Reluctantly, an Iranian director becomes a symbol
Asghar Farhadi takes a deep breath and wonders how to answer a simple question: "Are you happy?"
"That's a good question," the director said. And then he waits, leaving it unanswered.
It's been that kind of year for Iranian cinema, and its 39-year-old rising star in particular. Last winter, Farhadi swept the prizes at the Berlin Film Festival with his buzzy drama "A Separation," taking, among others, the coveted Golden Bear. Then Farhadi watched as his country's cinema took a staggering blow when the filmmaker and cultural icon Jafar Panahi was handed a 20-year filmmaking ban.
"I'm very upset," Farhadi said, via a translator, of his reaction to the Panahi news. "For you and all your readers he's a filmmaker, but for me he's a friend. And he's a friend who can't do what he was born to do."
Farhadi is sitting in a hotel room on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It's just 24 hours before the New York Film Festival premiere of "A Separation," which already has garnered buzz as a foreign-language Oscar contender. The film has been submitted by Iran to the motion picture academy; if it lands a nomination, it would mark only the second time that the country will be on the foreign-language Oscar ballot, in the process thrusting the society governed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the fore of film's award season.
Unlike the work of some of his compatriots -- including Panahi -- "A Separation" peels back the layers of Iranian society by making few explicit pronouncements about its politics. "One of the ways I [avoid censorship] is that I don't speak loudly in my films," Farhadi told reporters at a New York Film Festival press conference several days earlier. "Another way is that i don't force judgment on my films. And there are other ways that if I tell you about them, I can't use them anymore," he added with a laugh.
It's hardly just a cynical tactic. The muting of overt social messages allows Farhadi's films to be shown in Iran -- "What's the point of making a movie if it can't be seen by the 70 million people in my home country?" he asks -- and takes a stance decidedly opposite from filmmakers such as Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami, whose work has often been banned from Iranian cinemas. (Panahi was arrested and later sentenced to the filmmaking ban because of a movie he was making that was critical of Ahmadinejad; Panahi has since been released on bail, but is still prohibited from making movies for 20 years as well as from doing any media or interviews.)
But beneath Farhadi's very personal stories, he says, are deeper, Iran-specific truths. "One of the central questions I'm always asking myself is whether what I'm doing is right, and what is justice," he said. "If I lived in a truly democratic society I'd say, 'There's a set of rules that tell me that.' But I don't, so these are the questions I ask in my films."
Farhadi came on the international-cinema scene three years ago with "About Elly," an ensemble drama about a group of wealthy Iranians who, while vacationing at a sea resort, end up in a tight web of distrust and concealments after a tragedy claims the life of a group member. The film won prizes in Berlin and at Tribeca and, like "A Separation," it concerns how a close-knit group can be fractured by secrets.
Farhadi says he believes his stories are personal, not political, and doesn't hide his discomfort with being made into a cultural symbol. "I want people to see 'A Separation' as a film, not an Iranian film," he said. "I don't want to be something exotic, and I don't want at all to be seen as a presentation of Iran."
But some of that is inevitable. As Farhadi's stock has risen, so has his status as a political figure, not least because he's a close friend of Panahi's. The first phone call Farhadi took when he won the Golden Bear, in fact, was from the embattled filmmaker, who had called to wish him congratulations.
Farhadi said he and other filmmakers have recently met with leaders of Iran's parliament in the hope of easing Panahi's sentence.
How did those efforts go?
"If they had gone well," he said wryly, "Jafar would be free."
-- Steven Zeitchik, reporting from New York
Photo: Asghar Farhadi at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Matt Carr/Getty Images