The Iranian cinema is no stranger to awards from international film festivals. But A Separation, a film that recently received the year’s Best Foreign Film award at the Golden Globes as well as two nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards, has millions of Iranians and Iranian cinema lovers worldwide on their toes, anticipating the coveted award in the middle of escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S.
Only an Oscar could turn this into the sweetest “separation” in the history of filmmaking and bring world attention to Iran’s cinema.
A Separation, written and directed by one of Iran’s leading filmmakers, Asghar Farhadi, 40, offers a magical realism to the viewer, eliminating dimensions of time and geography, with an original and plausible storyline that tests the viewer’s ability to face moral dilemmas and make correct choices in situations one might face in everyday life.
Shortly after Farhadi’s first internationally recognized film, About Elly (2009), A Separation placed him next to other Iranian cinema giants such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Majid Majidi.
“The film has a lot of details that affect the viewer, and an attractive, tastefully made story that provokes curiosity,” Leila Hatami, the lead actress in A Separation, told The Daily Beast via telephone from Tehran, adding, “It talks about people, regardless of their social and economic status, and describes their feelings, their struggles with their conscience, their values, and their shortcomings, and these are concepts that are significant and interesting to all people.”
“This film is not related to a specific geography nor a specific class; it is related to humans,” Hatami added. “Even children can identify with the question the child in the film faces, and understand the issues in this family. These are all shared values amongst all human beings.”
Tahmineh Milani, an award-winning director in Tehran, praises A Separation for its humane and smooth story. “This film portrays very important details of moments when you have to choose between your interests and the truth,” Milani told The Daily Beast. “It is easier to demonstrate poverty, prostitution, and addiction, but Farhadi’s film focuses on some very subtle human issues that are usually not very easy to demonstrate.”
A Separation appears to be a completely nonpolitical film. It neither speaks of the censorship from which the Iranian cinema acutely suffers, nor the political repression. But when it was first screened in Iran in March 2011, it became one of Iran’s most political films of recent decades. Farhadi’s film opened simultaneously with Ekhrajiha (The Outcasts), a film that mocked the 2009 post-election protest unrest and the Green Movement, a movement that was violently suppressed by the Iranian government, leading to dozens of deaths and thousands of imprisonments.
The widespread online campaign by Green Movement supporters to boycott Ekhrajiha and to promote A Separation put the latter movie into an unwanted political spotlight. The film met widespread support, offering itself as an Oscar hopeful by Iranian film critics.
Masoud Dehnamaki, Ekhrajiha’s director and a pro-regime filmmaker, is known in Iran as formerly a radical Islamist journalist and a pressure-group leader in the crackdown on Iranian democratic and secular uprising in late 1990s. He is a man who is not only suspicious about any recognition for Iranian movies abroad but also sees the Oscar nominations for A Separation as politically motivated.
“This is a bitter film,” Dehnamaki told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview from Tehran. “They created a face-off between this film and [my film] Ekhrajiha at the theaters. The BBC and Voice of America were supporting this film by claiming that one of these films represented the rulers and the other represented the opposition. All of this was done objectively.”
“I think the hidden side of this story is that after the nuclear issue, the U.S.’s next challenge with Iran will be the discussion of human rights,” Dehnamaki said. “Giving a Nobel Peace Prize [to Shirin Ebadi in 2003], or an Oscar, and the way these recipients are created is symbolic, and all this is for using them during future challenges. This is the hidden part of the story that appears cultural on the surface but in fact it is political in essence.”
“I consider Farhadi’s cinema ideological and in the service of the Iranian government.
In answer to whether he believes that the U.S. government has a role in selecting pictures for the Academy of Motion Pictures, Dehnamaki said, “Especially in the foreign films category, yes, it does have a role.”
Surprisingly, there is a small section of the Iranian film community that regards the message of A Separation with suspicion.
Houshang Asadi, who was editor in chief of the popular Gozaresh-e Film (The Film Report) magazine in Tehran, considers A Separation a political film; one that supports Iran’s religious regime.
“Asghar Farhadi’s film opposes the Iranian middle class; the character representing the middle-class symbolism confronts the character representing the lower-class symbolism and is overpowered by the latter’s values,” Asadi told The Daily Beast. “The middle class is the Green Movement, Iran’s platform for freedom, individuality, and civil society. The regime mobilized the lower classes against the middle class and brought them to the field.”
“Asghar Farhadi’s latest film sees the moral victory of lower classes over the Iranian middle class, continuing his positioning against the middle class, and this is why I consider Farhadi’s cinema ideological and in the service of the Iranian government.”
But many analysts and movie critiques say the movie speaks for itself and should not be politicized. “This is an original and completely honest film, and it was not made for any aim other than what is expressed in the film,” Hatami told The Daily Beast. “As an actress, I believe this to be a film that deserves admiration.”
Emmy Award winner Shohreh Aghdashloo, who is the first Iranian actress to be nominated for an Academy Award, said that if A Separation wins the Oscar, it would be a huge success for Iranian independent cinema. “It would be a prize for all Iranians who love cinema, for all the filmmakers and the film industry that has been insulted and imprisoned … to tell them … the world knows you are among the best and are deserving.”
“If Mr. Farhadi wins the Academy Award this year, it will be the first time in 84 years that an Iranian has won the award,” added Aghdashloo. “Since 1997, we have had nine Iranian nominees, but this win would be forever engraved in the history of Iranian and international cinema.”
“The film’s strong points are its realistic portrayal of middle-class Iranians, and its narrative style, which is very important because it provides multiple outlooks from different perspectives,” said Parviz Jahed, a film critic, writer and editor of Directory of World Cinema: Volume Iran.
“The conflict between Nader and Simin’s relatively rich and modern family and Razieh’s impoverished, poor family opens an astonishingly clear window into Iran’s contemporary society,” Jahed added. “I believe that Farhadi’s style is unique in Iranian cinema. The way he writes the script, the way he directs his actors, the way he uses the camera, and the way he unfolds the narrative are all unique to him.”
Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, said that like any other work of art, the film belongs to its creators first and foremost, and in this case to the magnificent history of Iranian cinema.
“It indeed belongs to the Iranian independent cinema” Dabashi said. “We must all be happy that now a larger spectrum of people around the globe will learn what it is about Iranian cinema that makes it so definitive to the power engine that has produced such master practitioners as Abbas Kiarostami or Amir Naderi. Asghar Farhadi belongs to a tradition that goes all the way back to the earliest stages of Iranian cinema in the 20th century and has produced many masterpieces worthy of this global recognition.”
“It seems like Iranian cinema keeps creating some of the best films in the world, and every Iranian should be proud to have such great filmmakers as fellow Iranians,” said Maz Jobrani, the Iranian-born actor and comedian.