Like many great writer-directors, Asghar Farhadi has spent most of his career ringing variations on a theme: In a classic Farhadi setup, fissures within a family or other intimate group are thrown into relief when a trauma or a primal conflict brings out previously hidden aspects of the main characters. Thanks to their fine-grained realism and the intimacy of their settings, his films convey a great deal of information about life in contemporary Iran, particularly among Tehran's educated and artistic elite.
The filmmaker also has a good ear for the way men and women communicate, and a sharp eye for the politics of gender. His latest, The Salesman, is set in the world of theater in which Farhadi started out. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a youngish married couple, are starring in their theater group's production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman when a violent sexual attack shakes Rana's world, propelling the normally sensitive and supportive Emad into a state of macho rigidity.
Farhadi met with me in the Manhattan office of The Salesman's U.S. distributor, Cohen Media Group, to talk about his latest work, how the ambiguity of his films is both an advantage and a disadvantage when dealing with Iran's infamous censors, and why he would rather make films in Iran than anywhere else in the world, despite the difficulties.
Your films provide a humanistic window into life in Iran, partly because the characters are so easy to relate to and partly because of their sheer artfulness and moral complexity. Do you think they help counteract the dominant narrative in countries like ours, that tend to portray Iran as a scary, dangerous place full of religious and political extremists?
When I make my films, I'm not consciously thinking that I want to show a correct image of my people to the world, but automatically this happens, and this satisfies me. The situations that characters are put into in these films are situations that could happen anywhere in the world. The look that I have onto the characters is a look of empathy—even the characters who are at fault. Perhaps this is something that people around the world like, when you can put yourself into the shoes of others. This is the most important thing to me. When I was working in theater as well, when I was writing plays, I was also seeking ways that the audience could empathize with the characters.
Censorship has been famously difficult for some Iranian directors, most notably Jafar Panahi. In your Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening for A Separation, you talked about how you ensure that your films can be seen in Iran spite of the censors. You said: “One way is, I don’t speak loudly in my films. Another way is that I don't force my judgments on the audience.” The way you make the audience think for themselves about what is happening is one of the signature features of all of your films, and I've always assumed it was an artistic choice. But are you saying you developed that way of making films in part to avoid being censored?
I believe art in the face of censorship is like water in the face of stone. When you place an obstacle like a stone in the way of water, the water finds its way around it. This doesn't mean agreeing with censorship, of course. But one of the things that censorship does, without wanting to do it—one of the unintended consequences—is that it makes you creative. Censorship in the long run has very bad consequences, and it can kill creativity, but in the short run it could make people creative.
And is one of the ways it has made you creative by inspiring you to make your points more indirectly?
It makes you speak vicariously and indirectly. I don't like to speak directly in cinema anyway. When you speak directly, you're forcing something on the audience. You don't let the audience discover and reach [its own] conclusion.
How does censorship work in Iran, exactly? I understand it's not like there are clear rules you have to follow, but more of a shifting landscape, depending on who you're dealing with?
Censorship has different shapes. There's an official censorship: There's a committee that reads your script and gives you comments. Those people, throughout the years, because they have become familiar with cinema through watching films, they have become more lenient. But there's also an unofficial censorship. When the film is finished and screened, then people who look at everything with a political eye take their magnifying glass and look into the details. They look for the things that might be against them, and they start to make some interpretations of the film that have nothing to do with the film. And this damages the relationship that the ordinary audience has with the film and it manipulates their minds.
Do you have to change your film in response to what they say?
No. I don't change the film.
So how does what they say damage the film's relationship with the audience?
For instance, they make it about a specific subject matter when it's actually not about that subject matter. They divert the minds of the audience. When the film A Separation was screened, those people who always see things from a political angle started saying that this film is encouraging emigration—leaving Iran. This is very strange to me, because I had a character of a woman who wanted to leave and a character of a man who insisted on staying, and the film was a challenge between the two. I don't think that anyone, by seeing A Separation, would be encouraged to leave the country. In fact, the opposite has happened: Many people returned to their parents [in Iran] after seeing the film. But this wrong discussion resulted in very wrong discussions afterward, with people talking about emigration. They don't make me change the film, but they change my audience's relationship to the film.