Farhadi is an Iranian writer and director (born 1972). He has made five feature films as well as several television drama series. His fourth film, About Elly, won several international prizes including Berlin's coveted Silver Bear for best director. His last, A Separation, won three Bears and has the distinction of being the only Iranian film to have been awarded the Golden Bear for best film.
Masoud Golsorkhi In recent years we have been used to seeing Iranian films celebrated by critics abroad or watched by big audiences abroad. A Separation is unusual in that it's raved about by film critics and enjoyed commercial success at home. To what do you attribute this success?
Asghar Farhadi Perhaps there is a common element that is noted by both film critics and ordinary audiences. That is rare. It could be that it is a film of many layers. On the surface, it is an absorbing and entertaining film with a dramatic drive and a puzzle to solve, but you could dig deeper and find more.
MG I am sure you are sick of being asked the next question, but I am obliged to ask about censorship, the restrictions of the cultural policies of Iran and the pressures it puts on you as a creative person.
AF I am fatigued by such questions while not being surprised that they continue to be asked. The puzzle for outsiders seems to be a contradiction in living under a harsh regime of censorship and yet being able to create great films. The question is too complex for a straight answer and I am not sure if I have a total handle on it, but I do want to point to two issues. One is that, growing up in Iran from childhood onwards has involved limitations. Tradition places a lot of restriction and pressures on us even before we have left home for primary school. Dealing with these restrictions has become part of our make-up as people. These pressures make us tougher and more cunning. It's not as if you don't have to deal with restrictions the rest of your life, the censorship doesn't kick in for the first time you sit behind a camera. As a film-maker you have grown up dealing with censorship from childhood. You don't ask a Scandinavian how he feels about the cold climate; he has grown accustomed to the weather conditions. This isn't to say I subscribe to the idea that restriction makes for creation. I don't buy into that fetishisation. Perhaps in the short term restrictions placed on creativity would lead creative people to be more innovative. But in the long term, decades of censorship, pressure and restriction leads to fruits of creativity withering on the vine. As we have witnessed with Iranian cinema, long-term pressure of restrictive practices leads to stagnation. The thing to bear in mind is that the pressure hasn't been maintained at a consistent level. It has ebbed and flowed.
MG Can I ask about the way you work as a scriptwriter and director. Do you write the dialogue and expect the actors to deliver it faithfully or do you accept a degree of improvisation?
AF I write the script totally. After that, I invite the team of actors to deliver their verdict in practice sessions. I incorporate their feedback and views into the script's final version if I feel it's appropriate. When we start shooting, we stick to the script. We don't improvise during that process.
MG The young actress playing the role of Termeh in the film delivers a very powerful performance. Is she related to you? And how long did you work with her to get such a great performance?
AF She is my daughter so you could say that I have been working with her for 10 years.
MG Should A Separation be seen as an allegory?
AF No, not really. I don't make symbolic films, I am a realist film-maker. For example, if in our traditional theatre the colour yellow symbolised indecision and doubt, when a character enters the stage wearing that colour you know he is about to express doubt. But I have a series of signs in the film. A father who is suffering from Alzheimer's, a daughter whose future is being decided. These signs don't necessarily have symbolic values but, collectively, they can point to ideas and to layers through the narrative. There is no strict symbolism but all together signs point to meaning that is laden in the film.
MG The central question addressed in the film is the question of fight or flee. This question has beleaguered generations of Iranians.
AF One of my main questions I have wondered about. All my works are attempts at answering such questions. Whether you should stick by your principles and pay the price, or be more realistic and pragmatic. In a way this isn't a question that is limited to Iranians and the question of staying in Iran or choosing exile. It is a more universal question that plagues us all the time. There is a scene in the film when the woman's path on the stairs is blocked by removal men carrying a piano. They ask her for more money, she needs to get into the flat urgently. She either stays and argues about the money or is pragmatic, pays the extra money so she can enter her flat. She chooses the latter. It's impossible to judge her action in terms of right and wrong. This is a dilemma that faces us at all times - whether to stay and adopt a principled position or be goal-oriented and pragmatic. To flee isn't always a negative decision either. I can never adopt a moral position on this question, it can be the most moral thing to do. There is no clear answer.
MG The story brings together two families from contrasting strata of society. In their dispute you don't choose sides between the family who would be seen as the economically oppressed underdog...
AF It's always been my ambition as a film-maker never to take sides, not just on this occasion. It's tough not taking sides. I am not without personal views, what I try to do is hide my sympathies. I do my best not to transfer this to the viewer. This is because of the themes I work with. In order to take sides you need a moral basis, a means of measuring good or bad, sympathetic or unsympathetic. I am not in position of such ethical codes. People get mad at me over this. I am not denying the existence of such codes; my contention is that I am not sure if any single ethical or moral compass - be it common sense, tradition or ideology - is adequate to evaluate the questions that arise in our complex lives today…
MG The character of the judge in the film has to overcome such opaqueness. He has to make a decision. He is fascinating, as he seems to represent the state and the system.
AF I wouldn't like to see him in allegorical terms as representative of the government or the judicial system. For me he is a character, but one that belongs to the system. He isn't the system. Seen as a cliché, he is a bad man, all-powerful, strict and autocratic. But even this character is free from my moral judgment.
MG He seems trapped as all the others…
AF We see him for short periods only, but we can discern that he is uncomfortable with his lot. He is fatigued and crushed by the weight of responsibility. He is tired of his lot and isn't having a good time.
MG Tell me about the scene at the petrol station when the father sends his daughter, who has been short-changed by the pump attendant, to argue for her right.
AF For me it's a characterisation scene for Babak, the father. He is teaching a life lesson to his daughter. His creed is about staying and sorting through problems. The opposite of his wife, who is pragmatic. His creed is about insisting on your rights, and by definition about right and wrong. In practice, we see he isn't able to stick to his principles. When it comes to his conflict with the servant he prefers to pay and get rid of her…
MG Can I ask you about scenes shot in cars. It seems you can't see an Iranian film without prolonged senses where the drama takes place in cars… what does that mean? Is there a message there?
AF Not really, there is no symbolism at work. The reality is that Iranians, particularly in Tehran, prefer to use their cars even for the shortest journeys. You can ask what are the sociological reasons for that. Maybe comfort, and security - particularly women - but the facts are presented, as it portrays reality as I find it.
MG Termeh has a particularly tough journey. She is a very Iranian girl and the product of a specific historical condition.
AF She is a young woman entering the world of adulthood. She has a hard choice to make and to be responsible for. She is confronted with rather stark choices between her father, mother and their respective creeds. The crossroad between the way of ideals and the path of pragmatism. Her choices might be rather more sharply focused because she is Iranian but the essence of the challenge she faces are universal and faced by people all the time. Idealism or compromise, fight or flee.
MG The specificity helps make the generalisation more powerful. The authenticity of the detail makes the universality of ideas more potent.
AF True, the crossroad may be Iranian but the choices are human.
A Separation is released on DVD this 24th October. It is currently available in HD via Curzon On Demand for British viewers. curzoncinemas.com/film_on_demand