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It was 30 degrees outside, but my palms were slick with sweat as I cut through midtown New York, headed to a posh hotel for a meeting I was both elated about and dreading. There have been few moments in my life as nerve-racking as those leading up to my interview with Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi about his stunning new drama The Past. I've interviewed bigger "names" before, but I was about to sit down with the man who, by my count, is one of the greatest living filmmakers .
After a string of Iranian TV shows and films, Farhadi won the world's notice and an Academy Award in 2012 for his absolutely sensational ensemble drama A Separation. Catching it while covering NYFF in 2011, I was in utter awe, having never before seen a movie that put so much of its identity in the hands of its audience. It hid key moments, thereby forcing the viewer to take sides of characters without the omniscient view movies often offer. Afterwards I spent hours debating the meaning of the film's intentionally ambiguous scene with a colleague. More than two years later, I still tear up remembering that drama's poignant and provocative conclusion.
A Separation beat out The Artist for my Top 10 list that year. But to be clear, I don't just think it's one of the best films of 2011; I think it's one of the best films ever made. Which should explain my anxiety over meeting Farhadi, despite the fact that he seemed perfectly pleasant in other interviews I'd witnessed. What if I embarrassed myself? What if my questions didn't translate? What if he wasn't everything I hoped he'd be? They say you shouldn't meet your heroes, don't they?
My fears were allayed almost instantly when Farhadi, a small man with a contagious calm demeanor and neatly trimmed beard, entered the luxurious suite and offered his hand in way of introduction. In response, I blurted out my love of A Separation, and how thrilled I was to see The Past, a drama that stars The Artist's Oscar-nominated Bérénice Bejo as a woman who invites her estranged Iranian husband to return to France so they can finalize their divorce. He smiled and thanked me through his translator Sheida Dayani. And then began a conversation unlike any I've ever had before.
It was a new experience for me to speak to someone through a translator. Dayani was a total pro, so it made for an easy exchange. But what shocked me was how much of Farhadi's communication I felt I understood without any knowledge of the Persian language. He also spoke no French and yet directed a French-language film with fluent actors who claimed the translators weren't always needed to know what he was saying to them. That seemed kind of heady artist-speak when I'd read it in the press kit. But through the intonation of his voice, the pauses in his speech and the way he spoke with his hands, it was uncanny to me how much of our conversation I felt needed no translation.
Here it is in full, fully translated:
So, I want to start by telling you that A Separation was at the top of my list in 2011. I completely adored it, and actually The Artist was number 2, so I was completed elated to see The Past. Actually, this is a really tricky interview, because I don’t want to ask you anything that’s going to give any kind of certainty to the film, because I really love the way your films create this ambiguity and uncertainness that forces the audience to make kind of character judgments on their own. I was hoping though that you could talk to me about that approach to storytelling.
Asghar Farhadi: Doing interviews about my films really bothers me sometimes, because I have to speak directly and clearly about things I’ve intended to keep ambiguous, and in a way I feel like I’m betraying my film. But ambiguity is important and valuable because it helps the audience to go think about the film after they’re done seeing it and the film doesn’t finish in the audience’s mind. They’re still thinking about it. People who ask me those kind of questions think that I know something about the characters that I’m hiding from the audience, but that’s not the case. Everything I knew about that characters I told the audience and as ambiguous as they are to the audience, they are to me.
That’s really interesting because your characters do feel like they have private lives, apart from us. It feels like they do have rich backstories that we’re not party to. But I’m curious if in the development and the rehearsal stage, if that’s something that you cement more with the actors.
Yes, most of the rehearsals go to this, and there are little signs of those private lives that you talked about in the film. For instance, there is a part where Marie tells Ahmad that for the first time she saw Samir’s wife in the pharmacy when she would come to get her medication. We practiced and rehearsed that scene in our rehearsals, even though it’s not in the film. We rehearsed this process of Samir coming to the pharmacy, explaining that his wife is sick, explaining that he needs certain medications, then coming back in a few days. We were trying to make the actors get to know the backgrounds of the characters and the relationships with each other before the film started.
That’s so cool. Another thing I’m really impressed by is that while father-son stories are kind of a dime a dozen, both The Past and A Separation focus very much on a father-daughter story. Why is that so appealing to you as a filmmaker?
Perhaps because I am in that situation myself. I have two daughters. My first daughter (Sarina Farhadi) was the one who played in A Separation. And the father-daughter relationship is a very strange relationship to me. It’s both a very close and a very far relationship. It’s one of those that I think I will work on in my other films.
Did you ever consider having your daughter for A Separation play Lucie (the teen daughter) in this?
No, I really didn’t think about it from the beginning. I didn’t want the audience to have the image they had of the character in A Separation to be broken by this new image, and I didn’t want the audience to mix these two characters.
What inspired you to go to France for this film instead of making another film in and about Iran specifically?
It was the story itself. A lot of people think that I went to make a film in another country because of the limitations and pressures in Iran, but that really wasn’t the case for me. I even thought about making the film in Iran because in a sense, it’s more comfortable for me. With all of the pressures and limitation there, it’s more comfortable for me to make films in Iran, but the story was a story of a man who traveled to another country and I couldn’t make that in Iran.
Now, I was actually curious about, how much you relate to Ahmad, because he is very much in love with his homeland, but then he also has this love in another nation with another family and he feels very divided by that.
Ahmad is one of the most difficult or complex characters in the film. A lot of people might think why wouldn’t he, as this kind of gentle soul, stay with this family and why would Marie not live with him, but they only look at his surface, but if we go a little bit deeper, we can see the black points of his character, but Marie also points to these black spots of his character. When she is fighting with him, she says to him once that it really makes me sick when you take this position of a teacher and you try to teach everybody. Ahmad is one of those characters who considers himself above everybody and he’s constantly wanting to teach people something. And this is something that bothers Marie. He left his family four years ago without telling them that he’s never going to return, and Marie, that’s why she’s suffering. I think Ahmad has a dual character, and living with these type of people is very difficult. On one hand, you fall in love with their kindness. On another hand those black spots really bother you.
You spoke about the limitations of shooting in Iran. Frankly, as an American we don’t have that same kind of thing. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what those limitations are and how you feel like they actually have encouraged your creativity.
The most important characteristic about those limitations is that they’re not a fixed, they’re not anything fixed or they’re not going to always stay the same. This is both good and bad. It’s good because sometimes when they change, then you can pass around them, and it’s bad because you can’t predict how they’re going to turn out in a day or two. When you wake up in the morning, the limitations have one form and in the afternoon, their form is different. Part of these limitations are political, part of them are religious. What happened is that the filmmakers have been able to find a new language due to these limitations. I’m not saying this to encourage censorship, but I’m saying that the unintended consequence of it is creativity. I hope that the censors don’t hear this, because they’ll get encouraged, but the fact is it has turned into creativity.
It sounds like what you’re saying is that creativity can overcome that as an obstacle versus that barriers necessarily inspire creativity.
Yes, that’s true, and the point about it is that it’s only in a short period of time that censorship could create creativity. If they last and they survive for a long time, they will get rid of creativity.
So, your films have actually been opening the west up to the culture of Iran. Time Magazine called you a "de facto spokesman" for your country and named you one of the most influential people. Is that something that you consider now when you’re making films?
I really think of myself just as a filmmaker. It makes me happy to hear these things, but I don’t let them limit me.
So, after your Oscar win, it was announced you were working on a film with Marion Cotillard. Was it this film?
This one. I started this film before A Separation won the Oscar, and I had talked about Marion Cotillard playing in this film before the Oscar came, but I needed her to be present at the rehearsals for a few months. But she couldn’t; she didn’t have that time. I could’ve asked her to come (do the movie) without coming to the rehearsals, but I couldn’t accept that.
So, how did Bérénice come into it?
Bérénice was in the initial list that I had for considering the actresses, and I kept running into her in the trips that I came for promoting A Separation, and I got to know her more and I realized that she’s a really good choice. I’m very good friends with her husband (French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius) as well and I’m close to them.
I was actually completely shocked to find out that you don’t speak fluent French, nor does Ali Mosaffa. How does that impact making the film?
Of course, Ali knew French before, but he hadn’t spoken it for a while in Iran and he had forgotten the language. He came to live in France with his family for a few months and then he remembered everything. I didn’t know any French and this was the biggest challenge to the film. A lot of people told me that this is dangerous, but something told me that, some sense told me that after the success of A Separation, I shouldn’t go risk-free. I should do a project that has some risks in it, and this was an appealing risk to me. I lived in Paris for two years with my family. I would roam the streets of Paris during the day for a few hours in the subway, on the streets, and I listened to the French language and I got a sense of the rhythm and the melody of the language. I also had a crew of translators. They weren’t just translating my information and my data. They were also transferring my feeling and emotions. Even their gestures and facial mimics, they were copying after me.
That actually makes sense to me, because I completely don’t speak your language but I can understand how that would work having this conversation (with the help of a translator).
We tend to think that human connections are only through language, but that’s not true. I’ll bring you an example. A few members of the Oscar Academy had came to Iran a few years ago, and one day they wanted to see my fourth movie About Elly. They were watching the (Persian-language) film with English subtitles. In the middle of the film, I left the room because I had something to do and then I came back. And I saw that due to some technical difficulty, what they were seeing had no subtitles. But then they were just watching the film, and in the end, I said to them, "I think you missed some parts of the movie because you didn’t have subtitles for 10 minutes." And they said to me, "We didn’t miss anything. We understood everything completely," and they had realized some stuff as if they knew the Persian language well.
So, that actually reminds me, in this movie, several times, we see the characters either interacting behind glass or interacting through glass where they can’t hear each other, but we don’t really lose anything in that. Is that partially inspired by that experience?
This using window panes was also present in my other films. Sometimes people are speaking a common language, but they don’t understand each other, and sometimes they don’t even have a common language, but they can understand each other.
So, there’s a real earnestness toward kind of a naturalism versus a glossy reflection of reality in your films. Is Italian neorealism something you’re inspired by?
Very much so. I think all of the Iranian filmmakers have been influenced by Italian cinema, because there is a realism in Italy’s neorealism cinema that is also present in Iranian cinema. At a stage, the conditions in my country were at the same as the conditions of Italy after the war and we had similar experiences. Perhaps this similarity has made the cinema and the films look familiar to each other.
Along those lines, the children in your films feel not precocious, but for lack of a better word, very real. Can you talk about how you direct performances for them?
It’s vey difficult for me to explain how I work with children. I never tell children directly what I want, because they won’t believe you. Even though they do a lot of childish acts themselves. But they don’t believe the plays and the games of the adults. So, I knew that if I told Elyes that he needs to be sad about the fact that his mother is in a coma in the hospital and look depressed, he’s going to laugh at me, because children don’t believe in the games of grown-ups. But what we can do is we can form the relationships with other characters gradually. I really tried to have the relationship between Fouad and Tahar, like a father-son relationship, and this took several months of rehearsals. They were always rehearsing together, and I wanted Tahar to get as close as possible to him.
Well, thank you. That was extraordinary.
The Past opens in theaters in limited release on December 20th.