The Making of Iran's Oscar Hopeful, 'A Separation'

A Separation film still man woman in chairs - H
Sony Pictures Classics

The courtroom drama is a contender for Academy Award nominations in screenplay, directing and foreign-language film categories.

This article appeared in the Dec. awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

After decades of wowing art house ?crowds, Iranian cinema may reach a wider audience with the Dec. 30 release of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, the gripping courtroom drama of a divorce and attempted murder case that doubles as a multilayered critique of Iranian society.

A Golden Globe nominee and the Golden Bear winner at February’s Berlin Film Festival — the first ever from Iran — and a hit at more than a dozen other fests, it is Iran’s best shot at a foreign-language Oscar nom since 1997’s Children of Heaven.

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On Dec. 12, Farhadi’s drama became the first foreign winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics best screenplay award, making it less utterly unthinkable as an Oscar contender for both screenplay and directing as well. Quite an accomplishment for a film — and filmmaker — that was on virtually no one’s awards-season radar until very recently.

Every few years a film comes along that’s very fresh and from a place one doesn’t expect and has real crossover potential,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who acquired the film with partner Tom Bernard after Carnage producer Said Ben Said told them Farhadi was the one must-see filmmaker at the Berlin festival. “This is one of those films. We had it with Lives of Others and every Almodovar film. Almodovar is a pop star like Fellini and Bergman, but Farhadi isn’t in the zeitgeist yet. He will be in a month or two.”

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Farhadi, 39, who says he made the film in Tehran in 2010 with one camera in three months on a budget between $700,000 and $800,000, thinks there are several explanations for his breakout success.

A Separation’s plot is more global-audience-friendly than the less accessible work of such famous Iranian directors as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi. The separation in the title is that of a secular middle-class couple seeking divorce. She wants to leave Iran, and he wants to stay and look after his Alzheimer’s-afflicted dad. When she leaves him, he hires a religious, lower-class caretaker not up to the job.

The caretaker and her husband confront the couple in a court case where lies entangle everyone and psyches are laid bare in a way rarely seen in such quirkily plotted, blankly naturalistic Iranian masterworks as Panahi’s The White Balloon.

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"For years, I worked in the theater, and I have a familiarity with plays that use a narrative structure of the Western sort,” Farhadi says. “I don’t mean cowboys, I mean the classic narratives of the West — a ghost of that style. It’s the combination of naturalism and drama. In our storytelling, we don’t have this kind of structure very often.”

Farhadi’s is the kind of dramatic cultural blend that Barker likens to the $214 million hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "Ang Lee told me one reason it was a huge hit was that he used Western psychological storytelling and a style that came from China.”

Like many celebrated Iranian directors, Farhadi echoes the documentary style of Italian neorealist director Vittorio de Sica. But Farhadi cites strikingly different influences: “Pinter, Tennessee Williams, Ibsen, Fellini, Wim Wenders, and more than all of them Ingmar Bergman. After I shot the first scene of A Separation, with the divorcing couple talking to the investigator, I realized the camera position is extremely similar to a scene in Scenes From a Marriage. It wasn’t something that was intended.”

A second reason for A Separation’s international salability is its avoidance of Iran’s usual rural or child protagonists. “It’s not portraying the poor people and the desert camels,” says Peyman Moaadi, who plays the estranged upper-middle-class husband of the heroine (Leila Hatami). Moaadi, Hatami and the actors who play their lower-class opponents in court, Sareh Bayat and Shahab Hosseini, all won Silver Bear awards at Berlin.

"The characters are ordinary modern people, not that much different than people in Tokyo, Paris or New York,” says Moaadi. “People at film festivals around the world were shocked. They told us, ‘We didn’t imagine a woman could drive in Iran, or address a judge!’ The differences of classes and gender in A Separation — it could happen in Mexico, though then it would have a Mexican flavor. This is why it’s successful, because it’s true. This is a new thing, very fresh for an Iranian filmmaker.”

One more -- and crucial -- distinction of the film is its ingeniously elusive political statement. “It’s not a political film,” says Moaadi, and Farhadi agrees.

Still, the film has no choice but to be a bit political in a nation whose great director Panahi, a friend of Farhadi’s, was jailed for criticizing the government openly in film and is now forbidden to make movies for 20 years.

The 2011 Berlin fest was chaired by Panahi, but Iran’s government forbade him to appear, and his chair on the stage was left empty to shame Iran’s rulers. Some observers said that Farhadi owed his historic Berlin win to the crackdown on Panahi. “I don’t think all the extraneous stuff came into play,” counters John Anderson, chair of the New York Film Critics Circle, which gave A Separation its best foreign film award. “The movie is so good it didn’t need any help from politics.”

Farhadi avoided Panahi’s fate by not attacking injustice directly, addressing the scary political situation by implication. “He is very smart,” says Moaadi. “This isn’t a political movie,” adds Iranian-American Al Jazeera reporter Dorothy Parvaz, “but what it nails is that sense that everyone in Iran knows what the circumstances of living there are. The circumstances it deals with are less political and more social — the opening scenes of photocopying passports and documents, for instance. That sort of endless bureaucracy is a way of life for Iranians.”

Subtle hints about this way of life are on display frequently in A Separation. When the heroine tells the divorce investigator she wants to emigrate, she says it’s because she doesn’t want to raise her daughter “in these circumstances.” But when the investigator demands, “What circumstances?” she wisely falls silent instead of itemizing the regime’s sins. “Most filmmakers who plan on working in Iran for the duration won’t say much about government pressure,” says Parvaz.

Indeed, Farhadi is circumspect in discussing Iranian censorship. “It depends on what it is you want to say about the government, and in what way you intend to say it. Certain aspects, in my opinion, are difficult, or not possible to say."

"This is how it works in Iran,” says Moaadi, who is now directing his first film. “First, you give the Cinema Office of Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance a complete script and they tell you you have the official permission. It depends on how big and important the filmmaker is.”

When Farhadi’s 2008 About Elly won the directing prize at Berlin and the screenwriting prize at Tribeca, he became important. He had to submit only a 15- to 20-page outline of A Separation, not a final script, at the end of 2009. A month later, it was approved.

But filmmakers must submit the finished film too, then hope for permission to show it in Iran, then abroad. The authorities’ whim can change without warning. “It’s not very easy to foresee,” says Farhadi. “It’s a little bit like fall weather: sunny in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon, raining later on. If it were raining from morning till night, one would know what to expect.”

Moaadi compares filmmaking in Tehran to driving in Tehran. “When you’re driving in a city with law and people are obeying the law, you can close your eyes and drive in your own lane. But sometimes some lunatic jumps in front of you. There’s always something happening in Iran, or in other countries. We are on the news, and that may affect your movie. You have to be always worrying about something that is not in your control.”

“You have to know the red line, and how close you can get to it,” adds Moaadi. “With a love scene, you have to be creative, weird, stylish. They cannot even touch each other. These are the lines we cannot even get close to. ”

The government did not change a line of A Separation, but after Farhadi went to Iran’s September 2010 House of Cinema festival and said he wished Panahi could be there, officials closed the set for a week. The events look connected, but Farhadi doesn’t know for sure. “It was no big deal,” says Moaadi.

Farhadi’s film cleverly lets viewers of all political persuasions see the film as they will. The actors plead their case to the camera, but the ?film wisely refuses to choose sides. “You are the judge,” says Moaadi. “Religious women in chadors came to us with tears in their eyes and said, ‘Congratulations, my son.’ ”

He praises Farhadi for being guided by instinct and emotion. “Asghar said, ‘When I’m driving, I don’t think?about the rules of the driving.’ He goes very smooth.”

But the director knows there could be rough road ahead. “Every success to me appears to have two sides like a coin,” Farhadi says. “One side can strengthen you, but the other side is slippery like a banana peel.”