Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi saw his film, A Separation, start the awards season off with a bang, leaving the gate with Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. In addition, A Separation also received the Best Foreign Language Film recognition from the National Board of Review and was named the Best Screenplay of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the indieWIRE Critics Poll. Although Farhadi has already made several films that have won acclaim in Iran and throughout the film festival circuit, A Separation is garnering Farhadi his widest praise yet. It has also been chosen as Iran’s official entry in the Academy Awards’ foreign language film category. While A Separation begins as a simple story of a dissolving marriage, what unfolds is a parable of inter-class conflict and women’s rights in modern-day Iran. I recently sat down with Farhadi and an interpreter, and he took me into filmmaking in Iran, being submitted for the Oscars, and writing and directing A Separation.
Jackson Truax: I know each country has a different process of selecting a film to be submitted for the foreign film race in the Academy Awards. What was Iran’s process?
Asghar Farhadi: There’s an entity that’s…connected to the government. They form a committee. This committee is comprised of filmmakers from the Iranian film community. The films that can be submitted will be examined by these people… Year by year, the members of the committee are different. Some years, it’s comprised of filmmakers or members of the film community who are thoughtful and very able. Some years, not so much. There actually was one year when they didn’t even form a committee. There was just one individual who chose the film he wanted and presented it.
JT: What’s the process of getting movies made in Iran? What are the biggest challenges?
AF: In many respects, filmmaking in Iran is similar to filmmaking elsewhere. Since filmmaking in Iran doesn’t cost as much, the aspect of it that has to do with financing is not as much of a challenge. But because you can’t make just any film, or tackle just any subject, it makes for some other difficulties… If you are making films there, there are certain laws that you are having to work within, certain parameters… Even if you don’t accept some of them. In order to make the film, you have to work within those parameters. But, given those conditions, it’s still entirely possible to find ways to make the film you want to make.
JT: What audiences in Iran have seen the A Separation? What has the response been?
AF: [Audiences], critics, members of the film community have all seen the film. The film was very well-received… Great numbers have been to see the film in movie theaters. The film has been selected and awarded in various parts for different awards from critics… The reactions to the film are not that different to the reactions to the film abroad… There’s [never] been a single response to the film. But looking at the diversity of responses here, it corresponds to what exists there.
JT: Once you started writing the screenplay, how did it develop?
AF: I first have a story, and I try to make sure that that is mature and ripe. I actually believe that each story contains within it many themes. After that, based on my own preoccupations, I try to highlight the themes that matter to me. For me, writing a story is like doing a crossword puzzle in the newspaper… All the elements are knitted together. What I attempt to do is to weave the story together with very simple, apparently insignificant things.
JT: You’ve said you’re immensely careful with your casting. How did you settle on this group of actors?
AF: The casting period is actually a very difficult period. Constantly, each person that comes to my mind, I immediately think they’re might be someone better. That is the most doubt-filled stage of the work I do. What matters to me is that the character and the actor I’m choosing to depict that character share a common trait. I try…to be very familiar with what’s behind the face of the actor that I chose. And to try and find some kind of commonality between the actor and the character and to connect the two of them like links in a chain-link. A great deal of time is spent in that endeavor.
JT: You’ve said you developed the script with your actors. What impact did they have on the screenplay?
AF: When I go to select my actors, I’ve already finished the script. But when the actors come and I see them, in their behavior I discover some other details. And I inject them into the screenplay. So it could be said that when I’m rehearsing with my actors, I’m also simultaneously working on the screenplay.
JT: You use the cinematography to make the audience feel that they’re in the middle of these conflicts. How did you manage to film in such a way that made your audience feel so intimate with your characters?
AF: There were three principles that I attempted to remain faithful to in my image-making… One [was] to make the picture look as though I were making a documentary. The second one [was] for the camera not to incline toward one character and be more on their side and be more against another character. For the same reason, the scale in which you see most of the characters is the same. The third one is to achieve an effect where when you see the film, you’re not aware of the cinematography. So that the cinematography is not visible. This is a principle I’ve tried to implement in other aspects of the film… So you’re not watching the film and thinking about the screenplay. Or when you’re watching the film, you actually can believe that this is…a situation that exists, it’s not something that’s been directed. Somebody hasn’t told these people what to say or do.
JT: The film deals with a lot of class issues, of those who don’t have a voice or are unemployed and have nothing to lose. This had become such a big discussion in America in recent months. Is this part of the national discussion in Iran? Was it an influence on the film?
AF: This is part of the reality of Iran. But I think the difference with America is that here, it is my impression, that the difference between these two classes in society is economic. But in Iran, the difference between them is not just economic, it’s also cultural. It’s the difference between a class that’s tied to tradition, and a class that’s leaning to modernity… The ones that are wealthier, honestly, these are not wealthy people…. They’re the middle-class… They do tend to be leaning more towards the modern.
JT: The most impactful line in the film is “Why do you think we beat our wives and children like animals? I swear on this Qoran we’re humans just like you.” Was that an important message you wanted the film to convey? Either across class lines in Iran or about Iran to the rest of the world?
AF: No. It wasn’t a message that I was trying to give, as such. But, I did want to convey how wrong our judgments are about one another. We tend to believe that the people that are a little different from us are different from us in every way and that everything about them is different and that they live utterly differently. But when we move closer, we see…so much of it is similar.
JT: You’ve said you want the audience to leave the theater not with answers, but with questions. Are there any specific questions you want the audience to have? Or anything in particular you hope they’re feeling?
AF: I myself have my own questions with this film when I watch it. I wouldn’t like to say what questions they should have. I would like each viewer to come up with their own questions. It really depends on the angle from which you watch the film.
JT: If A Separation is widely seen when it’s released on December 30th, and continues to get recognized and ultimately receives an Oscar nomination or award, what would that mean, both to you personally and to Iran as a country?
AF: It would be an immense event for Iranian cinema. It would allow all filmmakers in Iran to realize that, in spite of whatever conditions, great cinema can be made and can find audiences anywhere. For me, what it would do is convince me that I should only make the kind of film that I want to make. Because that is how I made this film. I made a film that I felt I wanted to make. If one were to make the film that one has faith in oneself, what needs to happen will happen afterwards.