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Interview: Asghar Farhadi on Everybody Knows and the Persistence of the Past

Farhadi discusses the universal human instinct to distrust outsiders, the strong similarities between Spanish and Iranian culture, and more.

Focus Features
Photo: Teresa Isasi/Focus Features

A beautifully acted ensemble piece, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows starts with a hyper-realistic introduction to a cozy world—a bath of golden light, goblets of wine, warm hugs, and festive music as Laura’s (Penélope Cruz) large, loving family gathers for a wedding. But the film’s focus on this family’s day-to-day interactions takes a sharp turn when a crisis puts the main characters, including Paco (Javier Bardem), Laura’s old and dear friend, to the test, throwing everything about their lives into question.

Two years ago, on what turned out to be his last trip to the United States, I spoke with Farhadi in person about The Salesman. (The filmmaker, who has a green card, has stayed away since then, in protest of President Donald Trump’s travel ban.) Earlier this week, we spoke over the phone about Everybody Knows and the subject of the universal human instinct to distrust outsiders, the persistence of the past, and the strong similarities between Spanish and Iranian culture that make Farhadi feel at home in Spain.

There’s a subplot in Everybody Knows about the anti-immigrant prejudice in Spain, which makes people point fingers at foreign grape-pickers the moment something goes wrong. Were you trying to say something about how that kind of poisonous thinking seems to be spreading around the world?

My point I’m making is more general. It was this very universal reflex that we have that when there’s something wrong, suspicion is first directed against not just immigrants but the stranger, the outsider. Whereas problems may actually come from people around us—relatives, friends—and that is the case in this film.

There are a lot of reminders in Everybody Knows, starting with the title, of how hard it is to keep a secret in a small town.

Because I wanted to deal with the notion of secrets, and secrets being related to the past of the characters, I had to choose a society in which people are aware of each other’s pasts. If I had put my story in a big city it wouldn’t have made sense. People don’t know where the others come from; they aren’t aware of each other’s background. I wanted it to be in a small community in which people pretend that they don’t know anything about the others, but in reality they know everything.

It’s also about how things do and don’t change with time, and how the past is always present, which is a theme in a lot of your films.

Yes, this is a personal question, something that’s haunting me. The older I get, the more I’m haunted by it—this relationship that we have with our past. A friend in Spain told me this Cuban saying: “We don’t remember what past we had, or what past is awaiting us.” That’s something that I think is very true. In my culture, in Iranian culture, the past is very predominant, maybe I should say unfortunately, because nostalgia and the longing for the past is something that maybe sometimes prevents us from moving on.

The film starts out so full of joy and warmth and beauty, and even after things take a dark turn, the atmosphere never gets as tense as it does in the films you made in Iran. Is that partly because it felt lighter to be making a film far from the eyes of the censors?

I think this lightness and joy you refer to, this very warm feeling, is due to the reality of the Spanish people. It’s what I perceived in Spain, and so it is in the film. I think the reason there’s less tension than in my Iranian films is because the Spanish are much more straightforward. They open up to each other very easily, which isn’t at all the case in Iranian culture. One aspect that makes the tension so high in my films that I shot in Iran is that people don’t talk to each other frankly. Even in the language, things are expressed in a very indirect way. Whereas here in Spain, it’s much easier to express your feelings and say how things are. Once my script was ready, I went to Spain and started to adapt it to what I was observing in Spanish society. I realized that my characters had to be more straightforward and more open. For instance, Laura, in the first version, wouldn’t tell her husband that the child was not his. And then once I stayed in Spain, I realized that what would be a tragedy in Iran, to confess to a father that a child was not his, wouldn’t necessarily be the case in Spain.

Which came first: knowing you wanted to make a film in Spain or knowing you wanted to make a film with Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem?

I chose the country first. I decided to make the story in Spain because the story was triggered in Spain, by something that happened 15 years ago when I was visiting Spain. [Farhadi’s young daughter spotted a poster of a girl who had been kidnapped.] And also because I had a kind of attraction to Spain and Spanish culture, because I felt really at ease there. I felt there was something similar between Spanish culture and Iranian culture, which of course isn’t obvious in the present situation, because in Spain the democracy that you have nowadays is quite different from what’s going on in Iran. But in the emotional reality, how people relate to each other, the family relationships, there was something I was very familiar with. So that’s why I chose Spain. And then when I started thinking of my cast, it was obvious that the first people who came to my mind were Penélope and Javier.

Translation by Massoumeh Lahidji

Elise Nakhnikian

Elise Nakhnikian has written for Brooklyn Magazine and runs the blog Girls Can Play. She resides in Manhattan with her husband.

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