Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi had the perfect response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempted travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries entering the United States: he refused to attend the ceremony when his film “The Salesman” won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in February.
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Farhadi’s short statement – read onstage by Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space, and Firouz Naderi, the director of Solar Systems Exploration at NASA – said he was sorry he could not attend. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.,” it read. “Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear – a deceitful justification for aggression and war. ... Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.”
I met Farhadi at the Cannes Film Festival last May in a completely different atmosphere, at the time when it seemed Trump’s candidacy for U.S. presidency was just a passing folly.
Farhadi, 44, was pleased with the praise his film received at Cannes. Some even forecast that it would claim the Palme d’Or, but ultimately, after particularly fierce competition, “The Salesman” won the best actor award (for Shahab Hosseini) and the best screenplay honor for Farhadi.
He answered my questions in Farsi with the aid of a translator – even though it was clear he understood my English. Our conversation flowed nicely as we sat under blue skies on a sun-drenched Riviera roof, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
I started by telling Farhadi what I particularly like about his movies: That we see the story from the point of view of each character. It doesn’t matter if they’re opposed, or on the same side, which creates a kind of mosaic of perspectives. Also, I added, I get the feeling that he never judges his characters.
“You’re absolutely right,” Farhadi agrees. “The key to the story is trying to be as close as possible to reality and to life. That’s how it is in real life. Depending from what angle you choose to look at things, we see the situation from one angle – and it’s totally different from what it would seem like from another angle. I try to give the viewer the opportunity to see the situation from different angles.
“I would never show a situation only from the angle I believe in,” he continued. “That’s also why viewers can choose their own approach and their own point of view in the film. For me, the modernity of the cinema is in this. You see it in sculpting so easily, so why not in cinema? You see the same sculpture from one angle, and it looks like a face; from a different angle it looks like part of the body; and from another one it looks like a building. That’s the kind of art I’m interested in. To take one situation, one subject, one film, and to see the different approaches that people have of it. That’s what I consider a democratic relationship between a director and his viewers.”
This approach also creates ambivalence in your films – ideologically, dramatically and emotionally.
“It depends on yourself, on your personal concerns, obsessions or approach. I think in ‘A Separation’ [his Oscar-winning film from 2011], someone dealing with the issue of caring for their elderly parent would see the film in a certain way; someone who’s taken in a couple’s relationship would focus on that; somebody else who is into political activity and not personal matters would see that aspect.”
Most important roles for women
This cinematic approach, in which Farhadi shapes his films as open to any form of identification or interest by the audience, is also true of “The Salesman,” which has strengthened his status as one of the greatest directors working today. I say that based on his three most recent films: “A Separation,” “The Salesman” and his 2013 drama “The Past,” for which Bérénice Bejo won the Best Actress award at Cannes.
Because “The Salesman” is constructed as a thriller, I will keep the plot details to a minimum. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad Etesami (Hosseini) are a married couple starring in a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” At the beginning of the film, they are forced to move out of their apartment in the middle of the night because their building is in danger of collapse due to nearby construction work. A fellow actor finds them an alternative apartment whose female tenant has left behind all her possessions and disappeared. Emad becomes obsessed with finding out more about the identity of the missing woman.
Farhadi agrees with my description of the film as a thriller, and even claims that his earlier films had a similar quality. He also doesn’t object to my description of his films as melodramas that he uses as ideological tools – as many of the great directors did during Hollywood’s golden age.
“I don’t mind seeing my films as melodrama, it’s a genre that I accept totally because of the emotions and feelings in it," he says. "As for ideology, it’s not my approach in my own cinema, but whether someone else may see it like this. My film deals with ideology. There are hints of it, but no one ever feels my own ideology in my films, so I don’t impose it on anyone.”
Your protagonist says at one point, “We thought things would change, but they didn’t change.” That’s a very strong statement, what did you mean by it?
“We all wish for change – or the more idealist among us want change. But sometimes, by changing, or by wanting change, we destroy what really exists. We want to give the world the shape we wish it had. But the world belongs to all kinds of people, and some others may want the world either how it is or how they want it to be. We cannot change the world according to our will, so we’d better change ourselves.”
I come from Israel, so I know what you’re talking about. What about the role of men and women? Do you treat them equally? Because women are very important in your work.
“Myself, when I look at my films retrospectively, I feel that the women have the most important roles – to be honest, I give more credit to women. I find them mysterious, in a good way, and most disasters in the world are caused by men. Women take much more responsibility; they forgive more easily; they sacrifice themselves more easily; they look more to the future, whereas men are turned toward the past. That’s why I give more important roles to women and feel more respect for them. It comes from my own experience – that’s how I see my wife or my mother.”
Where did the idea for “The Salesman” come from?
“It just emerged, I can’t say from where. Maybe because I was a theater student and worked in the theater, that’s why I came up with this aspect of it. I’ve always wanted to make a film about somebody who makes a mistake, something he didn’t mean to do, and then spends the film trying to convince the other that he really didn’t mean it and to ask for his forgiveness. What I really want is to put the viewer in the shoes of the character in a way where they ask themselves: ‘If I were him, would I forgive the man or not?’ And many people don’t forgive him. Which means that many of us have this potential violence in us.”
Would it be wrong of me to imagine that it took a degree of courage to use an American play?
“I don’t see [‘Death of a Salesman’] as an American play. It belongs to the whole world. It was written in the United States, about America, but it’s been shown plenty of times in my country. We also feel it belongs to us – art belongs to everyone. So I just chose it as a remarkable work of art.”
Despite the realistic nature of your films, is there also an allegorical dimension at play here? For instance, the building that is about to collapse...
“Exactly. Just as the building is about to collapse, you can guess that something else is going to collapse by the end of the film: a relationship that is destroyed, that collapses, is also representative of society, which potentially can collapse. That’s also the problem of the world today: We don’t know how to forgive, and that brings us back to the bitterness and desire for revenge that drives the world.”
In addition to the film’s allegorical and symbolic dimensions, Farhadi’s use of Miller’s play – including the set and theater where it takes place – adds a measure of stylized artificiality to the realism. I wondered whether, similar to French directors such as Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette, Farhadi likes to combine theater and film.
“Oh yes, I’m really interested in that, and I think this is a period in which cinema should borrow more from theater – in order to have more profound stories," says Farhadi. "But you must be very careful when you use music and theater in cinema: music is made to be heard in a concert, and theater is made to be seen live.”
I hear a criticism of modern cinema when you say we need to take more profound stories from the theater. Am I right?
“You’re absolutely right. All of our stories look the same. We hardly ever see a film that offers us a new vision of life and where we think we discovered something that was unheard of or unseen before. The stories become more and more meager; we see few stories that are multilayered anymore.”
One last question: Israel and Iran – how do we solve it?
“The politicians don’t want to solve the problem because they have too much to lose. My only hope is in people, not the politicians.”
I have less hope in people.
“Because they’re influenced by the media and the politicians. The politicians create the fear in order to create the need for their own legitimacy – and they’ve been successful so far, unfortunately.”
Benjamin Netanyahu is one example.
“We had [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, too,” says Farhadi.