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Interview: Asghar Farhadi on The Salesman, Censorship, & More

Farhadi discusses the ambiguity of his films, dealing with Iran’s censors, and more.

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Interview: Asghar Farhadi on The Salesman, Censorship, & More
Photo: Cohen Media Group

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.

In this country, as you know, we have legal freedom of expression—at least for now. But even so, it’s very difficult to get art films like yours made and seen by the public, mostly because of market pressures that dictate what kinds of films get funded and distributed and advertised and so on. Would it be easier or harder for you to make films here than in Iran?

Because the films that are made in Iran aren’t big production films and they don’t need a big budget, it’s still very simple to make films there. There are things that are difficult and there are things that are easier compared to the world outside. For instance, I can find the best people that I want there as part of my crew. Despite all the difficulties, I still prefer making films in Iran.

How widely are your films seen in Iran?

Out of my films in Iran, this film has been the most successful. It’s still in the last days of its screening in Iran, and it has been the best-selling film in the history of Iranian cinema.

Do you think that’s something about this particular film, or do you think people are just getting to know you better as a director? I know your Oscar speech [for A Separation] was very widely seen in Iran.

It could be both of these things, but of course there’s a large number of people who relate to this kind of cinema. It’s a cinema that hasn’t just the entertaining purpose, but it gives the audience a chance to challenge themselves.

But you could say that about any of your films. I’m wondering why this one in particular is hitting a chord.

I think my audience has realized now that it has to leave some time to think about the film after they see it. That people talk to each other, that it creates conversation and debate among people, even those that don’t agree with the film. This is a big happening for me.

So people are coming to understand what a Farhadi film is?

People have understood my cinematic language. This makes my job both difficult and easy.

Why difficult?

Because now they see the details with such an eye that sometimes they draw conclusions from those details that I didn’t intend [smiles].

Are you a fan of Ingmar Bergman? I’m asking because the way you switch between the artists making theater together and the private lives and fraying marriage of two members of the group in The Salesman reminded me of Bergman.

I very much like Bergman. I think he’s one of the best in the world. Out of my respect for Bergman, I put a poster for Shame in one of the scenes of the film. One of the characteristics of Bergman’s films is that there’s a lot of emphasis on the psychology of people, on people’s individualism. And the films have a strong relationship with theater.

Taraneh Alidoosti, who plays Rana, also played main characters in several other films of yours. What is it about her, or your working relationship with her, that works so well for you?

This was my fourth film with Taraneh: Beautiful City, About Elly, Fireworks Wednesday, and this one. She’s a very smart actress, and she uses her mind when she’s facing a character. She’s one of those actors that must understand the character fully. In this film, she had a difficult task because in most of the film, Rana was silent because of the damage that was done to her. The job of Taraneh was to make the character be silent not because she’s passive but because she’s been damaged.

What film is Emad’s class watching—or not watching—in that scene where he falls asleep while teaching a class?

This is a very old film, The Cow, that’s very much discussed in Iran. It received the best actor award at the Chicago International Film Festival [in 1971]. It’s about a character who has a cow and loves the cow so much that when the cow dies the character has a metamorphosis into this cow. It’s the gradual change of a person into a cow. It’s like Kafka’s work.

Did you include it because you wanted to pay tribute to a great Iranian film?

It’s that, but it’s also that in reality it’s part of children’s textbooks. And it’s also based on a play.

You’re so good at capturing the perspective of women in your films. How much of the oppression that women experience do you think comes from seemingly nice guys like Emad, whose male pride makes him blind to the trauma Rana experiences after her attack, and how much from overtly misogynistic or domineering men?

The men in my films, in regular situations, are just normal men. When they’re placed in a crisis, all of a sudden their characters change. This is exactly my deliberate choice. I choose male characters that are placed in dilemmas, and they cannot make a decision when they are in these dilemmas. Usually these men are good men who try to be moralistic, but the situations don’t allow them to execute their moralism.

So you wouldn’t say that the men themselves are oppressing their wives or the other women around them but that they are victims of the situation?

This is just my personal belief. There is nothing scientific about it. I think that men usually have a strong sense of ownership of women, and this is what determines their behavior. Especially this is seen in more traditional societies. Also, men usually think about the past more than women. Women, because of their ability to give birth to children, look to the future more. Women can pass easier.

Can pass?

They can make a shift from the past to the future. But men usually hold onto the past. They want to revise it and go back to it and talk about it. All of my characters have followed this formula. In A Separation, the man has his outlook on his father: His gaze is fixed on the past. But the woman is thinking about the future of her daughter.

Translation by Sheida Dayani

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