'Finding Farideh': Film Review

'Finding Farideh' still - H 2019
Courtesy of Berlinale Talents
A gentle, straightforward story filled with emotion.

A woman adopted by a Dutch couple as a toddler returns to Iran to find her biological parents in Kourosh Ataee and Azadeh Moussavi’s documentary, Iran’s submission to the 2020 Oscars.

There’s a lot of laughing and a lot of tears in Finding Farideh, a documentary about a determined 38-year-old Dutch woman, Eline Farideh Koning, who decides to visit her birthplace in a pilgrimage city in northeast Iran and search for her birth parents. Shot with a gentle, sensitive touch, it takes the viewer into territory rarely explored in contemporary Iranian films, deep into the heart of the traditional family and its values. Far from being stiff-backed, religious hard-liners, they are open and even gushing as they reach out to one of their own who has come back into the fold.

Producers and co-directors Kourosh Ataee and Azadeh Moussavi previously worked together on the 2013 doc From Iran, A Separation, which examined the local reaction to Asghar Farhadi’s Academy Award win for the best foreign language film (this was in 2012). Now their second film, Finding Farideh, has itself been submitted to represent Iran in 2020. Made via crowdfunding, it has already won multiple prizes nationally as well as an honorable mention at the Los Angeles Film Awards, though its story seems too low-key and limited in interest to make further inroads.

Perhaps the doc’s most striking aspect is its stark contrast between the calm rationality of the Dutch family who adopted Farideh when she was around 2 years old from a Tehran orphanage and the uninhibited emotions of the Iranians she meets. Yes, national stereotypes are exactly what you think they are, but neither country is misjudged for that.

In her Amsterdam apartment, Eline-Farideh is an attractive single woman with tons of friends; the great aching hole in her life is not knowing who gave birth to her, or why they chose to abandon their six-month-old daughter in the religious shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. This inner wound, she feels, is what has prevented her from marrying and having children. Through social media and some stories published in Mashhad papers, she has publicized her quest, leading to contact with three different families who all claim she is their long-lost daughter.

Farideh's urgent need to return to her “home” in Iran is fully supported by her taciturn parents, who take her to the airport, along with her grown brother, to wish her well. The role of the two filmmakers is never mentioned and they remain invisible throughout, though their presence (along with that of DP Mohamad Hadadi) must surely have had some effect on the doc's subjects..

In Tehran, Farideh is met by Negar Rahimi, a social media pal who has agreed to accompany her to translate. Both are warm young women and they hit it off instantly. As they ride the train to Mashhad, Farideh is filled with happy anticipation. At the station they are met by a teeming delegation. First there is Ali Akbar, a friendly man who believes he is Farideh’s father, his wife, children and in-laws. Surprisingly for Iran, everyone grabs the Dutch woman and kisses her, including the men. Then she embraces a second family group, and a third. All three are shaking with joy at finding the child they had believed lost, and each family has its own version of how it happened. Their lack of self-consciousness in showing their feelings brings out Farideh’s own tearful emotions — her “Iranian” side — and there is much embracing, explaining, declaring and even fighting. Farideh is clearly in her natural element, and that is already a positive result of the trip.

Ataee and Moussavi don’t aim for sophisticated effects. Editing tends to be quite linear and shooting straightforward. But halfway through the film, a strong note of suspense is introduced when everybody goes to the doctor and gets blood taken for a DNA test. Who will “win” the test, as one contender puts it, and prove to be related to Farideh is only revealed at the film’s end.

Production company: Frame Films
Cast: Eline Farideh Koning, Negar Rahimi

Directors-producers: Kourosh Ataee, Azadeh Moussavi
Screenwriters: Kourosh Ataee, Eline Farideh Koning, Azadeh Moussavi
Director of photography: Mohamad Hadadi
Editor: Hamid Najafirad
Music: Afshn Azizi
World sales: Eli Image
88 minutes