Others Like Us

Iran’s Oscar-winning film is not a ‘dirty picture’ of any one society

A still from the movie ‘A Separation’, which is written and directed by Asghar Farhadi.
01 May, 2012

MY FINDING IS THAT YOUR PROBLEM is a small problem,” a judge tells Simin and her husband, Nader, from offscreen during the divorce hearing that opens A Separation (Jodái-e Náder az Simin, or The Separation of Nader from Simin; 2011). Nader has already made for the door. Simin, her red hair barely covered by a loosely-draped headscarf, levels her stare at the judge, whose perspective is that of the camera. When Simin, her face shot in medium close-up, looks directly into the camera, she does not break the fourth wall so much as challenge its very viability. Distance, her look says, has no place here. You are implicated from the start, compelled to stay close.

Simin has brought Nader before the court to sue for divorce. After six months of effort, she secured visas for them and their 10-year-old daughter, Termeh, to leave Iran and restart their lives in an unnamed country abroad. But Nader refuses to leave. His father has Alzheimer’s and he feels bound by responsibility to remain in Tehran. Simin wants Termeh to come with her because, she explains to the judge, “As a mother, I’d rather she didn’t grow up in these circumstances.” Nader will not grant permission for Termeh to go; he says his daughter wants to stay with him. The judge says the law has no mechanism for resolving family problems.

Simin leaves Nader and Termeh and goes to stay with her parents, and Nader, who works through the day, hires Razieh, a devout Muslim woman, to look after his father. Razieh keeps her work a secret from her husband, Hodjat—who has fallen into a depression after losing his job—knowing that he will disapprove of her working for a single man. One day, Nader and Termeh return to the apartment to find Razieh gone and the old man’s wrist tied to the bed. When Razieh returns, Nader pushes her out of the house. Razieh, pregnant, falls on the stairs and miscarries. Nader is charged with the murder of her child.

And so a small problem becomes a crisis that, through a series of evasions, equivocations and moral ambiguities, brings two decent families to the brink of ruin, beyond the reach of law and justice.

As is so often the case with art emerging from politically fraught regions, A Separation, which won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, has been read as a tantalising ‘inside look’ at a society otherwise hidden from outside eyes. Some critics have focused on the film’s relationship to Iran’s strict censorship, others on tacit critiques of the present sociopolitical situation in the country. Both topics are interesting, but neither really to the point.

“I didn’t want to make a ‘message’ movie,” Asghar Farhadi, the film’s writer, director and producer, said in a December 2011 interview with Time Out New York’s David Fear. What Farhadi aimed to make was a human movie, and human lives are not contrived to send messages. Like history, lives happen.

FILMED IN 2010 and released in 2011, the journey of A Separation straddles a period of rather big problems in the annals of Iranian cinema and polity—problems made visible by the story of Jafar Panahi.

In films like Badkonake sefid (The White Balloon; 1995) and Dayereh (The Circle; 2000), now officially banned in Iran, Panahi established himself as one of the foremost voices in contemporary global cinema. He was also among the most prominent voices in the opposition during Iran’s tumultuous 2009 elections, a position that led to his early-2010 arrest in a Tehran cemetery while he was mourning those who died fighting for free, transparent elections.

In December that year, Panahi, charged with producing anti-regime propaganda, received a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, travelling abroad or speaking to the press. Panahi’s most recent work, In film nist (This Is Not a Film; 2011), uses footage from a digital camcorder and an iPhone to document a day in his life under house arrest. The film was snuck out of Iran and arrived at last year’s Cannes Film Festival—with an appropriate poetic flourish—on a flash drive buried in a cake. At the same festival, Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, another filmmaker currently under lock and key in Iran, both received special honours.

In the midst of the persecution and uncertainty that filled this sequence of events, Farhadi’s film managed to pass Iran’s censors and gain enough public support to become the official selection for the Academy Awards, where it won Iran its first Oscar.

The upshot has been a great deal of speculation about Farhadi’s evasion of the censors despite the film’s incisive look at taboo subjects, like the place of women and the law in contemporary Iranian society. In that opening court sequence, for instance, when Simin says she wants her daughter to have a future, the judge responds, “So the children living in this country don’t have a future?” Simin purses her lips and remains silent. This line, apparently inserted at the insistence of the censors, is countered later when Nader yells at her: “Just say why you want to leave this country.” Simin, again, is silent. “You’re afraid to say,” Nader shouts. Indeed she is.

Leila Hatami portrays the character of Simin, who wants to leave Iran with her daughter, Termeh.

Much has been made of Simin’s—and, by extension, Farhadi’s—silence. That silence certainly has political implications, and, though Farhadi dismisses the notion in his statements, we will probably never know if he was silent only out of necessity. We can see, though, that the silence redirects our attention from the possible political stakes to emotional ones.

Although much of the film is set in government offices, political symbols like flags and state seals appear just twice, once on a series of documents Xeroxed during the opening credits, and once outside Simin’s office near the film’s end. So while the political realities of the Islamic Republic circumscribe the worlds of both film and filmmaker, the film itself does not align itself politically. Farhadi is more interested in exhausted faces and bleak offices than in the paraphernalia of state oppression.

AT FIRST GLANCE, Farhadi’s central characters appear to represent basic poles of social, economic and religious identity, poles with clear analogues anywhere in the world. On the one hand, we have Nader and Simin. They are educated and secular, work at white-collar jobs and have values and a lifestyle instantly familiar to educated, secular, white-collar people nearly everywhere. For most people in the world who will spend the time and money to see A Separation, Nader and Simin are the obvious ‘us’ figures, as recognisable in New York or in New Delhi as in Tehran. On the other hand, Farhadi gives us Razieh and Hodjat, who live in the poorer outskirts of the city, work menial jobs and nurture a deep, conservative faith, the kind that tends to make people like Nader and Simin acutely uncomfortable.

You can imagine how this might play out had Farhadi made a political movie. We might see Razieh as a simple victim or Hodjat as a raving fanatic. We might hear Nader question the legitimacy of a murder charge for causing a miscarriage, or hear Simin protest when Termeh tells her mother that she set all this in motion by leaving her family. We do not.

Nader (Peyman Moadi) refuses to leave his ailing father behind in Iran for a better life abroad.

Towards the middle of the film, Hodjat appears at Termeh’s school to confront the tutor who has testified on Nader’s behalf in the ‘murder’ case. Having seen Hodjat’s temper, and a drawing (never shown to the audience) by Hodjat and Razieh’s four-year-old daughter that depicts the couple fighting, the tutor, like us, is all too eager to assume that Hodjat himself is responsible for his wife’s miscarriage. Had Hodjat been responsible, after all, we might have the suggestion of a political message: the self-destruction of conservative Islam, the violence of the oppressive religious regime on the most vulnerable people in Iranian society, etc. Instead, in the scene at Termeh’s school, Hodjat holds out his Qur’an and says, calmly, almost broken, “Why do you think we beat our wives and children like animals? I swear on this Qur’an we’re humans just like you.” The accusation levelled at the secular world is as pointed as Simin’s silence in the opening scene.

So while justice is at stake here, it is not the justice of Islam that Farhadi questions. The problem is that the meaning of justice, like everything, is multiple. Both Simin, the secular woman fleeing a repressive establishment, and Hodjat, the figure (at least superficially) most in line with that establishment, are entitled to their outrage and pain. Both have justice simultaneously on their sides and staring back impassively across a great divide, whether it’s the two-dimensional space of a movie screen, or the flat surface of an outstretched book.

IN HIS 1946 ESSAY ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell cites political purpose as one of the four drives for a writer: “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”. Seen from this perspective, it’s hardly surprising that so many people have insisted on locating Farhadi’s political message.

Farhadi himself has insisted that his film, though of course affected by the political situation in Iran, is not a direct product of censorship. “This is the type of filmmaking I would gravitate towards whether the government tells me I can or can’t make an explicitly political movie,” he said to Time Out.

Yet the Iranian government’s schizophrenic response to the film has made the political question almost irresistible. Production on A Separation was halted for two weeks in September 2010 after Farhadi publicly expressed support for Panahi. The finished film’s popular reception eventually necessitated the government’s acceptance, and its victory at the Oscars was welcomed as a victory over Israel, whose submission, He’arat Shulayim (Footnote), was one of the five contenders for the award. Then, without explanation, the government cancelled a ceremony planned in honour of Farhadi’s victory. Opinions of those close to the regime offer clues as to why: the hardline film critic Masoud Ferasati denounced the movie on state television, saying, “The image of our society that A Separation depicts is the dirty picture Westerners are wishing for.”

But A Separation does not really read as a ‘dirty picture’ of any one society. Rather, it is a serious and honest portrayal of the way people deal with one another, made universal by the very specificity and realism of its events. Were Farhadi’s film political in Orwell’s sense—essentially a ‘message movie’—its themes would have little application beyond its time and place. Orwell himself acknowledges that his book Homage to Catalonia (1938) will “lose its interest for any ordinary reader” because of explicitly political insertions. A Separation has little in the way of political rhetoric, and it is because of this that the film’s implications are so expansive.

Invocations of the Qur’an, for instance, have surprisingly little political valence. At pivotal moments throughout the film, people swear on the book. In some scenes, the  Qur’an ’s presence has no effect; in a key moment at the end, it reveals an essential truth. In each case, however, these swearings are met by deaf ears or uncertain looks. How can Nader and Simin hear the full gravity in Razieh’s or Hodjat’s oaths? And how can Razieh and Hodjat accept swears from people who have no fixed ethical grounding? Both pairs have a deep moral sense, but those two sensibilities are divided by a gap as vast and profound as faith itself.

Kimia Hosseini as Somayeh, left, and Sareh Bayat as Razieh in a still from the film.

And while Farhadi’s two couples are too human and complex to become mere allegory, we can see in that gap a reflection of similar gaps forming in the geopolitical arena between Iran and the rest of the world.

The past four decades, which have seen the rise of radical Islam on a global scale, have constituted one sustained seismic event in world attitudes towards Islam, opening a vast chasm of misunderstanding between it and the rest of the world. Millions upon millions of moderate Muslims in the world notwithstanding, the publicity machines that operate behind the powerful practitioners and opponents of radical Islam alike have, for many, made that faith synonymous with religious radicalism, authoritarianism, terrorism. We need look no further than Switzerland’s banning of minarets, or the horrific shootings in Norway last summer (traced to a man who feared Muslims were conquering Europe) to see these tremors shaking the world’s most stable nations to their foundations.

Nowhere does the gap seem wider than between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the State of Israel, and rarely has the crisis seemed more acute. Public posturing from Israel suggests that war could come within 12 months should Iran not cease its nuclear programme. Israel sees an Iranian nuclear programme as an implicit act of aggression, citing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s polemical tirades against Israel as sufficient evidence to justify preemption. Iran, conversely, claims it needs nuclear power to produce cleaner energy, and now (not unreasonably) to arm itself against an increasingly bellicose Israel.

The roots of the problem run so deep that to try and unearth them would only serve to erode further what little common ground remains. From Iran, Israel hears only the mad wail of a violent zealot; in Israel, Iran sees just the smug sneer of a rich, oppressive occupier. Neither Israel nor Iran is blameless, and it is too late to gloss over so much pain, anger and recrimination. So the ground continues to rumble, threatening to throw both sides into the abyss.

In the penultimate scene of A Separation, after the collapse of a near reconciliation, Nader, Simin and Termeh drive home through the dark streets of Tehran, with a hole smashed in their windshield. Shot from the backseat, the hole is a network of cracks and fissures radiating from an empty center. The image is an apt visual metaphor for the constellation of events that has led these families to crisis. Try though we might to follow events to their origins, we find them hopelessly tangled, forming no image in the darkness, and at their source we find neither cause, nor reason, nor solution—just an imponderable absence.

ORWELL CLAIMS, “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Although the latter of these two statements certainly holds, it doesn’t necessary follow directly from the former. Art can certainly deal with politics or participate in politics, and art, like everything else, is deeply influenced by politics. But art that is political, art used to push its audience toward a position? Well, there’s a reason Orwell’s essays are more compelling than his fiction.

Were Farhadi trying to tell us what kind of society we ought to strive for, he might have made a film about big problems and proposed big solutions. As it is, the problems he has chosen to address with such probity, humanity and compassion are far smaller—and, of course, far more important.