The Iranian filmmaker (and director of TFF 09's Best Narrative Feature, About Elly) on his devastating film about the fallout of an Iranian marriage in crisis.
As the end of the year is drawing near, one movie that's popped up on a bunch of top ten lists—but to which American audiences have not yet been privy—is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's latest feature, A Separation. The movie also has professional credentials, having won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, as well as awards for the ensemble cast, including Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, and Sareh Bayat.
When Farhadi's previous film About Elly won the Best Narrative Feature award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, audiences were moved by the poignant, universal story of family, loss, love, and suspicion. A Separation mines the same territory: in some family situations, nobody is necessarily at fault, but emotions and frustrations come to a head, and devastation ensues.
When watching a film from a culture we don't quite comprehend, it's easy to read deeper cultural meaning into actions and situations. In a recent interview, however, Farhadi was quick to dismantle assumptions: his is a story with universal themes—caring for aging parents, resolving marital disputes, flaring tempers, worrying about the children—that could have taken place almost anywhere. Yet he sets a quietly simmering stage upon which these issues play out.
Asghar Farhadi: I had a certain number of images in my head and I couldn't let them go. And so I had to come up with a story, to just put these images into it and release myself of them.
Tribeca: Do you start with characters before plot? Which is more important to you?
Ashghar Farhadi: The most important part is the plot. And then characters, and then theme, and then the subject. My characters take on different colorings depending on the circumstances. So the circumstances, the plot, is the most important thing, and then by putting the characters in there, they respond to the circumstances.
Tribeca: I feel like the marriage in your film is a metaphor for something in Iran, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is. And I wondered if you'd like to address that in some way?
Ashghar Farhadi: Going back to Adam and Eve, this relationship between man and woman is the oldest, but also the most present problem. So I don't think it's particular to Iran. Every man and woman who come together and will start a new life, within that relationship every relationship that has preceded it is forgotten and we're starting from scratch.
Tribeca: How do you hope your films will connect to your audience? Do you think about the audience as you're developing your story and your plot, or at what point does the audience become a focus?
Ashghar Farhadi: The one audience member that I always have is myself. So whenever I'm writing anything, deciding anything, I always have that perspective of: "If I were to see this, how would I enjoy it or see it, perceive it?" So there's always that. So the audience member is not appearing at times, the audience member is always present.
Tribeca: For both this film and for About Elly, I felt the power of how universal the stories were, and how, like with the children playing on the beach, it could have been anywhere in the world. And in this film, the daughter going back and forth between separated parents. And is that a conscious thing for you to just show the rest of the world that Iranians are just like everyone else?
Ashghar Farhadi: I don't make films with the intention of introducing my country to others. If they want they can go on the Internet, they can travel, they can research, they can visit. I make a film to make a good film... Some people think that Iranian filmmakers make films about Iran to show the conditions within the country, and that's really not my purpose.
Tribeca: And that's what makes them so universal, I'm sure. Can you talk about your depiction of women and how rich the female characters are? How do you get at that essence of woman?
Ashghar Farhadi: This has not been intentional, but looking back, I see that in my films women are always very important. It's maybe because women are more willing to go with change; they're more receptive to change. Men tend to be more resistant, and someone who is willing to adapt with change is maybe more likely to be interesting for a dramatic situation.
Tribeca: Who are your majors influences as a filmmaker? What kinds of films do you like to watch?
Ashghar Farhadi: When I was young I liked one kind, but at every stage of my life it has changed. When I was an adolescent, because my country was at war, they showed a lot of war movies, and it was mostly World War II movies, so my generation, we just grew up watching a lot of war movies.
As a reaction to having seen so many films on war, I then shifted all the way to films that had nothing to do with war—that were totally of a different kind.
But now I've learned to not limit myself, and I try to see all kinds of films and to be open to anything. I don't like to say, "This is my taste," because I'm limiting myself when I say this. For example, looking at my films you wouldn't think I like historical films, but I actually recently have developed a liking for historical films.
Tribeca: Would you talk a little bit about how you work with actors? I read in the notes that you have rehearsal periods and then you don't really change from there. So I take it there was no improvisation in the film at all?
Ashghar Farhadi: Once the shooting begins, there's no more improvisation. Maybe a few small things change, but basically I try to have everything set before we start shooting. But in the period that precedes the actual shooting, when we're still working, there is room for things changing. So there maybe the actors do something that I didn't choose to incorporate, or actually change something that's great in the screenplay. But once we actually start shooting...
Tribeca: And I understand your daughter's in the film. Is this her first acting job?
Ashghar Farhadi: This is the fourth time that's she's been in a movie, but the previous parts she had were much smaller.
Tribeca: Was she in About Elly?
Ashghar Farhadi: No. I find it very interesting that in the U.S., most people talk about my daughter being such a great performer. She really is! I told my daughter that most people ask me about her, and she said, "Next trip I want to go the U.S." [laughs]
Tribeca: Does she want to be an actor in her life, in her career? Possibly?
Ashghar Farhadi: She's interested in acting, but more for theater than film. But finally she seems to be going mostly towards writing, which I think is a good thing.
Tribeca: I was struck by how different the court system is in Iran, clearly. That there's so much chaos happening. It wasn't like these big grand rooms with a judge like we have here; the prisoners were just handcuffed together and seemingly wandering around, even though one was accused of murder. It was such a disconnect for me, and I wondered if you know how different that is in your country than it is here?
Ashghar Farhadi: It's not actually a court room, what we see, but it's where they're doing the investigation that precedes, and once the file is put together then it's going to go before a judge. So what we see is not really the court room; it's more of an investigation room.
Tribeca: We were delighted that we had About Elly at Tribeca, and that it won the Best Narrative Award. What did that mean to you? Were you surprised that New York responded so well to your film?
Ashghar Farhadi: I didn't realize that the Tribeca Film Festival had a competition aspect, so it was only at the very end, when they said that I'd won, that I realized there was a competition here! I was so unaware that I was standing in the back. I had found a filmmaker who lives in New York that I hadn't seen in a long time, and we were just standing in the back talking.
And someone came and said, "You're supposed to go and get a prize," and I thought that the person was joking and just ignored him. And then I realized that Robert De Niro was standing there, standing and waiting.
The Tribeca screening was actually one of the best screenings. Audiences in the U.S. tend to respond much more with their emotions than with their heads, and so it's a much stronger reaction, warmer reaction, I think.