By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire December 28, 2011 at 10:39AM
Since premiering to great acclaim in February at the Berlin International Film Festival (where it netted three awards, including best film), the Iranian drama "A Separation" from writer/director Asghar Farhadi has continued to impress, reaping accolades and wins at festivals all over the world. Our own annual critics poll named it the third best film of the year.
North American audiences will finally get to see what all the buzz is about when Iran's official candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar hits select theaters Friday, December 30 through Sony Pictures Classics.
The film concerns a married couple with an 11-year-old daughter (played by Farhidi's own daughter) who are on the verge of separating. The wife wants to leave Iran with her daughter and start anew overseas. Her husband doesn’t share her sentiments, preferring to stay Iran to care for his ailing father. This setup frames the crux of the story, which involves a mystery surrounding a maid hired after the wife leaves the family.
Farhadi, with the help of a translator, caught up with Indiewire to discuss the his journey on the festival circuit with "A Separation" and how Iranian audiences have responded to his family drama.
So the film starts out as one thing, and unless you’ve seen the trailer or have read any reviews prior to seeing it, it morphs into something altogether unexpected. I’m curious, since you wrote it, what came first; the detective story or the drama concerning the broken family?
In fact, in the film, through the gateway of the conjugal life of the husband and wife, we enter a larger social sphere. At the beginning I entered the story through the story of this husband and wife. Accompanying the stories of this husband and wife led me to the other stories.
The film tells this linear tale and the mystery is solved at the end, but there’s so much more to it than what simply transpires throughout the course of the film. How would you characterize the nature of the film yourself?
To me, it seems if we put the opening and the closing scenes of the film next to each other, we end up with a short that can stand on its own. It seems that everything that comes in between serve as an explanation of the situations and conditions about which the characters are speaking about in that first scene. In actuality, the presentation of a problem or issue is raised in that first scene. And then when we enter the rest of the film, we are confronted with greater and greater questions. For me, the first scene establishes the main issues of the film.
What are those main issues, in your mind?
That of why these two people can’t get along.
Was part of the aim in writing this, subconsciously perhaps, to present a side of Iran North American audiences aren’t very familiar with?
My only aim was to make a film which is in the true sense of the word, cinematic. I tried to make the film in such a way that the viewer was able to become involved with the film on the basis of their own preoccupations. The notion that I could have made this film in order to convey to people who are not in this society how the society is, seems completely unimaginable.
Having said that, while experiencing the film on other levels, the spectator can gleam information about the place in which the story occurs.
Has the film been released in Iran yet?
Yes, the film was shown in cinemas in Iran a few months ago.
How has the response been? You talked of the questions you want the viewer to be left with. What kind of questions have you been asked in Iran?
The response in Iran, whether from critics of the public, is not very different from the response in the rest of the world. This does not mean that everyone around the world has the exact same take on the film. But the diversity of the questions that I’m asked everywhere do resemble one another. For instance one of the questions that’s also asked in Iran is, “Who’s right?”
Now you’re a director who’s managed to garner worldwide acclaim and make great films your way in Iran. What do you make of that and why do you think that is?
This may go back to the way in which I tell stories. I try in my stories not to hide some judgment that I impose on the spectator. I have confidence in the audience’s intelligence and want to allow them to come to their own conclusions. The other thing is that with regards to the fact that my films have been screened in Iran and have had distribution, I’ve been very fortunate.
I want to talk about the wealth of buzz surrounding the project. Since premiering in Berlin, your film’s been winning awards and earning a lot of acclaim from audiences and critics all over the world. Has the success caught you by surprise?
My other films were also successful at festivals, but the thing that sets this film apart for me is that audiences at large have seemed to connect. It’s as if the festivals have in fact become a link connecting the film and the public. I could foresee that in Iran but I could not have possibly foreseen that outside of Iran.
What’s been your most memorable experience on the festival circuit?
This film seems to travel to one or two places a week. With my previous films I’d travel everywhere with it, but with this one I haven’t gone as often. But I do have several sweet memories of the trips I did take with the film.
One was coming out of the theater in Toronto and seeing two ladies who were crying. They seemed to be crying about more than just the film. I started to talk to them, mainly just to comfort them. I asked why they were crying so much. They both said that they were in the middle of divorces and that the legal proceedings had gone quite far and they were days away from the final separation. They both also had children. And now after seeing this film, they said they’ve decided to hold off and give it a few days to think it all over. For me, even if it were just these two families who after seeing this movie continue and don’t break apart, that has an immense value.
Another recollection that’s very dear to me is that I saw Wim Wenders in Berlin. He said to me, “I’ve seen your film twice.” At that point I’d only seen “Pina” once and I loved the film. So I decided I had to go to “Pina” one more time and then we’d be even. So in Telluride, I ran into Wenders again and I said, “I’ve now seen your film twice too.” But then Wim told me, “I’ve now seen your film three times because I went to go see it again last night.”
Your daughter, Sarina Farhadi, gives such a beautiful and wrenching performance as the couple's daughter Termeh. What is it like working with someone so close to you and put her through something so emotional as this film?
From some points of view it was very easy and from others it was very difficult. From the point of view of her behavior, her tone, her face… I thought it would be easy because I know her so well. But once we began to work, I started to feel how much of her character I didn’t know. Abruptly I felt, even though we’re close, how little we know each other. This created a unique situation and actually allowed us to discover more about one another.
Sometimes working with her I felt like a cruel person. Relative to the other actors, I gave her a harder time. This took a toll on me, but I don’t think there was any other way.