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Asghar Farhadi is a brilliant writer and director who, at just 49, is already among the most accomplished filmmakers ever to emerge from Iran. The Hollywood Reporter has said that Farhadi’s films have “revolutionized new Iranian cinema, pulling it out of the much beaten path of realism pioneered by directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and onto a new, highly dramatized and theatrical road.” His films explore contemporary life’s complexities and moral dilemmas via brilliant screenplays that the Los Angeles Times has compared to a Russian doll, with “stories that are inside each other,” and that NPR has likened to an onion: “You peel one layer and there’s another layer fresh, ready for you.”
Five of the nine features he has directed were chosen by Iran to represent it in the race for the best international feature Oscar: 2009’s About Elly, 2011’s A Separation, 2013’s The Past, 2016’s The Salesman and this year’s A Hero. Two of them, A Separation and The Salesman, were nominated for that Oscar, and both won. (Farhadi’s original screenplay for the former was also Oscar-nominated.) That, in turn, has made him a member of an exclusive club of just six filmmakers — along with Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, René Clément and Akira Kurosawa — who have directed multiple winners of the best international feature Oscar.
Farhadi recently reflected on his life and career on an episode of THR’s Awards Chatter podcast, recorded in front of students at Chapman University.
Can you start by talking about your childhood?
I was born in Isfahan in 1972. We were four brothers and I was the second brother. Nobody around us worked in cinema or a job related to filmmaking. But my grandfather and grandmother were quite close to poetry. In the small city that I lived close to, we didn’t have a theater, and we had to drive a long distance for me to get the chance to watch movies. The first time that I watched a movie, we kind of escaped with my cousin to go and watch a movie. It was in an old theater in Isfahan and we got there in the middle of the film, so we didn’t watch the first half of the film. And while we were watching this film, I just kept looking at the back and saying, “Where is this light coming from? How are these things showing on the screen?” And when we came out of the theater, I was trying to imagine the first half of the film in my head. And filmmaking started there for me.
You would have been 7 years old when some major changes happened in Iran with the revolution. I wonder how it affected your life and things around you …
Let me give you an example. It was the first elementary class that I went to, and we were in the class for a couple of months when the revolution happened. Our teacher was this lady who was always wearing beautiful clothes, and everybody in the class loved her. Every day I wanted it to be the next day, so I could go and see her as soon as possible. During the revolution, they closed our schools. The next year, there was a man teaching us instead of that woman. For me in those years, the meaning of revolution was that I lost somebody who I liked very much.
Even after the revolution, there was a government-sponsored program for young aspiring filmmakers, and you were among the participants. You made your first film at 13?
It’s very strange that when I started making movies at that young age, the subjects that I was working on are the same subjects that I’m working on right now. When I was 13 years old, I didn’t go to any class for filmmaking or any school. I didn’t know how to make a movie, actually. When I was walking the street, I saw a book in the bookstore in Isfahan called Making a Movie With a Super 8. I bought the book. And the whole book was about technical cinematography with the exception of the last 10 pages, where it was about decoupage. With those 10 pages, I found out that when they want to make a movie, they cut it into pieces and they make the movie.
I wrote a script and I went to the place that they call the club of the young filmmakers and I told them that I wanted to make this. I was way too small. I think they sympathized with me and said, “OK, let this guy make his movie.” They gave me a Super 8 camera and a couple of film reels, and I went and made the movie. And now that I look at my daughter, who’s 13 years old, I think about how these people accepted me as a director to make a movie. Now, I’m not happy when I say I made my first movie when I was 13.
I wish that I had more of a childhood. I grew up way too soon.
From there you studied theater and began writing for radio. Eventually, this led to writing for TV and then feature filmmaking. Can you give us a sense of the Iranian film industry and how hard it is to break into?
After I was finished with the TV series, a film producer contacted me about making a feature film from one of the episodes. There is a place in the Iranian government called the Ministry of Culture, and you have to give your script to them so they can look at it and give a pass. At the time, they read it and they told me that it was too dark, so they didn’t let us make it. I worked on it and I made changes. And then it turned out to be my second feature film, which was Beautiful City. The process of filmmaking in Iran is very similar to other parts of the world in some ways, and in some ways it is very different. The budget is way lower than the budgets for films in the U.S. or Europe, so it’s easier to find the money to make a film in Iran. Of course, the process of writing a script and giving it to those people to read it and give the permit is different. And after you finish the film, you have to send it to them again so you can get the permit as well.
Was there ever a time when you considered permanently leaving Iran to make films?
Sometimes when the pressures are too high, I wish there was a second country where I could go and make movies. But whenever you go to another country, other problems start to come in. When you go to a new country, you don’t know that country very well, and it’s very hard to work. I made these two movies, both in France and Spain, and I had a great crew there. But of course I don’t have the same control or same understanding that I had about Iran.
In 2012, you became the first Iranian to ever win an Oscar when you won best international feature for A Separation. You’ve previously said you didn’t expect anyone outside of Persian-speaking cultures to connect with it.
When I wrote the script, people who read the script told me, “Why do you want to make this movie? This is a very local film about Iran and nobody outside of Iran would understand this.” And I said, “Well, we made something that was successful outside Iran, and let’s make something that is successful inside Iran.” I was so sure that this film wouldn’t be successful outside Iran that we didn’t even budget for the subtitles. Somebody from the Berlin Film Festival said they wanted to watch the film, and I said that we don’t have subtitles for the film. She told me she had someone who could translate live. And she watched the movie in the office with the live translator. When the movie was over, she said, “I want to cancel all my appointments. I want to select this film for the competition.” At that moment I was like, “Oh, this movie can actually connect with people outside Iran.”
The first thing that convinced me to start working on A Separation was a memory that my brother told me. I had a grandfather that I spent most of my childhood with. I got to see him less when I moved to Tehran, and my brother was his caretaker after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My brother told me that once he wanted to take my grandfather to the shower and wanted to take his clothes off, and my grandfather wouldn’t let him, so he had to put him in the shower with his clothes on. That image was so upsetting to me that I put my head over his shoulder and I started crying. This image was the beginning of A Separation.
Let’s talk about A Hero. What inspired it?
The concept for this story was in my head as a theater student. Later on, I kept seeing very similar stories in the news, and it really interested me.
And what about social media, which you bring into the film?
In Iran, especially with the new generation, using this technology is just part of their lives. They spend a lot of time in the day with social media. It seems to me that the characteristics and traits that social media has outside Iran are the same inside Iran. I didn’t write this script to talk about social media or criticize social media. But the story is about this common guy who became very famous in the region. Of course, these days social media plays a huge role in these kinds of situations.
You had 10 months of rehearsal, which I’ve never heard of before for a film…
Well, the plan was that the rehearsal would be just two months. Because of COVID, we had to postpone it, and we had to keep doing rehearsal and it turned out to be 10 months. I wanted to keep the crew together, so I would ask them to come over to rehearse. The most important part of the process of my work is actually the rehearsals. And this is not just working with the actors. The rehearsal time helps me as a director a lot. I start to understand the actors and I find out their fortes. During the filming, there is not that much time to make mistakes and correct them. During rehearsal, I don’t work on the script. We make the world before the movie starts, and we rehearse that. For example, in this film, we have a character called Rahim and a character called Bahram, and the main conflict of the film is between these two characters. I always wanted the fight between these two people to feel like they didn’t want to get into a fight but they had to, they have no other choice. So we started to make a backstory for them and we rehearsed it. I told the actors that these two characters were friends from a very young age together, and then Bahram married a woman, and he tells Rahim, “My wife has a sister, do you want to see her?” And then that causes them to marry as well, and they become two happy families. But after a while, after Rahim gets separated from his wife, it’s very hard for Bahram to swallow. It feels as if you’re losing someone. And that makes you angry. And we started rehearsing all of that. The falling in love, getting married, the separation, all of it. None of that is in the film, but you can see the effects of it on the actors.
What do you wish more Americans knew about Iran? And what do you wish more Iranians knew about America?
Based on my experience of traveling here in the U.S., I think, emotionally, American people and the Iranian people are very similar. It may sound strange to people to hear this, but it’s the truth. And I’m really hopeful that someday this separation between these two people goes away and they start to really get to know each other. Lots of damage happened because of this separation. There is an image that is shaped for Iranians about Americans and vice versa, for Americans about Iranians. If they meet each other, I think lots of this is going to resolve.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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