By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 30, 2011 at 7:42PM
Iranian Oscar submission "A Separation" was the final film shown at Sneak Previews this year; we went out on a high note. The film has been winning prizes since it was first shown in Berlin and won the Golden Bear as well as two acting prizes. It's not only on many ten best lists, but was nominated for a Golden Globe and Indie Spirit Award for foreign film, and won the New York and LA Film Critics as well as the National Board of Review for best foreign film. If the Academy foreign voters don't give it a nomination, the foreign committee will.
Asghar Farhadi tells the contemporary story of a marriage in crisis and the young daughter caught between warring middle-class parents. The woman (Leila Hatami) wants to take advantage of an opportunity to leave the country; the man (Peyman Maadi) wants to stay behind and take care of his father, fragile with Alzheimer's (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). So the woman leaves the husband, who struggles to care for his father and young daughter (Sarina Farhadi) and brings in a poor religious woman (Kimia Hosseini) to take care of his father while he is at work.
It's wrenching to watch each of these people trying to do what they think is right, as dictated by their interpretation of the arcane rules of society and religion. As exotic as this Iranian culture is, the universal story has been embraced by audiences all over the world. It's a must-see.
Farhadi grew up in the theater; this is is fifth film. As he says in the Q & A below, he had no idea the movie would play so well inside or outside Iran.
Anne Thompson: How did this movie enter your head?
Asghar Farhadi: I was in Berlin to work on another film, but two days after I got there I changed my mind. I was sitting in my friend's kitchen, and there was some Iranian music playing next door. Suddenly, I felt I wanted to go back to Iran and make a film there. Two days before, I had signed a contract to make a film in Berlin. I was wondering what I could do, and then I found the person with whom I'd written the contract, and came up with an excuse to postpone production of that film. And the following day, I went back to Tehran. And I immediately began to write. As far as where the idea came from, a section of it came from my personal memories. For instance, the relationship between the man and his father who has Alzheimer's, or Nader's relationship with his daughter. And then another part of it was the product of my own imagination.
AT: Many of us can relate to how difficult marriage can be, and so this seems to be a universal story, And yet the Iranian setting is so exotic for many of us. What kind of reaction have you gotten to this movie around the world?
AF: The reactions inside Iran and outside Iran, all over the world, have been similar. It isn't that everyone has had the same take on the film, but that the diversity of response everywhere have been the same. It's not the case for instance that in Iran I heard certain comments about the film that were never spoken abroad. After I saw this film in different parts of the world, I came to realize that the similarities of people all over the world are far greater than their differences. But it appeared that politics profits from highlighting the differences.
AT: We can all relate to that. But even if you enter the story through the characters without taking sides, it appears that it is a scathing critique of Iranian culture and the rules that stifle and harm people. And therefore I find it fascinating that Iran submitted it for the Oscar.
AF: This is a very complex subject. It's not a discussion that's linear—the government is this way, the people are this way. Within the government, there's diversity of thought and taste. The differences amongst those that rule are not negligible. They're quite great. Some among them are much more open-minded, others are very closed. It is the case that the film has been submitted by the government for the Oscar. The overseeing body that submits the film, the members are members of the film community. Perhaps what you're asking is, given the image we have of the government which is so hard and full of censorship, how can you make such a film? That question would be like if you ask someone living in the desert, how is it that you can live given the heat?
AT: What was the reaction of the Iranian people to the film?
AF: It was a very positive reception in Iran, and the film was one of the highest-grossing films in Iran over the last 20 or 30 years. What pleased me the most in this is that the critics and the people shared the same opinion.
AT: That doesn't always happen. But part of it, if we go back to the very beginning, when you were writing this story, were you starting from the characters, or the politics?
AF: When I am beginning to write a film or story, before wondering what the theme is, I always ask what the story is. I first find the story, and then the theme. In my opinion, in every story, there are many hidden things. All you need to do is find the story, and then you can highlight all the themes that you would like to.
AT: Do you have a theory as to why this film has touched so many chords around the world? What is your explanation for it?
AF: In fact, when I was making this film, I thought it was a film that would only be understood inside Iran. It was quite complicated, so I thought that people who didn't speak Persian wouldn't really understand it. But later when the film left Iran and was so well received, I realized I had been mistaken. I am going to tell you an anecdote that will perhaps illuminate. I had a meeting with Mitterand, the French culture minister. He told me that he'd gone to see the film with the general public, in a cinema. And he told me that two French women sitting behind him were talking when the film ended, and the two women said, 'wow, the characters in this film are really like us.' He was telling me this because he had felt so glad that finally, the French people had realized that Iranians are like everybody else, like the rest of the world. But, he said, 'then immediately I became quite anxious and thought, oh, does that mean we have the same problems as they do in Iran?' I think a lot of the problems and difficulties that people have outside of geography and different places, all these problems resemble each other. Especially the difficult choices that people face in their lives.
AT: What's striking is that these people each think they're doing the right thing. They're quite righteous.
AF: And we too, as viewers, feel that they're all right. This is the modern tragedy. Classical tragedy was the war between good and evil. We wanted evil to be defeated and good to be victorious. But the battle in modern tragedy is between good and good. And no matter which side wins, we'll still be heartbroken.
AT: Where did you find these extraordinary actors?
AF: Most of these actors are professionals working in Iran. Some among them I had worked with before, and there are others for whom this was a first and second film. And one of them was my own daughter.
AT: She played the daughter. She is a very gifted actress. I'm a mother, and I really related to her. I felt for her. That's the heart of the film, the daughter, because she's the victim, really, of everybody else's conflicting needs.
AF: In my opinion, she is the most important judge in the film. And she is the character that is closest to the spectator. More than anyone else, we worry for her, because she is a sign of the future.
AT: Did you change your process on this film, in the way that you worked with actors? And is Mike Leigh an influence on you in terms of creating an atmosphere with actors?
AF: I know Mike Leigh and I am familiar with how he works with his actors, but more than any influence from filmmakers, I was influenced by the theater. I worked for many years, I studied, and worked in the theater. And I only came to cinema afterwards. It was in theater that I learned how it is that you can work with actors. To give an example that clarifies a little, I have a character in this film who's supposed to be a religious woman. Once the script was finished, I didn't find her and say, 'you're going to be a religious character, this is what you should do.'
What I attempted was that in the few months remaining before shooting, she would actually turn into a religious person. I asked her to pray promptly every day, meaning five times. I asked her to wear a chador, which is the more traditional, long veil. I asked her to not use her personal car, which was a fancy luxury car, and to use the bus to go about. I asked her to restrict her rapport with any men that were not known to her, and after a while of her rehearsing this way, it would seem that she actually started to behave like a religious person. Don't worry, as soon as the film was over, she turned back into her former self.
AT: So you have a rehearsal process you go through, and when filming happens, you solidify a script?
AF: I write the script and complete it, and in the few months during which I rehearse with the actors, it's possible that I may get a few things from them and insert them into the script.
AT: What were you shooting with? Digital? Or 35? And do you use handheld cameras?
AF: No, it's been shot in 35 and the cameras been handheld all the time.
Audience: I was wondering how many takes were there for the opening sequence, because I noticed you went three or four minutes without a cut.
AF: I don't remember how many takes, but I think we worked one full day, morning until night. We had discussed the scene a great deal with the actors before that. It's about four or five minutes.
Audience: Sarina, your daughter, plays Termeh. In the movie she is what, 11 or 13?
AF: She's 11. She's now 13. I told her that the reception she's received in America is warmer than anywhere else. One of the biggest blessings in my life is that I have a very wonderful family, a lovely wife and two lovely daughters.
Audience: In the beginning of the film, when the wife wanted to leave with the daughter, what did she expect him to do with his father?
AF: At the point when they had registered and tried to obtain a visa, the father had not had that problem. She might have thought that, now that they had that opportunity, the father could be in an old people's home. In Iran, that's quite common, especially in urban settings. There are old people's homes. But this is a conflict that does arise in families, always, whether it's the right thing to put an aged relative into an old people's home.
Audience: My husband and I went to Tehran. I had a chador from my Muslim hairdresser, and we went on an archaeological tour around 2000. And what I learned is that the people that we met were trying to make up for the repression of the government and religion by finding ways to enjoy life. They'd go on picnics and share food with us, and we went to some restaurants where they played music when it was forbidden. Things they could actually enjoy. So I was wondering, why the ending couldn't have a little bit of hope, of showing some enjoyment in the family. Maybe the daughter bringing the family together.
AF: This is a very good question, but it depends on what we choose to see hope in. Do you think that if, in the last scene, the family had gathered and been around one another, and you could have walked out of here with a light heart, that would have been a source of hope for you, or perhaps if you leave the way you are now and go home and ponder this and keep wondering about it, is it possible that that could be what gives you hope? What I believe is that if you go home and think, there's more hope in that.
Audience: How many movies have you done before? And the second question is, if you had continued this story, what would have been the choice?
AF: This is the fifth film I've made. I too would very much like to know what would have happened. It's not that I knew and hid it from you. The choice isn't between the father and the mother, it's about two ways of life. I have no way of knowing which way of life the future generation will choose. This is the question that you will take home tonight.