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Cannes: 'The Past' Director Asghar Farhadi on Censorship in Iran, Future Projects

His competition title, which won Berenice Bejo the best actress award, got positive reviews and more awards season buzz for the first Iranian Oscar winner.

Asghar Farhadi made it into the Academy Awards record books when he won the best foreign-language honor for A Separation last year, becoming the first Iranian honoree. The 41-year-old this year created more buzz with his Cannes competition entry The Past, which on Sunday won Berenice Bejo the award for best actress at the 66th annual film festival. Via an interpreter, Farhadi talked to The Hollywood Reporter's international business editor Georg Szalai about censorship in Iran, possible future projects, awards season hopes and Iran's condemnation of Oscar winner Argo.

THR: You became the first Iranian filmmaker to win an Oscar for A Separation last year. How did you feel about that?

Farhadi: It was very pleasant. It was a great experience, because as an Iranian director, I knew that would bring a lot of joy to my people, the Iranian audience, that it would mean a lot to them. Even now, I think that the joy it gave to my people makes it one of the greatest memories of my career and life. Also, the film had the same kind of reaction from the audiences in Iran, the U.S. and all over the world. That also had a very specific meaning for me. That was very comforting.

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THR: Your new film The Past, which was part of the Cannes competition lineup, is already drawing buzz. Any Cannes award or Oscar hopes?

Farhadi: I try to avoid thinking about it. Not that it is not important. I think every human being in the world appreciates being encouraged and acknowledged. But I try not to have any expectations. So, if it happens, it's for the best. And if it doesn't, I am not losing anything.

THR: You made The Past in France and with a well-known star, Berenice Bejo. Can we expect to see you working with other international stars or maybe even doing a Hollywood film in the future?

Farhadi: I always try not to answer this question too clearly, because you are never sure. But I must tell you that there is a project that is a very important project with important stars and important actors that I would like to do, but I don't know yet if it is going to be my next film or the one after. I am still thinking about it and I am still thinking about the story to write and tell. This is the first step of it.

THR: Anything you can tell us about the stories of the next two films you just mentioned you hope to do?

Farhadi: All I can say is that it will be the continuation of the path that has been mine until now. I won't go in any different directions. But if you don't mind, I won't say more, so that the way you find out about it is still interesting.

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THR: Are there any actors you would like to work with?

Farhadi: Well, there are many actors I really like and whose work I admire. But it never starts that way. I always start with the story. I never think of an actor and then write a story for a specific actor. It always starts with the story, and once I have my story, I try and think of the actors that I have kept in my mind, that I have liked enough for me to feel like working with, and then I try to put them on the story.

THR: How was shooting The Past in France different? Did it help you with censorship back home?

Farhadi: I get the question very often if working abroad changed my way of working, specifically because of the restrictions and the fact that I had fewer restrictions here. The only image I can maybe use to try and say how I feel is that if you have been walking the same way for 40 years, and all of a sudden, they put you on a path that is flatter, more comfortable, less risky, you don't change your way of walking. You will still walk the same way. The difference is that you might just feel more reassured or more comfortable, because of the new path. I must say here in France I had more serenity or security as I was working, because I knew I was making the film the way I wished and that the film would be seen ultimately, which is not always the case in Iran. In Iran, you always work having in mind this worry of will I be able to carry on my project as I wish and will the audience see the film. Here, I didn't have these worries, for sure.

THR: How does censorship in Iran work these days? Any signs that the system is becoming more open or more restrictive?

Farhadi: The system happens to be very unpredictable. You can not say how it is, you can not describe it, because it is changing all the time. It's a new story every day. And maybe that's what makes it difficult for us. If there were specific rules, we would know how to deal with them or avoid them. Whereas now, your situation depends on the mood of the people who make the decisions. So, some day it feels more open, and some day all of a sudden it is more restrictive. And that's what makes it very difficult and unpredictable. You have to submit a film twice - first as a project when the script is written, and then just before releasing it. These are the two crucial moments we have. Seen from the outside, maybe it can be very surprising how under such pressure it is possible to still make films that have an impact and that give an impression of freedom and strength. This is because our filmmakers and artists in general go on fighting and finding ways of avoiding the censorship and creating despite all these restrictions. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed.

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THR: Iranian films have been winning awards, including your Oscar and at festivals around the world. Why do you feel Iranian filmmakers have done so well abroad?

Farhadi: You must know that Iran has a great number of productions. Many films are released. Most of them, like in the rest of the world, are commercial and shallow films. These are the most popular ones. And there are a few ones that actually develop more profound and thoughtful aspects of life. Only some of these films travel out of Iran. There are still great Iranian directors who are not known outside our country. Good auteur films have come out of Iran though. And this is very important for the Iranian audience, because it is a way for the rest of the world to know Iran differently and have a different image of Iran and of the Iranian people people than politics gives. Iranian audiences have strong relationships with these films that travel.

THR: Iran condemned Oscar winner Argo. What did you think about that controversy?

Farhadi: I think Iranian people and Iranian audiences have no problem with the fact that an American film deals with a historic Iranian event and that they want to describe this event in the way they feel it happened and describe the people who actually did this. The problem for the Iranian people is that the people outside the embassy, the people in the streets, the people in everyday life are shown in exactly the same cliched and very negative way as the people who were involved in the embassy affair. And this is something that is very hard to digest for Iranian audiences. If a foreign film is dealing with an Iranian fact, why do they have such a shallow and inaccurate approach of the Iranian people.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com
Twitter: @georgszalai