A lot has been written this year about what is happening in the Middle East. It is a region filled with change from the so-called Arab Spring, the NATO intervention in Libya, the continued turmoil in Syria and other countries, more sabre rattling with Iran as well as the US withdrawal in Iraq. Change is everywhere in the region.
There have also been some very important developments in the film world. First, the Iranian film A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi won almost every important award at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, including both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize.
Then, this Fall, at the Toronto Film Festival, Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now?, directed by Nadine Labaki shocked everyone by winning the Audience Award over extremely tough competition. How tough is the competition at TIFF? The last three winners before this year were Slumdog Millionaire, Precious and The King’s Speech. That’s two Best Picture winners and a critically acclaimed Best Picture nominee in three years for those who are counting.
Both films are getting serious consideration to be nominated in the Best Foreign language category this year. Perhaps more importantly both films are getting solid distribution in the US and around the world as well. Which hopefully means that many people will get a chance to see these fine films. Recently I had a chance to interview both directors about their films, their chances at this year’s Academy Awards and the importance of cinema in the Middle East and around the world.
Here is the first of those two interviews, with Asghar Farhadi, the director of A Separation, my current pic as the best film of 2011. Yes, it is that good…
I myself have spent a lot of time in the Middle East in the last six years and one thing I like about your films is that you explore contemporary situations in your country. I think it is very important for people outside of Iran to see films that show these kinds of situations because they are so rarely seen in the US.
Asghar Farhadi (AF): I don’t know about its importance. I don’t think one can put value on whether something takes place now or 30 years ago, but when you are making a film about contemporary times, you’re creating a document for the future. In that respect it is important. For that reason I think they are important because we have to continue to make these so that years from now if somebody wants to see how it was 50 years ago they have a record of it.
Do you think this also helps people in countries outside the region understand the differences and more importantly the similarities between the Iranian culture and other cultures?
AF: Yes, it can help a great deal. I think people know the differences very well, even more than very well. Because in the media there is always talk of these differences.
For the Americans it is not attractive to hear what the similarities are between them and the Iranian people. It is attractive to hear how different the Iranians are. These kinds of films, however, can fill that gap that the media doesn’t show. Of the similarities between us. This is the most recurrent of the things I’ve been saying these last two days. That the similarities between people are far greater than the differences between people.
I couldn’t agree more, anytime I’ve gone to the Middle East and come back, my friends act like I’ve visited the ’70s. This is one of the reasons I think the fact this film getting the kind of response it has, and receiving mainstream distribution is such a good thing.
AF: I’m happy from several angles. On one hand that I am exposed daily to different responses, different perspectives and different cultures. In that way, I think I am becoming a more mature person and gaining more insights. The second point is that when I feel people in parts of the world away from one another are watching my film, and because in watching it they all have some similarities, this makes me very happy. And the third point is that when I see the ordinary audiences, who would ordinarily be inclined to see entertainment films, are going to see a film like this and are willing to stand in line and buy a ticket to a film like this it makes me feel very glad.
In your film and other recent Iranian films I found the level of sophistication in terms of the acting, the scripts, the photography very interesting. This film could have easily been made in Hollywood, and I mean that in a good way. So, what do you think is the next step for both yourself, and for Iranian cinema?
AF: I can’t make pronouncements about the entirety of Iranian cinema, because there’s such a great number of filmmakers and because of the diversity of points of view and filmmaking attitudes. My wish for it would be Iranian filmmaking moving in a direction other than festivals and critics, that the public at large in Iran should wish to go see Iranian films. The role of festivals should be a link between filmmakers and the general public. To feel the ceiling, in terms of cinema, is festivals is a joke. Cinema is not soccer, in that competitions give us a sense of satisfaction. We appear to be forgetting the point of festivals and why they were created. Festivals were created to be a link in the chain between audiences and films, to raise the level of awareness of films for the public, and to connect the public to the films.
The actors in your film are tremendous. Has the pool of actors broadened in Iran over the last decade or so?
AF: We had an acting community before, but art films preferred to use non-professional actors. Cause they were attempting to make everything seem real. And when you would bring in a well-known actor it would take away from that aspect. At that time, too, there were extremely professional actors in Iran, but I thought to myself that a non-professional actor can play only one part and cannot express really complex emotional realities. I try to bring in professional actors, but to make it look like it was their first acting job. It makes me glad when people ask if these people have acted before, or is this their first film?
I didn’t think it was their first acting job, because only good actors can make it seem that real.
AF: Yes, yes.
You mentioned in the notes for the film that you saw the film as a detective story, and I have to say I did not see the twists coming at all. Is it the same experience for Iranian audiences who might have a better understanding of the legal system in Iran?
AF: Yes, to the same extent. When I watch audiences watching the film, the way in which they are sitting in the seats, at first they sit back, then they move forward and finally they are perched on the edge of their seats. I have seen this abroad, but Iranian audiences do the same thing.
I have to ask one political question. Considering all of the events going on in the Middle East right now. Especially the sabre rattling in the region, is it hard to be here in the US promoting your film at the same time that the US is threatening your country and has gone so far as to say that military intervention is still on the table at some point down the road if your government refuses to change its nuclear policies?
AF: No, I think the problem with the world of the politicians is different from the public and the artists. They have their own games. Sometimes overtly they are insulting one another, but behind the scenes they have a lot of exchanges going on. I can’t comprehend their universe. And I’m happy that I’m not a part of their universe and that I’m here. I hope one day they know the value of the world we’re in, and can conduct themselves differently. They being the politicians and we being the general public. And I mean politicians everywhere. Politicians in my country and politicians in other countries.
Art has a way of breaking down barriers, film, music, all of it.
AF: It’s just what we spoke about at the beginning. Art removes boundaries and makes the world brighter. It is the common language for people all over the world. But politics are the opposite completely. Politicians, their very meaning is based on the lines they draw. The lines that they create. What I mean, it’s not that we should have cultural lines dissolve and we should just have one worldwide culture, what I mean to say is that communication between cultures should not come to a stop. Cultures need to be in touch with each other and in dialogue with each other.
I know. I’ve worked in the region with Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Iranians and they all get along when they work together. Especially on films.
AF: It’s the governments that create the problems. People are fun, people get along. People in Iran really love Americans. There is no problem between us.