Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is a long way from Tehran today. Reached in an L.A. hotel room as part of a whirlwind publicity tour, he is talking over the phone with the Georgia Straight about the unimaginable: the fact that his small, albeit smart and masterfully directed, film, A Separation, is considered the Oscar front-runner for best foreign film.
A world away from the rural fables many North Americans have come to associate with Iranian cinema, A Separation is a resolutely urban story about a middle-class couple whose marital breakdown sets off a dominolike chain of tragic events.
The soft-spoken, humble Farhadi will only “hazard a few guesses” through his interpreter as to why his movie has garnered so much unexpected attention abroad. “This film has been built on the commonality that people share in the world rather than the differences,” he says thoughtfully in musical-sounding Persian, days before his January 15 Golden Globe win for best foreign-language film. “And even those things that are foreign to a viewer outside of Iran do not come across as that strange or that intangible.”
On one hand, the family in his film struggles with concerns not unlike the ones that might face your average American clan. A woman and a man stubbornly argue over custody of their daughter. When the wife leaves, the husband, Nader, is forced to hire a low-paid caregiver to take care of his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father while he goes to work. But the cultural, class, and religious particularities of Iran complicate matters. The hired caregiver is a poor, devout Muslim who has to hide the fact that she is working in another man’s home from her hotheaded husband.
When an accident happens, it’s hard to know who’s telling the truth. Is the caregiver being exploited? Or is she exploiting her situation? What makes A Separation so infuriatingly good is that Farhadi refuses to side with any characters or lay clear blame for the film’s central acts of deception—even in our interview. “A Separation asks the viewer to move about the film a little bit like a detective,” the filmmaker explains, adding that it’s an approach he’s explored in his other films, which have seen little or no release in North America. “In the end, these are films that are mysteries, but the mystery is not answered in the film. It’s for the viewer to figure out.”
If Farhadi asks the viewers to be detectives, he also asks them to be magistrates as well. But not necessarily the adult kind that appear in the chaotic family courts depicted in the film. “I would say the most important judges in the film are the children,” he says, revealing his biggest clue. “Their gaze is like the eyes of the judge, constantly following the other characters to see what they are doing, and the viewer’s judgment will fall very closely to what the children’s judgment would be.”
That judgment can’t be very positive. Adult pettiness and selfishness forces the 11-year-old daughter (played by Farhadi’s own child, Sarina) into a painful, impossible quandary by the movie’s end. And yet we sympathize with the parents’ situation, just as we see their flaws and lies. Farhadi refuses to paint the world in terms of black and white or good and evil.
“There is an effort to make these characters not one-dimensional,” he tells the Straight. “I believe that there is no single description describing a character or a person. A set of circumstances can define what a person is. This is what gives the characters realism and what makes them alive.
“When a character who we don’t expect to hides the truth, and we understand the reasons why he does, then we feel that he is alive. The stereotypical formula is that a character who is good wouldn’t do that.”
Amid this morally complex group are strong female characters: a wife willing to leave her husband because he doesn’t agree their daughter will have a better life in America; and a more traditional woman who puts herself in danger to make money behind her husband’s back. But Farhadi is emphatic that he doesn’t see these portraits as exceptions to the rule in Iran.
“The audience members from Iran who see the depiction of Iranian women do not see it as extraordinary but ordinary to them. But when foreign audiences see this, they are surprised because they have this preconception of Iranian women as not being active and not being strong,” he says, then adds: “It’s possible one of the reasons that makes the women strong is the response to the limitations they have to confront.”
That sounds a little political, perhaps, but Farhadi is loathe to associate A Separation with any larger messages than simple, universal human relationships and morality. This may not be just a philosophical stance. If the struggles between the old traditions and the new Iran that we see in A Separation make any metaphorical comments on the state of his home country, it would be nothing less than perilous for Farhadi to talk about them. That is, if he ever wants permission to shoot another movie there. In 2010, his official authorization to film A Separation was temporarily yanked after he made public statements supporting two filmmakers, one exiled and the other jailed.
At the very least, life comes across as hard in Iran in A Separation. But making movies there has not been all that much of a struggle, Farhadi insists. “In Iran, financing the films is not very difficult, because making a film is not that expensive, so maybe 100 films a year are made,” he says, and then allows, somewhat cryptically: “But there are certain other aspects of it that can be difficult—that depends on what subjects you pick and how you address them.”
The most startling thing about A Separation, in the end, is that it could reach out over the ever-widening chasm between Iran and America at all—and possibly even take a golden statue at Hollywood’s pinnacle of awards nights.
The ever-modest Farhadi doesn’t want to even go there right now but will say this: “It’s a little soon for me to discuss that yet, but what I have realized from all this is that viewers all over the world are not that different from one another, and, in fact, the similarities between them are far greater. So for me, to have this film be submitted to Oscars, for me, that’s what it possibly means.”
Watch the trailer for A Separation.