Relations between the countries of Iran and the United States may be ill at ease, but Iranian cinematic import “A Separation” — just off its Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Film win and a Best Screenplay feting by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the first such honor from the organization for a foreign film — is capturing the hearts and minds of plenty of American cineastes. The movie is a multi-layered familial drama about a married couple (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) attempting to resolve elder care issues, their teenage daughter’s needs and the potentiality of a divorce when a misunderstanding turned legal problem with their new maid renders these problems secondary. Sophisticated and yet immediately knowable, the rapturously engaging “A Separation” belies cliched notions of how a foreign film must connect with American audiences in staid, formal tones. ShockYa recently sat down with writer-director Asghar Farhadi, to discuss, with the assistance of a translator, his award-winning movie, as well as life in general and his personal filmmaking future in Iran. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: ”A Separation” is almost incidentally a foreign film — the story and the dramatic struggles are universal, and provoke such a strong response — so I was intrigued to learn that you were actually in Berlin when you first hatched the idea for this story.
Asghar Farhadi: This is true. I was in Berlin to make another film, and it was while I was there I realized that this idea, of “A Separation,” was the film that I wanted to most make. I can’t say what the particular reason was, but at that moment in time I decided I wanted to make this film, and put aside what was supposed to be an international co-production. I actually believe that if you give into your instincts and what you wish to do, then all good things will follow. After the film began to show in all these different parts of the world, I have discovered that for a movie to be either universal or local — these are not polarly opposite values. These two can be side by side, and co-exist.
ShockYa: I think the film provides a portrait of Iranian women — and Iran in general — that is very different and obviously more fully realized than the portrait we receive through much of the mainstream media here in the States. That big contrast between tradition and modernity — is that very much on the surface in Iran?
AF: No, actually it’s not on the surface. It’s in the depths, and that’s what makes it more dangerous. A malady whose symptoms are externalized and can be seen can be addressed and treated quickly. But an ailment that is hidden inside your body and only makes itself known from time to time is very dangerous. I think I have come to call this a hidden war.
ShockYa: You made a statement in support of Jafar Panahi (who was imprisoned by the Iranian government for his professional work), and as I understand it your production license for “A Separation” was revoked. What was the timeline on that — had you started shooting at all? And what is the mechanism by which film productions are approved in Iran?
AF: It was during the second week of shooting this film that I was going to be attending a ceremony where I was to receive several awards for my previous film, “About Elly.” As a matter of fact, I left from the set of that film to go to that event, and wanted to get it over with so I could go home and go to bed. And when I went to that ceremony I spoke and named filmmakers who were not able to make films — who were either not allowed to make movies, or are outside of Iran — and I said that I wished that they could (make movies). A couple days later we were in the middle of shooting when my assistant’s phone rang, and they told her that we needed to stop shooting. This delay took about a week to 10 days, which was quite tense. At first I didn’t take it very seriously, but gradually I realized it was quite serious. But then the government overturned their decision, basically.
ShockYa: Did the government require any sort of statement of contrition or apology?
AF: They wanted me to take back what I had said. And they were sending various emissaries and folks to try to convince me to do that. I did an interview during which I said it was my right as an individual to actively defend my colleagues. Afterwards, because of pressure that was brought by critics and other colleagues, the situation seemed to resolve itself. Something they did that was ugly and not very moral was claim that that interview was me reversing my position.
ShockYa: So they tried to save face, sort of.
AF: Yes, but people know the truth.
ShockYa: I imagine that the international reception of ”A Separation” (which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival) brings positive attention and pride to many in your country, but also creates a lot of tension.
AF: Yes. On the one hand it creates great happiness for the Iranian film family, and the people of Iran too. But on the other hand I think there will be a greater degree of focus on my work on the part of those that are decision-makers. I don’t know if this metaphor translates exactly, but they say that nobody throws stones at a standing train, only at a moving train. So I feel that. But that attention that will be focused on me will not be an obstacle; if anything it will just make me work more, and be more focused.
ShockYa: Just to clarify, do you have to submit all scripts to a government board before you begin production?
AF: If you want to shoot anywhere outside of an apartment — on the street, or in public places — and if you want your film to be distributed, there are certain stages you have to go through. First, you submit your script to a committee that has been selected by the Ministry of Culture, and they read your script. They’re going to give their opinion as to whether you can make your film, or whether you should change certain parts of it. On the strength of that first permit, that’s how you can go on and obtain the other necessary permits to shoot on the street or what have you. After you’ve completed your film, you submit your film to another separate committee selected by the Ministry of Culture, who will also give their opinion, and who will decide to give a permit for the film to be distributed or not. This is a very over-simplified version of things, but there are some very complicated things in the background, which means that there are ways… (trails off, leaving an implication hanging)
ShockYa: Ways to get around the rules?
AF: Yes, but if I were to speak about them then I couldn’t use those ways anymore.
ShockYa: In other interviews, you have rejected the notion that these sorts of rules are a good thing and encourage more creativity. Indeed, you mentioned an international co-production that you were working on when you first had the idea for “A Separation.” In that respect, is the patriarchal character of Nader a stand-in for your feelings? He’s a traditionalist, and wants his daughter (played by Farhadi’s real-life daughter in the movie) to grow up in Iran, but also recognizes a need for her to form her own opinions.
AF: In some respects I resemble Nader and in some I don’t. In that I worry for my child and the future generation, I resemble him absolutely. I prefer, all things being equal, to make films in my home country. This does not mean that I would never leave Iran to make films; in fact, my next film is one that I’m making outside of Iran. But I would never make the decision to leave Iran for good. This is a mistaken notion — to think that we can leave Iran and freely make films. It’s not as though there there are certain limitations curtailing our freedoms, and once we leave the physical place alone we will be in another society and be free. We are born in those conditions, exist in those conditions, and so when we leave Iran those limitations actually exist inside of us. When we go abroad, we don’t start at zero; we come with and bring things that we may not even necessarily be conscious of. I think the majority of my films I will make in Iran, but if there is a story requiring it I would make the film elsewhere.
ShockYa: I think the film’s depiction of sharia law would or will be eye-opening to many American audiences, because in this country there is a very big division between criminal and civil courts. I read that you had to build sets to shoot those scenes (i.e., you couldn’t use real courtrooms), so how much of the governmental nervousness over the film relates to its depiction of sharia law, which is exotic to and misunderstood by a lot of Westerners?
AF: I don’t think it is much about sharia law. Something that happened where I was very fortunate [was that] prior to my receiving that situational permit, the Berlin Film Festival selected the film (for competition), and immediately after the Berlin Festival they had to rule on the distribution permit — there wasn’t a great deal of time. And so the selection by Berlin created an impetus for them to act quickly, and issue the permit. But after that, once the film began to screen, their take on it became a little clearer, and they began to talk to one another — there were some who were still OK with the film and didn’t have any difficulty with it, but others were very hard and fast against it, and regretted that the film had obtained a distribution permit. Still, I actually don’t know why they would have that opinion, because when they speak it’s not as if they say directly what their issue is.
ShockYa: And what is your next film about, can you say?
AF: All I can say is that it follows on from my previous films. When you see it, even if you don’t see the title sequence, you’ll hopefully recognize that I am the filmmaker.
Written by: Brent Simon