joon” garnered five Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, this year. The key Ophir was for best film, which automatically made the movie Israel’s entry for the Academy Award competition for best foreign-language film.

The film’s title is an affectionate Farsi salutation of a son to his father and takes on a more respectful dimension in speaking to one’s grandfather, said director-writer Yuval Delshad in a phone conversation from Israel.

For Delshad, 44, who is related to former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, “Baba Joon” represents not only his debut feature but also an exploration of his own youth growing up in the dusty moshav of Zrahia in the northern Negev. Its inhabitants were almost all devout Persian-Jewish immigrants, who generally eked out a hardscrabble existence in a part of Israel rarely seen by tourists.

The entire 91-minute film is set on the turkey farm of Yitzhak, built by the sweat of his father after the latter emigrated from Iran to Israel. The old man ruled his family, especially his male descendants, with a heavy hand, and now that Yitzhak runs the farm, the latter applies the same discipline to his 13-year-old son Moti, so the boy can take over the farm when the time comes.

However, Moti’s passion lies in putting together junkyard cars, and he is the only one who can keep the family TV set functioning. He abhors the idea of spending his life in the company of gobbling turkeys or slicing off the beaks of turkey chicks.

So the scene is set for a classic generational clash in a culture in which the father is the pre-eminent authority, sharpened within an immigrant family whose elders speak Farsi and the children answer in Hebrew.

At this juncture, as in many Old World tales, the uncle from America arrives with tales of untold riches awaiting hardworking immigrants, particularly in golden California. Uncle Darius makes and sells jewelry, and as he trains Moti to follow in his footsteps, he promises the boy, “You can sell them in Beverly Hills and you’ll become a millionaire.”

But Uncle Darius, who has remained a bachelor, acknowledges that beneath all the glitter he is not happy. “I am all alone,” he says, triggering a tug-of-war in which the brothers try to convince each other to settle in their respective countries.

It would be unfair to reveal the emotional ending of the film, which is marked by superb cinematography of largely barren landscapes and fine acting by an oddly assembled cast.

For the key roles of father Yitzhak and son Moti, director Delshad first cast experienced actor Navid Negahban, best known in the United States as the terror mastermind Abu Nazir in Showtime’s “Homeland.” 

By contrast, 13-year-old Asher Avrahami, who had never acted before, was discovered during an audition in a village not far from the moshav where Delshad grew up in the 1980s. The boy turns in an absolutely convincing performance, and he is ably supported by a cast of actors of Iranian descent, some living in Israel and others in Europe, mostly Jewish.

Delshad said that he cast only actors who grew up in a Persian family environment. Even though he himself was born in Israel and has never been to Iran, Delshad said, “Iranian culture is amazing. It is in my DNA, my roots are there, and my dream is to visit the country some day.”

There are some 300,000 Persian Jews living in Israel and although most have integrated well, it’s a hard life, Delshad said. Those looking for greater material opportunities often move to New York or Los Angeles, to “the land of opportunities,” he said.

As for Delshad, he now lives in a Tel Aviv suburb with his wife, a son and a daughter, and he is happy to report there is no “cultural conflict between the generations.”

“Baba Joon” was made on a budget of about $1 million, with a small portion contributed by Angelenos Younes and Soraya Nazarian through their family foundation. Early buzz in the Hollywood trade papers gives “Baba Joon” a solid chance to land among the five finalists contending for the foreign-language film Oscar.

The Israel Film Festival runs Oct. 28-Nov. 19, with the opening night’s premiere of “Baba Joon” at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. During the evening, the Israel Film Festival will honor writer and producer Aaron Sorkin with the IFF Achievement in Film and Television Award, announced Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the IsraFest Foundation. On the same platform, Sharon S. Nazarian will receive the IFF Humanitarian Award.

A third honoree is actress Helen Mirren, who stars in “Woman in Gold,” which will be among the festival’s 29 narrative and documentary films, including numerous Los Angeles, American and world premieres. She will receive the IFF Career Achievement Award.

For ticket and general information, visit israelfilmfestival.com, call (310) 247-1800 or email info@israelfilmfestival.org.