Records fell like skittles at this year’s 61st Berlin Film Festival. Asghar Farhadi’s Nader and Simin, a Separation was the first Iranian film to win the Golden Bear. In addition, the entire cast won ensemble awards, the males as a group taking the best actor prize, the females best actress. No previous film in the festival’s history had won three top prizes.
Farhadi was already a Berlin favourite, having taken the best director Silver Bear in 2009 for About Elly, a richly drawn social tragicomedy. A Separation (the UK release title), in which a husband and wife split up with calamitous effect, has the same multi-layered complexity. A teenage daughter’s mind becomes a tug-of-war between loyalties. An assault charge is brought by a woman carer, hired to tend husband Nader’s ailing father, after Nader pushes her from the flat during a quarrel over her work. Legal consequences multiply; so do the story’s emotional ramifications.
The handheld camera (a Farhadi trademark) bustles in the wake of the dozen principal characters. As in About Elly – and as in Iran today under autocratic rule – small events can spiral into large. Two days before he took the prize at Berlin I pressed Farhadi: the film is about Iran, isn’t it, not just about a family?
“There is a close relationship between social dramas and things on a political level. We don’t get an opportunity to reflect on politics directly in our country, so we seek to talk about it in indirect ways.”
He says this – a small man with a beard and a soft-spoken friendliness – as if offering me a cue to press further. There is a lot of lying in A Separation: lying to save jobs, to save family, to save relationships, even to stay out of jail. It is as if the survival instinct of a society calls on falsehood as a first line of defence.
“Normally when someone lies we hate them because they’re doing something immoral. But here we have a kind of empathy with the person, we understand why he or she is lying. In our complex modern society we cannot use the traditional measures of truth and falsehood. Life is so different. We have to know the context.”
The “context” is one where fear of authority, political and religious, affects many thoughts and acts, even small or domestic. In one scene, the woman carer rings her religious adviser to ask him if she can lower her incontinent elderly charge’s trousers in order to clean him. To a western audience, this seems like satire or, at least, the pointed presentation of a socialreligious world where anxiety and deference to authority are the norm.
“There are people who think and behave like this,” Farhadi says. “For the woman, the most important thing is her religious ideology; for the western viewer it’s the humanity of the situation. In some ways, the carer is the most tragic character. She believes something and is afraid to take action because of it.”
Fear pervades and unifies the film. And in Iran the dramatist is no safer than his dramatis personae. I ask Farhadi how difficult is it for artists themselves to speak out – to exercise a freedom taken for granted in other parts of the world?
The banned and jail-sentenced Iranian director Jafar Panahi was a conspicuous absence in Berlin. Invited to serve on the jury but forbidden to leave Iran, he was represented in the jury room by an empty chair. A few months earlier, during pre-production on A Separation, Farhadi’s work had been halted, for several weeks, after he spoke out against his fellow artist’s detention.
Does Panahi’s fate serve as a warning to other filmmakers in Iran?
“You would think so but, actually, it’s the opposite,” says Farhadi. “Now film-makers are starting to talk about it. There’s a new daring and courage.”
Has this been encouraged by the Arab uprisings?
“There are so many similarities between nations in this area, in their religious and cultural heritage, that I think it will affect our country. But change and development have two sides. You’re looking forward or you’re looking back. I hope the people look forward to what they really want this time, not just act in the name of what they don’t want.”
The miracle is that Iranian cinema, a modern artistic movement with a now awesome history and continuity, marches on. Seldom less than good, sometimes approaching greatness, it defies all obstacles flung by the state in directors’ paths. When direct expression becomes perilous for these films, there is always indirect.
“This doesn’t just happen today and yesterday,” Farhadi says. “If you look at the history of Iranian culture, there is this allegorical, metaphorical language that is something unique, because the writer doesn’t want to tell you directly what is going on. You have to use other means to understand.
“The question of freedom for human beings is not unique to Iran. Even in nations where legally you can express yourself, there are still restrictions and limitations. But they are imposed culturally from inside the society; they are not so simple to recognise and deal with. But maybe if you are free to say everything, you lose that unique spur to say something particular in the first place.”
To the outsider, fed on reports of Iran’s intransigent government and tyrannised artistic culture, it seems amazing that a film as barbed, questioning and liberal-minded as A Separation gets funded, let alone screened in Iran (it opened in public cinemas in March). Who financed Farhadi’s film? Surely not the state?
“There are two ways to finance a film: government support or private investment. I chose a private bank in Iran. But you must still get government approval, first by submitting your script to a committee at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, then later by showing them your finished film. Then, if you want to send your film to a festival, it’s quite complicated. You must get permission, especially if you’re someone interesting the government is focused on.”
Farhadi shrugs and says: “It’s not so difficult a situation. It’s not a strong wall you can’t get through. This wall has so many holes … ”
Yet later on, after going to Berlin and winning a Golden Bear, a filmmaker has to go back through the hole and behind the wall. Bravely, when he held up his trophy on prize night, Farhadi said aloud to an imaginary Panahi: “This goes out to you. I hope next time you will be standing here.”
For reasons related or unrelated to that declaration, Farhadi has been hindered by visa tribulations from attending the opening of A Separation in the UK. Iranian cinema marches on. So, ineluctably, does the Iranian government.
‘A Separation’ opens in cinemas in the UK on July 1