I'll admit my knowledge of Iranian cinema is somewhat limited, but the Gene Siskel Film Center has an annual Iranian Film Festival, and I see what I can. If I manage to always make a point to catch the latest from Abbas Kiarostami, I feel like I've done 75 percent of my job. What I've noticed about the films from Iran that I've seen over the last 15 years or so is that they are simply plotted, harmless, serene, and beautiful. But this is changing, and writer-director Asghar Farhadi's A SEPARATION is proof of this. His film is an emotional powder keg with a slow-burning fuse. He tackles nothing short of the state of his nation in the form of a story concerning two couples and their extended family.
I'll have a full review Friday, but Farhadi illustrates class conflict, personal battles, religious divide, gender and age discrimination, and the slow and steady way that most parents are screwing up their children. There's an incident at the center of A SEPARATION that may have been an accident or a serious crime; we'll never know, but what emerges from the incident is a clearer sense of the separation that exists between all people who are too proud, stupid, and/or bigoted. In this film, you feel the stakes at hand, and they are weighty.
I was very fortunate recently to have a few minutes to sit down with Farhadi while he was in Chicago to accept his Chicago Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film, and I found him just the right amount of mildly intimidating but such a great thinker about the deeper issues contained in his now-Oscar-nominated masterpiece. I've never seen his other films from the past 10 years (DANCING IN THE DUST, BEAUTIFUL CITY, FIREWORKS WEDNESDAY, and ABOUT ELLY), but if the only film of his you do get to see is A SEPARATION, you could still live a full and happy life. Please enjoy my talk with Asghar Farhadi, who spoke to me with the help of an interpreter…
Asghar Farhadi: Hello.
Capone: How are you? It’s nice to meet you, sir.
AF: It’s nice to meet you.
Capone: I was really happy to hear that you were able to come in early for the award that we are giving you tomorrow.
AF: Did they announce it? I thought I was just nominated.
Capone: Oh no, you won. I'm sorry I ruined the surprise. A very worthy film though, absolutely. A SEPARATION feels so very specific and very personal. Is that the case? Did you draw things from your own life to put this story together?
AF: Partly it is from my personal memories, but the aspect about divorce and separation, no. That is actually not related to my reality since I’m always with my family.
Capone: Do you find it easier to write when you are pulling from things that you have experienced rather than having to create them from nothing?
AF: Yes, when something occurs to me and I have experience, of course it’s easier for me to write about. Even if it happened to people close to me, it’s easier for me to write about it.
Capone: There’s a long series in this film of bad decisions and poor communication. Are you as much an advocate of people communicating better as you are for human rights and some of the other bigger issues you deal with in this film?
AF: One of the issues that I really realized is very important and I focused on in this film is actually that one, the one of communication. When I was studying theater, this issue became very serious to me, the issue of language and the question that arises in me is this language that we inherited from the past, is it still capable? Does it have the capacity to express the extreme complexity and convoluted things that now we have in our present society? I have the feeling that people got a lot more convoluted and complex, but the language didn’t follow; it stayed simple. That is actually the reason why when we want to make sure somebody understands what we want to say we talk too much. We talk a lot because we are not sure that we are conveying exactly what we want to convey.
Capone: Also another issue that I noticed in the film is that male pride seems to get in the way of what should be easy decisions. Is that also something you’re not a big fan of?
AF: With part of this position I agree, and on another part I don’t. I don’t call it “male pride,” I call it “pride.” Easily a woman could have the same kind of pride. I never really divide characters in men and women. I don’t see that this kind of pride is a male pride and this is not a woman’s pride.
Capone: I agree that women can also be proud. I feel like it’s slightly different. I don’t feel like it interferes as much as sometimes male pride does, but maybe I’m wrong.
AF: I don’t know; I’m not sure. But you might be right.
Capone: You have also constructed a story where I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, that every single character lies at some point about something, and they usually live to regret it. Did you want everyone to be some degree of guilty in this story?
AF: We cannot very easily define what they are doing as lying, and I want to explain why I say that. We don’t like people who lie. In this film the people are doing this thing that you call “lying,” but ask yourself why we still don’t dislike them? It’s because we understand why they are lying.
Capone: I understand why they are lying. It’s still lying. I probably would have lied under the same circumstances.
AF: [laughs] It looks like these are some very good people who find themselves in very non-good circumstances. So the suffering here is that they really don’t want to lie, but they have to lie and they feel guilty.
Capone: Guilt is a big component in this film, for sure, however they get there. I’m sure people have mentioned this before, but the idea of dominos pops into my head. And at various points in the story the audience is perhaps rooting for different characters at different times. You actually have to predict how an audience is going to react to certain people so that you can turn them in another direction; I’ve never really witnessed anything like that before.
AF: [Laughs] Let me tell you a very funny story about this, there was a scene in the screenplay where actually the kids were supposed to play dominos, and I actually eliminated it from the movie, because I felt it was highlighting it too much. It was too obvious.
Capone: That’s right.
AF: Nevertheless, I can explain to you what’s the reason why in some scenes the viewer roots for one character and the next one for the other and the following for another one. This is like being a judge, and whoever comes in front of you as a judge to defend themselves, you have a feeling that he’s right. So as a judge, you are in a position where you say, “Yeah, it’s true that they are all fighting, but they're all right.” So this is not a conflict between good and evil, this is a conflict between good and good.
Capone: That makes it all the more painful to watch.
AF: Yes, this is very true and this is also in many movies. There’s always a group of bad people, a group of good people, and your desire as a viewer is that the bad people succumb and the good people win. So you’re expectation is almost zero in this movie, because you're just waiting for the inevitable to happen when the bad guys are going to go down and the good guys win. But in this kind of film, first of all you have to establish within yourself who is who and who is good. Then once you figured out that they're all good, you start thinking, “Okay, which one would I like to win for me to feel good?”
Capone: I know by the end of the film I was hoping everyone would just walk away from each other and leave everybody alone. I didn’t want any winners or losers. The title of the film, A SEPARATION, obviously isn’t just referring to the marriage, you also very beautifully illustrate the separations in the eyes of the law, in class and religion. Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker in any way?
AF: It depends what your definition of political filmmaker. If your definition of a political filmmaker is one who, through his work, does a political manifesto of a particular position, then I’m not. But of course when you treat a theme that has to deal with societal issues, inevitably it becomes also a political.
Capone: Do you want this to be a snapshot of the way your country is right now, in all its good and bad?
AF: When we talk about Iran, we have to remember that we are talking about a very diversified country with more than 70 million inhabitants. No film can claim to have given a full glimpse or snapshot of the whole situation of the entire country. There are so many differences within that country that it’s impossible to contain all of those within just one film. What I can tell you is this is kind of like the snapshot of some people belonging to two families of an urban area of Iran.
Capone: And that being said, it does feel like you ask a lot of questions, most of which you don’t answer including that last question that I won't ruin the film by saying. But I feel like your purpose is not so much to put out a message as to get people to talk about very specific things as they walk out. Can you talk a little bit about what some of those things might be?
AF: It’s exactly like that. When you generate questions through the film, the film does not end when the film ends, because the questions keep bugging the viewer and make him think about the issues. Everything that has propelled mankind to progress has been questioning, not answering. That is why the knowledge of philosophy keeps going and has kept going, because it’s never ended, because the questions never ended, and the answers were never completely given.
Capone: This film has been selected for Oscar consideration; you’ve been winning awards at every festival you’ve been. What is that experience like for you personally?
AF: I am trying really not to think about the Oscars, because I cannot predict. I don’t know what could happen. The biggest expectation that I had actually happened, and this is the fact that ordinary people within Iran and outside of Iran have gone to see the movie. Usually, this kind of film is viewed only by festival people, but this film made it out of the festivals and to ordinary people. It’s very interesting, last night in the hotel I was staying in in New York, I was chatting with the hotel worker, and he was asking me where I’m from, and he started telling me that he had just seen a new Iran movie and he was talking about my movie.
Capone: IHow was the film received both critically and by just ordinary people in Iran.
AF: A few months ago, the film was actually shown around the theaters in Iran, and it is amongs the few movies that actually had great box office results. The majority of the critics loved the movie. Some group of critics actually selected the movie [as their favorite of the year]. Nevertheless, there were also critics that were against the movie.
Capone: What were the criticisms?
AF: I never understood what their reasons were. Some of them would compare this film with my previous films, saying, “That one was better.” They were saying very diverse things, but the number of critics that actually did not like the movie compared to the other ones was very small.
Capone: Do any of the criticism have anything to do with the issues that were brought up in the film or not, because I didn’t know how much the government still oversees film production in the country.
AF: Actually, the people that have to do with government, they don’t have a very good relationship with this movie.
Capone: I can believe that. Alright, well thank you so much. It was really wonderful. I will probably see you tomorrow. I’ll be at the ceremony.