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Two hours of social realism from a director and cast with little profile outside the festival circuit is hardly a surefire formula for year-end acclaim. But Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation has been making a strong showing in Best Of 2011 polls (including The A.V. Club’s) for its heartbreaking depiction of a middle-class Iranian marriage on the rocks and the conflict stirred up between the fighting couple and the working-class woman hired to take care of the husband’s bedridden father. Farhadi follows his story into areas of Iranian society rarely represented onscreen, using a small cast of characters to subtly take on much larger issues without losing track of the human cost of their actions. Speaking Farsi through a translator, Farhadi talked to The A.V. Club about A Separation’s basis in his own life, the positive influence of Islam, and his dedication to making movies in his native land. Note: There’s a major spoiler about halfway through, but it’s marked.
The A.V. Club: Where did the story of A Separation start?
Asghar Farhadi: I cannot pinpoint exactly where it started. It’s a combination mostly of some personal experiences and also imagination and making up a story.
AVC: What personal elements are involved?
AF: The story of the old man, the father of Nader, that character was greatly inspired by my own grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s. I was very close to my grandfather throughout my childhood and adolescence. In the screenplay, originally, I used the name of my grandfather. Another storyline that is from a personal history is the relationship of Nader and his daughter. I myself have a daughter, and similar to what happens in the film, oftentimes I’m trying to teach her something, using any opportunity, about life.
AVC: There’s the scene at the gas station where he sends her to pay for the gas and she comes back without her change, so he makes her go back for it, watching her in the rearview mirror.
AF: Also the scene where he’s helping her with her homework, and she has to understand the meaning of the words and the translation and the equivalent in Persian and its Arabic backgrounds. I have done that with my own daughter.
AVC: The daughter in A Separation is played by your own daughter. Was that because those circumstances came from your relationship? Did more of your relationship find its way into the movie because you cast your own child?
AF: As I was writing the screenplay, and I had already decided that my daughter would be playing the part, more and more of my relationship with my daughter became a part of the relationship between the two characters. But that doesn’t mean that my personality is part of Nader’s. Actually I would say some ways I’m more similar to [his wife] Simin.
AVC: You can’t work with young actors the way you do with grown-up professionals. How did you work with your daughter?
AF: This is not the first film that she’s been in. My wife is also a filmmaker, and this was my daughter’s fourth film. She’s played smaller parts in previous films; this is the biggest part she’s had. So she did have some experience. But even though she did have some experience, it still was quite difficult to work with her. One of the things that made it more difficult is that she, more than any of the other actors, would ask, “Why? Why is this like this?” At times it was very difficult for me.
AVC: That’s appropriate to her character, particularly where her father is concerned, because she often doesn’t understand why he acts the way he does.
AF: The big difference between my daughter and the character Termeh is that Termeh, in the film, is asking herself these questions and dealing with these questions on her own. Whereas my daughter would be constantly asking me and actually voicing those questions.
AVC: Some people have read a layer of social commentary into the film, where the daughter is representative of a new generation, or the relationship between the parents and the family of the woman Nader hires to take care of his father are meant to represent different social classes in Iran.
AF: She’s not really a symbol of a society or of something that’s happening, but she is representative of a generation of kids that are asking certain questions. It’s not particular to Iran. Throughout the word this generation has these questions. One question that they have is: In the future, what style of living is the right one? Which one should they choose? Which one should they opt for? [Major spoiler in the next sentence.—ed.] That’s why that in the final scene in the film, you don’t see the decision that Termeh finally reaches. It’s not just a decision between mother and father, it is a decision on a more profound level on what kind of life, what system of belief and lifestyle you choose.
AVC: How would you characterize those systems of belief?
AF: The main difference between the two characters is that Nader has some principles, and he has some ideas of how things should be and he will stick to them, he will follow through and remain steadfast on that course. Whereas Simin, things are not going the way she would like to. She’s willing to adapt and she’s willing to change. The difference is between someone who has principles and someone who is more realistic and who will step over certain principles because of the reality of what can be done.
AVC: It’s along those lines that Nader wants to stay in Iran and Simin wants to take their daughter and leave.
AF: For example, towards the beginning of the film when you see the two piano movers and they’re blocking the stairwell as Simin comes back [because they’ve only been paid to move the piano two floors and the house has three]. They say, “We need to be paid more,” and she says, “No, that is the price we agreed on.” Simin finally, in order to get the piano out and free the stairwell, agrees to pay the extra amount of money. If Nader had been there, you can be sure he would not have paid more. This is the difference between two people’s approach when confronted with a problem, that one is really stringently on his stance and the other one is willing to dance.
AVC: Can you apply that to the whole idea of staying in Iran versus emigrating, which is one that for artists in particular it is a pressing issue now?
AF: That is definitely one of the issues that come up for artists. Some say we can’t all leave because if we all leave, who’s going to be here doing work? Others say, “What about my personal life? I want to give that a chance and pursue that.”
AVC: A Separation was financed privately rather than through the Iranian government. How common is that?
AF: Both are options for people who are making films. Some people ask for funds from the government, and of course the screenplay has to be approved in order to qualify, but some people find private producers or go directly to a bank and try to open a line of credit and get funding on their own. I went to a private bank that financed the film.
AVC: Does the government still have some oversight over the production, even if the money’s not coming from them? Or does that liberate you to make the movie you want to make?
AF: It’s not much more freedom, but it’s different. It’s slightly less tight if the funding is not coming from the government.
AVC: The husband of the father’s caretaker is an unemployed cobbler whose inability to find a job has made him very hot-tempered. Was he was inspired by anyone in particular, or a group of people? He’s a skilled worker who can no longer find even menial work to do and consequently becomes angry and self-destructive.
AF: If you live there, you see people like that. It’s not unusual. In my previous films, I have represented characters who are in a similar situation.
AVC: Another difference between the families is the role religion plays in their life. The caretaker is a devout Muslim; the question of whether she will or won’t swear on a Koran is a major plot point. Whereas Nader and Simin don’t have that level of faith, or the guidance that comes with it.
AF: There is a common social background, cultural background, to these two families, but depending on whether you’re of a more traditional family or not, these values, such as piety, become more highlighted or less. But the commonality of the culture is there; it’s just under certain circumstances it becomes more prominent than for other families.
AVC: In movies like Persepolis and Circumstance, Islam is presented as a uniformly repressive force, in conjunction with the fundamentalist basis of the government. But there’s a sense in A Separation that it serves an important grounding function for the society, and without it this more educated class is somewhat lost.
AF: It’s very difficult to talk about religion in Iran because religion has gotten so mixed up with politics. But, yes, personally I do believe that what you just said is correct. If you were to separate religion from politics, yes, I would agree, they are at a loss. But if you think of religion as this thing we see in Iran where it’s so mixed up with politics, then no, I would not agree with that.
AVC: The situation with filmmakers like Jafar Panahi has gotten very dire. You’ve talked for some time about making films abroad. Is it possible to go on making films in Iran at this moment?
AF: If your child has a very high fever, what would you do? Would you abandon your child, or would you stay there? I feel that I have to stay there, more than ever. I need to work there.