Asghar Farhadi did not shake Madonna's hand when she presented him with a Golden Globe for best foreign film Sunday night. He had done just that two days earlier with fellow nominee Angelina Jolie and ended up raising eyebrows in the Iranian media (touching hands with a woman you're not related to is considered a sin in the country). The Iranian director of "A Separation" instead gave the pop star a small bow, and used his stage time to say a few simple, carefully-chosen words that could not offend anyone.
When I was coming up on the stage, I was thinking what should I say here. Should I say something about my mother, father, my kind wife, my daughters, my dear friends, my great and lovely crew. But now I just prefer to say something about my people. I think they are a truly peace-loving people. Thank you very much.
It's a style reflected in his films -- diplomatic language that lets the audience glean what they will. Farhadi ("About Elly," "Tambourine") has been famously vague about his films' intentions, leaving it up to the audience to interpret the meaning of things -- an ambiguity that's likely helped him get past the censors in Iran. You could make an argument that "A Separation," a film about a married couple going through a divorce, has political undertones, but you couldn't prove it -- the plot and character development don't allow any one view to define it. A series of events best left unexplained takes the film from family drama to suspenseful legal mystery, leaving no character shunned as the one-dimensional scapegoat. Instead, Farhadi's honest, realistic portrayals leave the judgments up to you.
The Golden Globe win has accelerated the already-growing public and critical momentum for "A Separation," which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival last year, in the lead-up to the Oscars. Best foreign film aside -- an award Iran has never won -- "A Separation" has a shot (a long one) at the best original screenplay or best director categories. The film stands unmoved at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and Roger Ebert placed it at the top of his list as the best film -- not foreign film -- of 2011. Respected Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami said he hopes it will make authorities be kinder to Iran's film community, which has faced government-led bans on directors and the closure of a major film institution last month. However, the Iranian government's response to the win was not encouraging; it cautioned Iranian artists against prioritizing themes of hardship and ignoring "the glaring positive points and features of our nation."
Farhadi is man of small stature, but his outsized presence makes him seem about two feet taller than he is. The 39-year-old director speaks limited English, so we talked in Persian, with assistance from his translator, Sheida Dayani. Farhadi spoke in ambiguities about how "A Separation" got past the censors, if he would make his films differently if he lived in another country and why he chooses not to leave Iran.
The film creates these moral gray areas as the drama unfolds -- do you think morality is subjective or that there are clear distinctions between right and wrong?
This question has remained as a question in the film. Is there one specific source that determines correct morality and everybody should follow that? Or should individuals come up with following that source or not depending on their situation? The bigger question is, what is the source itself -- is it civil rights, is it the laws we need to follow, can religion tell us right from wrong in today's world, is it personal conscience that determines our way, is it social conscience, public conscience? The question, what is the source that we identify for ourselves to figure out what path we need to take.
You said in another interview, you don't want to leave Iran because it's like abandoning a child with a very high fever. Is there a parallel here to the story in the film of Nader, who doesn't want to leave Iran with his wife, Simin, because his father is sick with Alzheimer's?
Maybe in this way I'm similar to Nader. I prefer to stay in my country. But this doesn't mean if someone does want to leave Iran, I think they've done something wrong -- the desire to leave is completely understandable. Each person makes their own choice, but my spirit is meant to stay in Iran, especially with the work that I do, and with the emotional connection I have with the country -- with all its difficulties, this is why I stay.
But is Nader supposed to symbolize that desire to stay versus the desire to leave one's country?
Symbolize isn't the right word. I would like to use another word, and that is example. Nader exemplifies people who run into obstacles, but they still decide to stay and tackle the problem. These are idealistic people. Next to these people we also have realistic people who try to say that our lives are not so long for us to stay and waste our lives in this condition. This is not just about leaving a country or staying in a country, it's about more dilemmas. It's about two different lifestyles -- the idealistic lifestyle, and the realistic lifestyle.
If you'd lived in a different society, would you change anything in the films you make? That is, do you avoid any subjects to avoid censorship?
If I'd lived in another society, I don't know if I'd have been a filmmaker or something else. Life in Iran, and in that situation, slowly from the time of childhood until now, created filters in my mind, certain frameworks, and the result is what you see in my films. If I'd grown up in another country and become a filmmaker, the results would have been different from what you see now.
How much oversight did the Iranian government have over the film?
The people in the level of government that oversee the cinema are very different. They don't all think the same way. Some of them relate to the film, some of them like it, some of them dislike it, some of them don't care either way.
Is there a jury?
No, there's no jury.
So who decides?
Exactly what makes it unpredictable is that you don't know who it is that decides, you can't look behind the curtain. Sometimes the person at the top decides, sometimes the one who's at the bottom. And you don't know who's at the top and who's at the bottom.
Do you feel a responsibility in making your films to portray Iran a certain way to the world, or is it more about having a universal story people can relate to?
I only feel one responsibility in my job -- to make the film that I like. This film might be a gateway to an audience who does not know Iran, it might introduce the society to someone who wants to be more familiar with the country. What matters to me is to make a correct film based on my own standards. It's the wrong impression to think that Iranian filmmakers are making films to introduce their society to the outside. There are other sources for this -- we have encyclopedias, we have other things that are not films. However, once you make a film about a certain society, if it's an honest film, you can still give some information about the place you're making it in.
Do you feel happier having a film that's well-received in Iran or in the U.S. and other countries?
What makes me most happy is that non-professional viewers both inside and outside Iran have the same reactions and give the same responses to the film.
How do you feel these days about the future of Iran?
With all my being, I believe and feel hopeful about the future of Iran. I feel that the people will eventually move in the right direction.
Is there a moment in the film that resonated with you most?
I like the part when the grandfather is in the shower and Razieh is standing outside, and she's telling him to clean himself. When he opens the door, he calls out, "Simin." Each time I see that part, I get a strange feeling.