A front-runner for Cannes' top prize, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's "The Past," does not, on its surface, take up the dicey social and political questions that hovered around the surface of his foreign-language Oscar-winner "A Separation." But being an Iranian filmmaker, who has made a film under the auspices of Iran's Ministry of Culture, Farhadi can't escape politics altogether. As he said during the Cannes festival, "There are two kinds of censorship," he told reporters. "You have official censorship which works in a certain way. But there is also self-censorship. You impose it on your innermost self."
The issue has long vexed Iran's filmmaking community, which has been heralded for its artistry and excellence around the world, but suffers under a complex set of negotiations and restrictions at home. It's a rift that I've reported on repeatedly over the years, and one that continues to be a source of frustration for Iranian directors. As convicted director Jafar Panahi told me in 2007 upon the release of his film "Offside" that speaks to his resourcefulness as both an artist and an activist, “Censorship has always existed in Iranian cinema. It’s a credit to the cleverness of the Iranian filmmakers, both before and after the revolution, that they still make their own movies.”
For "The Past," which tells of an Iranian man who returns to France to finalize his divorce, Farhadi traveled abroad, shooting entirely in France. While Farhadi told reporters that he felt "more secure" shooting outside Iran, he said he still felt some internal pressures while making the film, which was recently approved for release in his native Iran. It will be interesting to see how Iranian hardliners will respond, and whether the film's subtle themes about interpersonal conflicts and how our actions have ravaging effects on our children will resonate with locals.
Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami has also recently shot films abroad: "Certified Copy" (2010) and "Like Someone in Love (2012) were made in France and Japan, respectively. Such incidents should serve as a warning for Iran's culture ministers: If they continue to suppress their most talented artists, they will lose them.