Q&A: A Separation's Asghar Farhadi

The Iranian director chats about his critically acclaimed social drama.

Asghar Farhadi, director of A Separation

Asghar Farhadi, director of A Separation

Settle in to the Iranian drama A Separation, and you couldn't be faulted for thinking it's simply a tale of a middle-class couple legally ending their marriage. The fact that Asghar Farhadi uses this premise as the starting point for a dissection of everything from social inequality to the nature of truth itself only makes this extraordinary film that much more impressive. The big winner at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Farhadi's latest is rapidly collecting critics-organization awards and gracing year-end Top Ten lists. TONY talked to the filmmaker last September, before he screened the movie at the New York Film Festival.

Did A Separation begin as a modest story and grow as you were writing, or was the notion always to make something this expansive?
At first, I just had a series of images in my mind that didn't seem to be connected to each other: an old man with Alzheimer's sitting in his bath, being washed by his son, or the shot that opens the film, the one of a husband and wife facing a judge, asking for a divorce. Those single pictures popped into my head very early on. Then, little by little, I started to collect them in my head, and from there, this story emerged.

It's a story that seems deceptively simple on the surface.
Good! [Laughs] I intentionally kept the title and the opening scene very simple, so that people would think, "Oh, this is a basic story about a couple who are splitting up." I didn't want to warn them that, no, you're actually walking into something that's about to get much more complicated. The notion was to ease people into it, to give them people to identify with immediately. Then you can start to build from there.

Given how complicated things get, how did you keep the movie from collapsing under the weight of so many competing ideas?
Poetry, especially traditional Iranian poetry, is very good at looking at things from a number of different angles simultaneously. You can see things from a spiritual angle, from a social angle, from a personal-relationship angle. Very few people have tried to do something like that in a film, however; I wasn't sure I could do it either, frankly. [Laughs] But I owed it to myself to try. And I didn't want to make a "message" movie: I don't like films that claim to be saying something profound, or that pretend that they are filled with such incredible wisdom and insight. I prefer to watch films that present things in a simple way and then I discover what's great about them.

You've said that A Separation would be the same film regardless of where you'd made it, but given the current situation in Iran regarding filmmakers like Jafar Panahi, surely that environment affected how you make films overall?
I'm obviously affected by what's going on there; to what extent that shows up in my work, I'm not sure. I certainly don't want to see artists being imprisoned. But this is the type of filmmaking I would gravitate towards whether the government tells me I can or can't make an explicitly political movie.

Have Iranian audiences reacted differently from festival audiences in Europe and North America?
Oddly enough, the questions from Iranian audiences, European audiences and American audiences have been almost completely the same: Does he think he's lying? What is the choice that's made in the end? It's been interesting to see how similar audiences in the East and West are, actually, and how it makes you realize that when politicians emphasize the differences between our cultures, it's usually because it benefits them more so than us. [Smiles] But I'm not telling your readers anything they don't already know.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear

Read our five-star rave!

See more in Film