There was a slight moment of anxiety when Asghar Farhadi’s translator left the room briefly before our interview, an inevitably uncomfortable moment between two strangers made even more so when the typical icebreakers might be off the table. However, in spite of a fiercely intimidating gaze that doesn’t betray the serious filmography he’s built since 2003, the Iranian director wasted no time in engaging in conversation, offering up a warm smile when he asked in English, “Have you seen any good movies recently?”
As a matter of fact, I had. Farhadi’s fifth feature “A Separation” isn’t just good, but a film that expands with every viewing into something greater. Some of this is by design since the writer/director sets up the story of Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) as if it were a trail of dominoes, the first to fall being the couple’s marriage as their application for a divorce is met with ambivalence from the authorities who would prefer them to come to their own resolution, albeit not the one that would satisfy them the most – to move their entire family abroad, including their 10-year-old daughter and Nader’s elderly father who’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Their appeals are made directly to the camera, representing a judge you can hear but not see and, by extension, an audience for the film that can see but not speak.
Even after the camera turns to a more subjective point of view to witness the devastating aftermath of the indecision, which grows to include the lower-class family of the father’s caretaker Nazieh (Sareh Bayat), Farhadi insists on remaining impartial, allowing all of the film’s many complications and conflicts to take on the intimacy of a dispute amongst close friends or family as it scales the heights of drama on the level of Shakespeare. Knowing that “A Separation” emerges both practically and artistically from the strictures of Iran make it particularly poignant, but equally notable is how it transcends borders — just as Farhadi started our conversation in a language he knew we both spoke, he has opened up another one to the world with a film that invites audiences to draw their own conclusions while experiencing a taut thriller made with considerable skill.
After spending a few minutes talking about some of our recent favorites – Farhadi is a fan of “Pina,” in case you were wondering — he and I discussed how he first became interested in filmmaking, when he integrated the audience into his creative process and how he shaped the film’s crucial incident, which we discuss at the very end, so anyone wanting to avoid minor spoilers beware.
For your last film “About Elly,” you said every film began with a single image – that one coming from a man awaiting his wife by the ocean. What was that image for “A Separation”?
The first image in my mind was the image of a man who was bathing his father who has Alzheimer’s. The sense of lonesomeness and alienation in this picture appealed to me a great deal. Then I started to construct the story around this image.
How did that grow into the finished film?
I began to question who’s this man, why is he washing his father himself? Where is his wife? Why has he not brought someone to look after his father? Is he having some difficulty in taking care of his father? The response that replies to these questions began to crowd this picture and make it grow. Other things also clarified this story. For instance, my own personal experience with someone with Alzheimer’s. [Also] when a husband and wife go to court for a divorce, this is always a moment that fascinated me and I wanted to try and represent it in a film. Or the relationship I had with my daughter when I would take her to school and bring her back, I always felt like this is something that could exist in one of my films. The answers to those questions I was asking in combination with the material that I had gradually took me inside a story.
You’ve spoken about not wanting to overdetermine things for your audience. Was there a point in your career where you decided that the film belongs as much to the audience as the filmmaker?
I think in the course of the films I’ve made, I’ve slowly come closer and closer to this desire. This is the product of the fact that I gradually acquired a greater confidence in the intelligence of the audience. When you trust the intelligence and presence of your audience, you will no longer fear the complexity of your own story. You will no longer fear the fact that your story is multilayered and multifaceted.
Was this influenced at all by your work in the theater?
Perhaps unconsciously so. In theater, this does exist where you determine your relationship to the play. I think theater is an artform that is for more progressive people, which is the reason why theater has greater trust in their audiences and don’t fear complexity and multidimensions. It’s possible that comes along from the theater.
How did you become interested in film at first?
I was very young when I first went to see a film. I went with my cousin to a very old movie theater and in those days, you could buy a ticket and go into the film at any point, even if half the film had already shown. We got there very late and once we got there, half the film had already been played. All the way home, all I kept thinking was wondering about what the first half of the film had been and I kept creating that first half in my mind. That was when I began filmmaking.
You’ve said in the past you've been interested in making a film abroad —is that something you’re working towards?
It’s not the case that I had said I was interested in making a film abroad, it’s more the case that I had stated that if I were to come up with a story that required the film to be made elsewhere, then I would not not go and make the film. I am planning to be doing that. But after this next film, I will go back to Iran, I believe, and resume my work there.
Is it too early to ask for details on that film?
The only thing I can say is that it continues along from my previous films. Just because I’ve changed the location of where my film is being made, that doesn’t mean that I’ve changed everything about the kind of cinema I make. They’re the same styles and the same moral dilemmas that I’m addressing in a different way.
*MILD SPOILERS AHEAD*
This and “About Elly” have a storytelling structure where each scene falls like a domino into the next – it seems very different from a lot of filmmakers, particularly from Iran. How did you come about that style?
I can’t say about the other Iranian films, but I know that in writing, I am always conscious of each thing being prompted by what came before. Exactly like a game of dominoes. But what I try is to make the thing that creates the movement be something insignificant and simple and routine. For instance [for the film’s turning point], the child taking the bag of garbage down the stairs to throw it away, leaving the door open, which makes for the old man going out, which then makes for Razieh going out and getting in an accident…all these seemingly insignificant things.
How did you shoot that pivotal scene in a way that the audience doesn’t have a concrete answer as to what happened?
I thought about it a great deal and it took a long time. I thought about a lot of different things. There was a door and I had to decide if I was going to be on this side of the door or the other side. If I had shot from [one] side of the door, a lot of things would’ve changed. Where the camera was placed and this shot alone could’ve completely changed the trajectory of the film. I decided in the end to stand where I would see one side and see the other side very unclearly. And therefore, I asked for the door for the house to be changed. I asked the set decorator to put in a door with glass and to put matted glass, the kind of glass you can’t see through clearly, you can just sort of see an obscure shape. Just as the incident seems obscure and unclear, that [piece] of glass helped the image to be unclear as to what was happening beyond it.
“A Separation” opens in Los Angeles at the Royal and New York at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on December 30th before expanding into limited release on January 6th.