“This film is born from a very precious encounter in my life. That with Mohammad Jan Azad, one of the protagonists of my documentary Il mondo addosso. That film tells the life of a number of migrant boys who flew from the war and persecutions in their respective countries. Stories of teenagers who were forced to leave their dear ones, family, school, and work in order to survive and who then found themselves in extremely harsh conditions when they arrived in Italy.” Costanza Quatriglio uses these words to present Just Like My Son, out of competition at the Locarno Film Festival. A true story, that of Jan and his mother, who blends with all the other stories the director bumped into during his work on the young migrants. It’s a film that “tells of the condition of many young men who like Jan ended up living in a foreign country without knowing a thing about their previous life anymore.”

As a matter of fact, Just Like My Son, is a film built around an absence. A huge absence from the very beginning – the mother of Hassan and Ismail, two hazara brothers who escaped from Afghanistan when they were just children. Hassan and Ismail have been living in Italy for a while now. Piling up debts, they run a small tailor shop. Their life keeps on being oppressed by this absence though: since they left, they’ve known nothing about their mother. The only contact they have – a woman who first denies they’re her children, but then looks for them through her new husband – is mad at Ismail, the youngest brother. After two disquieting phonecalls, the two brothers are requested to go to Pakistan, where they could maybe see their mother again. From this moment on, their lives will be again out of balance. Hassan blindly believes what they say in the phonecalls. Ismail instead choose another path, and starts a journey backward towards home. That journey allows him to rewrite his personal history and get in touch again with his origins and the history of his people.

“Ismail, played by Basir Ahang, is a real hazara. He’s not an actor, but a poet and a journalist. In the opening scenes, he looks like a giant as if out of place, too big for that space. When he’s back to his country instead, he looks smaller, perfectly shot within the frame. This position of Ismail within the space is very important and goes through the gaze of another character as well – Nina, the girl he falls in love with. Something magic and mysterious happens between them, and nothing will be the same again. She sees him in a brand new way. To me, Nina’s gaze is the gaze of Europe, a gaze that helps us change our perspective and show things we couldn’t see before. That’s how the film is structured, following a number of progressive unveilings.”

A chinese-box kind of structure that leads the viewer from a real dimension to an increasingly allegorical one, until the hopeful ending: it doesn’t matter anymore if the story is true or not. “The scene in which Ismail meets the woman who could be his mother has been very moving for everyone, also because Basir’s real mother played that part. The two of them haven’t met for years. It’s been one of the most difficult scenes I shot in my entire life because I could feel the responsibility I had towards the people who, picked up village after village, were chosen as extras. The emotion was big because everybody knew that this film was trying to tell the story of many women and of a whole people, the Hazara, who have been persecuted for over 100 years. We were deeply focused in an atmosphere of prayer and meditation. It was magic and at some point there was nothing left to explain.”

Life and fiction blends in Just Like My Son, a film that talks to our hearts without schemes or shortcuts, but only with the disruptive power of truth. “It’s been fundamental for us the possibility of shooting in Iran, where we found a landscape that looks similar to Afghanistan. After Zurlini’s The Desert of the Tartars, ours has been the first crew to get back there for shooting. It was important to be in a place inhabited by the Hazaras, where we could meet people who really lived the persecutions. And then we met those women and mothers who helped us create that ancestral dimension to which the protagonist gets back in the end, finally recognized by his ancestors.”

Just Like My Son is produced by Ascent Film with Rai Cinema, in coproduction with Caviar and Antitalent.