A benevolent teacher in a small village along the border between Iran and Afghanistan tries to do the right thing in morally unclear situations in Endless Borders (Marzhaye bi payan), a bleak new drama from director Abbas Amini. Endless Borders won the Big Screen Competition at this year’s IFF Rotterdam before making its way to the 2023 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Endless Borders stars Pouria Rahimi Sam (Ballad of a White Cow) as Ahmad, a schoolteacher who works in a desolate village on the border between Iran and Afghanistan, splitting his time between students in both countries. In the film’s opening sequence, Iranian guards pull him from his bus, and tell him he’s not allowed to cross the border.
Ahmad can only think of his students: who will continue their education? But his desire to do the right thing in the face of an oppressive system isn’t as clear-cut as he might like it to be. He is an exile from Tehran himself, for reasons not immediately clear, though phone conversations with imprisoned wife Niloofar (Mino Sharifi) suggest a struggle against authority.
On his way back to his village, Ahmad encounters an encampment of Hazara refugees fleeing Afghanistan from Taliban rule. They include family whose patriarch is severely ill and appears to be close to death, and a doctor (Naser Sajjad Hosseini) who is hesitant to provide aid, lacking the appropriate medicine.
Ahmad decides to take the family back to his village, a benevolent action that will have unintended consequence. This sets off the larger story arc in Endless Borders, which involves teenage Haseeba (Behafirid Ghaffarian), and Balaj (Hamed Alipour), the son of the village elder. A romance might be brewing between them, but Ahmad is shocked to learn that Haseeba is not the daughter of the dying patriarch, but rather his child wife.
Endless Borders operates in a world of moral grays, with a protagonist desperate to make the right decision but that right decision not always immediately apparent. This is keenly observed during a sequence in which Ahmad admits his own lack of understanding of Hazara customs, and turns to the village elder for advice… and in the process, makes everything instantly worse.
Stuck in situations without clear hope, the various characters in Endless Borders see emigration as their only escape, a process that involves risky fence-hopping at the borders between Afghanistan and Iran and Iran and Turkey. But they also find that the borders erected in our minds can be as difficult to penetrate as those between countries.
A co-production between Iran, Germany, and the Czech Republic, Endless Borders is a especially well-crafted drama-cum-thriller that shares a number of similarities with films set at the border between the United States and Mexico. Cinematographer Saman Loftian beautifully captures the desolate landscape between Iran and Afghanistan that is at once expansive and confining.
Provocative and engaging, Endless Borders works on multiple levels with a compelling storyline and incisive social commentary, and earmarks director Amini as a filmmaker to watch in independent Iranian cinema.