The first time I saw Welcome Home, I couldn’t help but think that writer/director Armita Keyani made the film specifically for me (narcissistic much?). It has a plethora of ingredients I love: a single location, both Scandinavian and Iranian ties, a meeting of two cultures and different languages, subtle writing, and stellar performances. Above all however, Welcome Home surprises—challenging preconceived judgements and cultural attitudes through that most entertaining of lenses—humor.
Zarah and Aman left Iran to be refugees in Norway. They try to adapt to their new life, but others in their adopted home are less keen to allow them. Their neighbor in particular is less than welcoming, so when a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses show up on their doorstep, they don’t feel exasperated by the intrusion, they are excited to make new friends!
Cultural collision is always ripe for comedy, and this particular premise didn’t need a farfetched imagination—the premise is rooted in something Keyani’s parents experienced when their life mirrored Zarah and Aman’s in the late 80’s. Their openness to their new environment, and frankly not knowing exactly what those two strangers were doing at their door, led them to inviting them in and having them over once a week for a year! Inspired by the absurd nature of human behavior, random encounters, and finding humor in the smallest things, Keyani decided to turn her parent’s story into a screenplay.
For a relatively grounded concept, anchored by characters and conversation, writing is key. What struck me in Keyani’s script is its subtlety and authenticity, but also how she manages to stay away from the usual tropes of this kind of narrative. Key to this is, of course, her own experience growing up in Norway. She succeeds at making the audience see Zarah and Aman as a part of “us” instead of feeling a distance between “them” and “us”, eschewing the kind of easy and often crude cultural comedy that normally flows from fish-out-water scenarios. This perspective provides an extra layer of authenticity to her two main characters, and also potent insight into the kind of assumptions natives make.
The naturalness of the dialogue, and of the awkward pauses that ensue, therefore feel genuine, and are extremely enjoyable. From the casual, but not necessarily ill-advised, racism, to what they yell at each other during their fights, every line pokes fun at xenophobia, and this is magnified by the edit. This is not a film that relies on the matching of perfectly-articulated zingers, and thankfully the pace allows the awkwardness to operate to the level of its maximum comedic potential.
With a strong backbone, it is the performances that truly bring it home. From the opening scene, Zarah and Aman are instantly likable and the audience wants to root for them. But, as previously mentioned, it is the all around awkwardness that allows all four actors to really shine. On one side, we see the refugee couple go from excited, to wondering WTF is happening, with mostly just facial expression. They nail those transitions, and it never feels too over-the-top or performative—with a few looks they manage to communicate volumes. Due to Keyani’s intimate understanding of the Iranian characters, one would be concerned about their two Jehovah’s Witness counterparts, but thankfully they also do not feel like caricatures—the purpose of their visit, and their talking points are naturally specific, and these ticks played for laughs, but it does not feel like the film is taking advantage of it as a cheap comedy trick. It is rather their discomfort, and, again, the awkwardness, along with the misunderstandings and language divide that provide the laughs.
Welcome Home premiered at Tribeca 2018, went on to play at many festivals, including the Palm Springs ShortFest 2018, before premiering online as a Vimeo Staff Pick. A student film made while enrolled at the Nordland College of Art and Film, Keyani is just beginning her journey in filmmaking, and we cannot wait to see what she will do next—a new short comedy about interactions between strangers is already in the works, and hopefully we will be able to bring it to you soon.