Interview: Asghar Farhadi on Charting Crisis in A Hero and the Dangers of Social Media

Asghar Farhadi discusses his approach to writing complex stories and his understanding of what happens when people tell the truth.

Asghar Farhadi on A Hero, Charting Crisis, and the Perils of Social Media
Photo: Amirhossein Shojaei

A decade after the release of his global cinematic sensation A Separation, the general tenor of a Asghar Farhadi work has become well-known. Case in point: In A Hero, a simple event sets off a chain reaction within a community that unravels the untruths and deceptions that tenuously hold together the status quo. The story structure may seem familiar, but from inside of it, the Iranian auteur consistently finds new angles from which to explore the animating humanism that’s become his signature.

In A Hero, that seemingly simple event occurs when Rahim (Amir Jadidi), an ordinary man on release from debtor’s prison, returns a purse full of coins to its rightful owner. Any number of parties, from his family to prison officials, see a situation ripe for weaponizing in favor of their own interests. As Rahim’s story takes on a life of its own through traditional and social media, Farhadi resists “price of fame” narrative tropes. It’s not that Rahim’s newfound societal recognition costs him—it’s that it doesn’t pay either, and the debt to his creditor (Mohsen Tanabandeh) remains outstanding. When money assumes the moral valence that it does in the film, the characters begin to reveal themselves in riveting and unexpected ways.

I spoke with Farhadi prior to the theatrical and Prime Video release of A Hero. We chatted about his approach to writing such complex characters and stories, his guiding visual principles, and his understanding of what happens when people tell the truth.

How do you approach writing the characters in your films? Everyone on screen is so multi-layered in their motivations.

I started writing this story with a crisis [in mind], and then I put the characters [within] it. And then, after that, the characters show who they really are by facing the crisis. I can’t really introduce a character to the audience without [doing that]. People, when they’re in a crisis, start to show different angles of their character. I like movies where the characters have contradictions in themselves, and they start doing stuff that you’re not expecting them to do: characters who we can empathize with even as, at the same time, we can see their mistakes.

Are their ulterior motives there from the beginning or found along the way?

I like to give a character enough time to explain him or herself [as a film progresses] and the audience the emotional space to like them. [It’s] basically in order for the characters to explain why they do what they do. And this is not just for the main character; it’s for the antagonist as well. As much as we empathize with the main character of the film, we have to be able to empathize with the characters facing him as well.

So often we only see a film through the eyes of the protagonist, but your films have always allowed us to understand other people’s rationales for the actions they take. Is this film the culmination of that interest? It’s called A Hero, but ironically you show how everyone on screen is a hero by their own telling.

When we hear the word “hero,” we’re thinking about a character who always makes their own decisions. They’re very practical, very strong. They’re the character that the audience wishes to be in his or her place. But in real life, it’s not like that at all. Especially these days, they’re heroes for a small amount of time and then descend very fast. We have a hero in our film where nobody wants to be in his place because he’s not a character that makes his own decisions. He’s a passive man, and other people are making decisions for him—with the exception of the end of the film where he makes a decision in front of his son and becomes a hero. This character is passive but, at the same time, we empathize with him because we understand that he’s a normal man who other people are making into an important person or hero. For example, after he gets to be known by the society, his sister tells him that he should stop smoking because it doesn’t look good. Or how his brother-in-law asks him to wear new clothes. They want to change him to match to the image that the newspaper has of him.

How did you determine the role social media would play in this film?

When I [started] writing the story, I wasn’t really thinking that it was going to be about social media. But when I found out that this was a story of a man who ascends and then descends very fast, I thought about the tools that make this happen. I found out that in addition to newspapers and TV, social media is another tool these days that brings people up and then brings them down. That’s where social media entered the story. This is not a complete criticism of social media because it has good parts to it as well. For example, it helps us to hear the voices that we couldn’t hear before. But because there are so many voices in social media, it’s ripe for misunderstandings. Social media tries to explain a very complicated situation in very small elements and few words. It makes you confused trying to find out what the truth is.

Why were you adamant about not overlaying social media elements onto the frame?

I didn’t want to show it on the screen. I wanted to see the consequences. These days, we see a lot of images of social media in movies. [But] our discussion here about the consequences of it.

You describe your visual style as a mix between documentary and theater, with the ultimate goal of making your films look like reality. When do you allow yourself to make more painterly compositions like the multi-plane closing shot of A Hero?

If I feel like the audience would believe it as a part of life, I put it in. But if I feel like the audience would feel, “Oh, this is the director doing this,” I take it out. For the last scene, my thought was that the audience will believe this as normal daily life. This is a very layered image, and there is lots of stuff happening in parallel at the same time. But with the acting and the light, I tried to make everything look like real life.

I want to ask you the question that I always find myself asking after your films because maybe you have more insight into it than I do: Why do people lie?

Maybe the better question to ask is: What happens when people tell the truth? Because sometimes I feel like in a society, telling the truth is more expensive than telling a lie. It depends on the environment that we’re living in. Another important point is that sometimes people lie without knowing that they’re lying. They feel like they omitted part of the truth, and they don’t call it a lie. Sometimes people believe a lie so much that they feel like it is the truth. Many times, when people lie, they think they’re telling the truth. If you watch Rashomon, Kurosawa is talking exactly about that issue. He answers your question. He’s basically said that about any situation—that there are lots of different angles to it. Some of them can be correct. Some of them cannot be correct. But we [can only] see the situation through our own eyes.

Translation by Rayan Farzad

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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