Back in late December, before his exceptional new film, The Salesman, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and before ex-reality show host Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States to middling fanfare, I sat down with Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi at an office in Midtown Manhattan. He was warm, smiling frequently throughout our chat. But a sense of unease was palpable.
Donald Trump had, one month prior, won the presidency in a baffling victory—one packed with enough espionage subplots (Russian hacking! The FBI! WikiLeaks!) to fill a Tom Clancy novel. He’d done so on a platform of ethno-nationalism, fearmongering, and deception, a would-be strongman afraid of steps. Among his campaign pledges: a Muslim ban, or a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and the dismantling of the Iran nuclear deal, which he maligned as “one of the dumbest deals” ever.
“Because I am in contact with journalists who are connected to cinema, I could see that they are very worried about it,” Farhadi told me of then President-elect Trump. “I am worried, too—not just because of the relationship between Iran and the U.S., and the Iran deal that happened. I like that we are going toward peace, not war. But I really hope that something happens that calms this down, and brings down this worrying that I have.”
In the month since our chat, President Trump signed an executive order effectively banning immigrants of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days—without so much as running it by his Secretary of Homeland Security, Gen. John F. Kelly, reported The New York Times. One of the countries on the list is Iran, where Farhadi has called home his entire life. Not long after the order was signed, Trita Farsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, took to Twitter to announce that Farhadi “won’t be let into the US to attend” the Feb. 26th Oscars, where his film The Salesman is nominated.
Farhadi subsequently released a statement to The New York Times about why he’s decided to boycott the ceremony in the wake of the “extremism” of President Trump’s executive order, writing: “it now seems that the possibility of this presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip. I would therefore like to convey via this statement what I would have expressed to the press were I to travel to the United States. Hard-liners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way. In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an ‘us and them’ mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of ‘them’ and inflict fear in the people of their own countries.”
The 45-year-old filmmaker’s oeuvre is one of transfixing social realism, providing a window into Iran’s struggle between tradition and modernity through micro-conflicts of class and gender. His breakthrough film, 2009’s About Elly, confronted Iranian taboos regarding relationships and communication, while his Oscar-winning 2011 film A Separation touched on divorce, women’s rights, and the pendulum of justice.
The Salesman, whose Oscar nod for Best Foreign Film is well-deserved, tells the tale of a young couple in Tehran, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are playing the lead roles of Willy and Linda Loman in an Iranian adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. All is well until they move into a new apartment whose previous occupant, they come to learn, was a prostitute with unfinished business. One day, Rana is violently attacked in their new home by an elderly stranger, and Emad’s conflicted, uncompassionate reaction to the assault causes tension between them personally, and professionally.
“This play is very well-known in Iran,” Farhadi said of Salesman. “Every couple of years there’s a performance of it. Using this play, I had the benefit of people knowing the play. When I decided that I wanted to use the play, I tried to make the character of the old man who arrives at the end of the film to be as close as possible to Willy Loman, because the audience doesn’t have a lot of time to get to know him, and since he’s already invaded the home, the audience doesn’t like him very much. But I wanted the audience to have empathy towards him. It doesn’t mean that what he did was right, but I wanted the audience to put themselves in the shoes of that character.”
According to Farhadi, the relationship between Emad and Rana’s aged assailant provides a commentary on the generational gap between older, traditional working-class Iranians and the younger, more modern intellectual class—similar to the way Willy’s eldest son, Biff, sees his father, who’s been humiliated by an iniquitous society. When her attacker is revealed, Emad erupts in a paroxysm of violence that, by American film standards, is tame, but feels positively earth-shattering here given the social constraints.
At Cannes, the Oscar nominee said the film was in part inspired by his anxiety over the precarious state of the world. “A lot of violent things are occurring for ideological reasons. It’s becoming really disquieting as it grows so much. It is very difficult to withstand this violence, to eliminate it. Even if in the film we don’t directly refer to what’s happening, it is an illustration of contemporary society,” he said.
Iranian cinema has flourished despite strict censorship within the country that prevents nudity, sex, violence, feminism, or any anti-state messaging from overt cinematic display. It is in some ways reminiscent of the restrictive Hays Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code that governed American cinema from 1930 to 1968, and called for the abolishment of onscreen “pointed profanity,” “licentious or suggestive nudity,” “miscegenation,” “willful offense to any nation, race, or creed,” and much more.
While The Salesman broaches the subjects of sexual assault, prostitution, and violence, it does so in a restrained, indirect way so as to abide by Iranian rules.
“One of the subjects of the film is sexuality, because it’s the story of a man who invades a personal space. When you look at it from the outside, it may seem strange how someone could make such a film in Iran,” said Farhadi. “Even if a good filmmaker from outside of Iran comes into Iran to make that type of film he can’t, really, because he doesn’t know how the system works. But when you’re born there, you’re raised there, and you go to school there, you learn step-by-step how to find your way around the system, and you find a new language, which is an indirect language.” “To give you an example,” he continued, “in the scenes where the couple is alone in their home and the wife is wearing a scarf, that was a little unbelievable for me. So the wound that she had on her forehead, I put a bandage on it that looked like a hat, so I covered her hair and passed the censorship like that. You can expand this example to any other thing, of course.”
He paused. “I have this belief that you can expand to all of art, generally. Art is about giving something in exact doses to the audience. If you start to give the audience too much, then you sap the imagination from the audience, and they’re not involved with your film. One of the problems of cinema today, I believe, is that they give too much to the audience, and it becomes an exaggeration.”
One of Farhadi’s countrymen and filmmaking contemporaries, Jafar Panahi, was in December 2010 sentenced to six years imprisonment and a 20-year ban on directing films, writing screenplays, conducting interviews, or leaving the country (except for making the Hajj pilgrimage). He received the harsh punishment for allegedly attempting to make a documentary covering the protests against the 2009 re-election of President Ahmadinejad. When Farhadi spoke out at an award ceremony in defense of Panahi, the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance temporarily barred him from making A Separation. It was only after he apologized, claiming his words were taken out of context, that production on the film was allowed to move forward.
“I don’t see myself as a political person,” Farhadi told me. “But any film that talks about society is a political film as well. You can call a film ‘political’ if you watch it and you don’t feel it’s political. A film that talks about politics directly is, I think, less political than a film that approaches it indirectly.”
Throughout our talk, Farhadi—who speaks through an interpreter—is very careful with his words, deliberating after each question. And though he doesn’t see himself as a “political person,” his work has become a conduit into the everyday struggles of Iranian life for audiences around the world. One area he is passionate about, however, is the Iran nuclear deal with the United States, which he hopes will remain intact under President Trump.
“I think it’s very unfortunate if something hurts this deal,” said Farhadi. “The goal [of Trump and the GOP] is to break this deal so they can pressure the Iranian government, but if they do that, they are going to put a lot of pressure and cruelty onto the Iranian people—because the Iranian people do agree with this deal, and are very happy about it. If they do otherwise, they will be going against the will of the Iranian people. There are so many radical people in the Iranian government that are against the deal, of course—just like here in America. But if this deal doesn’t make it, only the radicals will be happy about it.”
Towards the end of our talk, Farhadi stated how there was far too much focus on film censorship in Iran, and not nearly enough on the silencing of dissenting voices in journalism. He also expressed his desire to one day direct a project in America, even though he’d turned down several “film offers and TV series from Hollywood” in the wake of About Elly.
“The censorship that is more bothersome is the censorship towards journalists in Iran. There, the censorship is very serious, and many journalists are very bothered by that censorship, and many journalists are in prison because of it. Unfortunately, there is less talk about that area,” he said.
“I already made a movie outside Iran, and I will make another movie soon in Spain. Even now, we are talking about a project that maybe one day I will make in the U.S. But if my geography changes, my filmmaking wouldn’t. Even if I come the U.S., I will make my films the way I was making them in Iran, because I like this kind of filmmaking where I communicate indirectly. I don’t like films where everything is on the surface.”