Asghar Farhadi: 'Censorship in Iran is like the British weather'

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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi talks to David Jenkins about ‘A Separation’, a new film about divorce, pride and truth in Tehran

In the pantheon of movies about messy divorces, ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ has just suffered a potentially ruinous shot across the bow from a new Iranian film called ‘A Separation’ by writer-director Asghar Farhadi. The title of the film – which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival – refers to the fraught marital breakdown between a liberal-minded bourgeois couple, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). But it could just as easily refer to the gulf between parents and children, between rich and poor and between people and their sense of social responsibility in times of discord.

Thirty-nine-year-old Farhadi says his films tend to grow out of random, disconnected moments that drift into his mind during solitary afternoons. ‘I had a vision of a man who had to bathe his elderly father. The father suffers from Alzheimer’s. His job is very tough.’ This ‘scene’ was the embryo for ‘A Separation’, and it’s one of a number of circumstances which combine to make Nader and Simin’s parting of the ways all the more difficult.

You suspect that, in other hands, this film might not have worked as well as it does. The acting is sensational across the board, while simple, clean photography places the film’s star element front and centre: the writing. Farhadi has said that the script from his previous film, ‘About Elly’ (2009), about a group of friends holidaying by the Caspian Sea, was based on real relationships and events.

‘It’s very difficult for me to talk about the process, because it’s a very natural, ever-changing thing for me,’ he admits. ‘I tend to jot down moments, lines, interactions that don’t really make any sense. I try and explain these scattered notes to my close friends, and they become more and more logical. I see screenwriting as a bit like a maths equation which I have to solve. For
A Separation”, the equation had lots of unknowns to it, many more than in “About Elly”.’

For many in Europe, talk of Iranian cinema conjures thoughts of experimental, low-budget, intensely poetic works like Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Ten’, Jafar Panahi’s ‘The White Balloon’ or Samira Makhmalbaf’s ‘The Apple’. Farhadi explains that while he’s a fan of these films, he sees ‘A Separation’ as an Iranian story which is intended also to be felt and understood by non-Iranians: ‘The story is not a local story for tourists to peer at from the outside. I would hope that people from all over could relate to these characters.’

Would Farhadi have it in him to make something more abstract in the future perhaps? ‘I don’t think I’ll ever go in that direction,’ he responds. ‘It’s just not my temperament. When I decide to write a story, I don’t think too much about what I want it to be, I just let things come naturally and this is how it turns out. It’s just how my subconscious works’.

The question then arises: how would Farhadi feel about his film being remade in the US with a clutch of beautiful Hollywood stars? ‘I’d be quite pleased if they were to do that. Of course, I would prefer it if I was directing it myself, or at least supervising.’

Who would make up his money-is-no-object dream cast, then? ‘Javier Bardem would play Nader’s role,’ he says, like the thought had been playing on his mind for some time. ‘Max von Sydow would play Nader’s father. I haven’t really thought I about who I’d bring in for the female roles, but I’ll let you know.’

separation_01.jpg

As we’ve seen with directors like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, making films in Iran can be a tough business with the censors. Both were recently incarcerated for making films that were critical of the regime. With ‘A Separation’, it feels like Farhadi has managed to produce a work that, while maintaining its focus on an enclosed domestic drama, still manages to address issues of social mobility, the lopsided justice system and the unfair advantages that come with being born a man. ‘For any film made in Iran, the makers have to submit a script to a committee. If the committee approve of this script, they award a certificate which enables the director to start work on the movie.

‘Unless you’re trying to make a movie on the sly, there’s no way to get around this. If you want to use public spaces, film on the streets, have the co-operation of the police, you have to have a permit.’ Is there a fight to get around these restrictions? ‘Iranian filmmakers are not passive,’ he says. ‘They fight whenever they can, as creative expression means a lot to them. The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather: one day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine.’

The film has been a big hit in Iran, and Farhadi has been pleased with feedback from audiences. ‘The most common thing I hear from people is that they don’t feel like they’ve watched a movie but have seen a piece of their own life or the life of a close relative. They felt like they were recounting a memory from their past.’

As our conversation reaches its dying moments, there’s a short pause, and then suddenly Farhadi pipes up: ‘Natalie Portman! Simin would be played by Natalie Portman in the remake!’ Hollywood, are you getting this?



Read our review of 'A Separation'

Author: David Jenkins



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