Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi, the Filmmakers Behind “In the Land of Brothers”

By Lucy Spicer

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn a lot about the filmmakers from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival through the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about them as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our ongoing series: Give Me the Backstory!

Year after year, eye-opening and unforgettable experiences are sparked at the Sundance Film Festival as audiences are introduced to new voices in filmmaking. Co-writers and directors Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi are not only making their Sundance debut at the 2024 Festival — they’re making their feature directorial debut, too. Premiering in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Amirfazli and Ghasemi’s film In the Land of Brothers follows three members of an Afghan family on their decadeslong journey to seek new lives as refugees in Iran. 

In order to lend the most authenticity possible to the voices of their characters, Amirfazli and Ghasemi looked to the real-life Afghan community in Iran. In the end, they made the unconventional decision to hire nonactors. “After we finalized the cast for the film, I knew we had made good choices, but the realization of how truly amazing our cast was came way later, when they were on camera,” explains Amirfazli. “Working with a cast that consists mainly of nonactors is magical. Each day they show up in front of the camera as themselves and trust the camera to capture their beauty, their charm, and their vulnerabilities. During each of the three stages of shooting this film, I became more certain that I’ll always prefer to work mainly with nonactors.”

That dedication to authenticity and community is a driving force behind In the Land of Brothers, a story that the filmmakers consider to be both deeply personal and universal. Below, discover how Amirfazli and Ghasemi got into filmmaking, their inspiration behind this project, and why this story needs to be told now.

What was the biggest inspiration behind the film?

Our biggest inspiration behind the film is evolutionary — from the assembled memories of our childhood Afghan friends leaving us, to recognizing the barriers Afghan immigrants face in Iran telling their own stories, as well as our deep artistic desire to tell stories of those marginalized societies and characters that surprise us in the hardest of circumstances.

Describe who you want this film to reach.

We hope to transcend geographical boundaries for our message to reach every corner of the globe. We see ourselves as global storytellers whose stories can relate to human nature on a deep level. Mostly, we wish for the film to be seen by audiences who might not instinctually bring diversity into their daily lives, and to have them think twice in their interactions to come.

Raha Amirfazli

Why does this story need to be told now?

In a world that is struggling with the daily displacement of many refugees who end up in an unfamiliar environment in hopes of building a new life, most media suggest that the immigrants think differently, possess values distinct from others, and consequently, may pose a threat to societies. We intend for this film to show people otherwise, to make them think of refugees as equals, and not as others.

How do you want people to feel after they see your film?

We want audiences to feel empathy for our characters and to extend that empathy toward all people, to see how the despair of a predetermined fate can be fatal, and to rally against the existing complexities for refugees felt universally around the world.

Films are lasting artistic legacies; what do you want yours to say?

In the Land of Brothers is about the feeling of being “the other” in a place you thought you belonged. We want the audience to rethink the false constructs of boundaries around the globe and to imagine a world without them.

Tell us why and how you got into filmmaking.

Amirfazli: As an introverted only child, there’s only so much you can do to entertain yourself. After a while, the school bus becomes a 19th-century wagon and you the wagoner in the front row, the ladybug in the park attains a heartbreaking love story, and a spill of rice on the ground is an aerial shot of a war zone with soldiers fighting each other. As far as I remember, I’ve always had multiple storylines going on in my head. Somehow among the chaos of the university entrance exam in Iran, I managed to get into film school, and only after that was when I realized, this was the thing I’ve loved and spent my whole life doing.

Ghasemi: I decided to become a lawyer back in high school, but I also happened to take the art entrance exam for the university. I was accepted to both law school and film school, and I had to choose one. I was very hesitant about which one to choose. I remember my mother saw my hesitation and told me, “You love storytelling; use it to convince the world instead of the judge!” So, I chose to attend film school. It was a decision I never regretted!

Alireza Ghasemi

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be doing?

Amirfazli: Musician

Ghasemi: Writer

What is something that all filmmakers should keep in mind in order to become better cinematic storytellers?

Amirfazli: Once you’ve found THE story that you need to tell next, you’ll feel true joy and excitement. Never make a story that doesn’t give you that chill. The rest will eventually come to you naturally.

Ghasemi: Never stop learning. Study various film genres and the history of cinema. Learn as much as you can from other filmmakers, writers, and artists. This is a form of art that continuously evolves, and you can be part of it.

What was the last book you read?

Amirfazli: Symphony of the Dead by Abbas Maroufi

Ghasemi: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

One thing people don’t know about me is _______.

Amirfazli: I used to write rap music.

Ghasemi: I was a Rollerblade coach for two years at a skate club.

Tell us about your history with Sundance Institute. When was the first time you engaged with us? Why did you want your film to premiere with us?

Amirfazli: During my second year of undergrad in Tehran, I discovered the vast world of Sundance Collab. In the following months, I dug through the archives religiously and familiarized myself with as many subjects as possible. I quickly understood that Sundance is one of the few institutes that support true indie filmmaking. As a filmmaker who intends to continue making independent films, I always knew Sundance is one of the best places for my debut to premiere in.

Ghasemi: The first time I delved into the Sundance Film Festival was when I came across Tangerine by Sean Baker. The intriguing aspect that caught my attention was that the entire film was shot using an iPhone 5s. As a 25-year-old film student, this unique approach piqued my curiosity. Soon, I discovered the Sundance YouTube channel, eager to find additional interviews with filmmakers who had showcased their films that year. The channel proved to be a treasure of insightful interviews, providing an enriching opportunity to learn from the artist community experience. Even in those early days, Sundance stood out as a festival I wanted to be part of, renowned for its commitment to innovation and high-quality storytelling.

What’s your favorite film that has come from the Sundance Institute or Festival?

Amirfazli: Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin

Ghasemi: Senna by Asif Kapadia

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