In December of 2011, I hosted a preview showing in New Jersey of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation for an audience of approximately four hundred film-savvy professionals and retirees, predominantly Jewish. Before the show, I asked how many had ever seen an Iranian film; only a few hands went up. Two hours later, the audience overwhelmingly voted it the best film they’d seen in the season.
Their reaction mirrored my own first exposure to Iranian cinema twenty years ago, when an editor asked me to attend the first festival of post-revolutionary Iranian films held in New York. What had I expected? Well, given that Iran was an Islamic theocracy containing at least some citizens who periodically rush CNN’s cameras with fists brandished as they immolate an effigy of some hapless representative of the “Great Satan,” I thought I would find a cinema both obvious and crude, although perhaps earnest and well-intended. What I found was film after film of astonishing sophistication and artistic originality, with a principled and impassioned humanism that recalled the Italian neorealists and made most Western films seem mechanistic and cynically amoral by comparison.
In the years following that 1992 festival, Iranian cinema enjoyed a steady global ascent. Though virtually unknown at the beginning of the decade, by the end of the nineties Iranian films had been embraced by festivals around the world and won virtually every major prize they offer. During this time its cinema may well have been the most significant image-enhancer the decidedly image-challenged Islamic Republic enjoyed internationally.
Having visited Iran several times to study and report on its cinema, I am often asked how filmmaking of such beauty and sophistication could exist there. The first answer has to do with the richness of a culture that long predates the Islamic theocracy. Ancient Greeks described the cosmopolitanism of the Persians, and today the quality is still a defining one. In the realm of cinema, the last shah’s government sought to burnish its image by encouraging (if also regularly censoring) the works of an Iranian “New Wave” that burned brightly in the 1970s, before being swallowed up in the fires of revolution. In that fraught historical moment there was real doubt whether cinema, which many Islamists considered a Western toxin, would survive the transition to a new Iran. As it happened, the Ayatollah Khomeini, reportedly a fan of certain Iranian films, gave his permission for cinema to have a place in the Islamic Republic. By 1983, a group of young intellectuals in the government had formulated a comprehensive plan for a revival of the industry, a plan that envisioned quality “artistic” films—which exist alongside more crudely commercial and frankly propagandistic ones—as useful for conveying proper Islamic values to Iranian viewers as well as being able to go abroad and win friends for Iran in international forums.
ALTHOUGH MANY conservative and pious Iranians are proud of their culture and its cinematic accomplishments, the relationship between the regime and its filmmakers has been as rocky as it was under the shah. Filmmakers who worked under both governments tell me the problems are very much the same; the only difference is in which subjects are forbidden. The Islamic Republic has a set of content restrictions that forbid countless things, from showing women’s hair to unmarried men and women touching affectionately (much less kissing or anything more risqué); but many observers believe such obstacles have only stimulated the creativity of filmmakers. In any case, the government has continued to support the country’s film industry while also making life difficult for filmmakers in recurrent cycles. When the new film industry was being formed under moderate minister of culture Mohammad Khatami in the 1980s, the hardliners were preoccupied with the Iran-Iraq War. When the war ended in 1989, they had time to target liberals and artists. When Khatami was elected president in 1997, a new era of loosened restrictions began. When he was replaced by conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the cultural climate again grew chillier.
Since the disputed presidential election of June 2009 that returned Ahmadinejad to power and subsequent protests that the government brutally suppressed, filmmakers and intellectuals have come under increased pressure and intimidation. In July 2009, the prominent director Jafar Panahi was arrested after attending a demonstration memorializing Green Movement martyr Neda Agha-Soltan. Though released after a brief detention, he was rearrested the following March on serious charges of subversion including making an unauthorized film about the previous summer’s events. After an international outcry, the government released him, but subsequently put him on trial, where he received the draconian sentence of six years in prison and twenty years of being banned from making films. (Another filmmaker tried at the same time, Mohammad Rasoulof, received a somewhat lighter sentence.) In January of 2012, the government shut down Khaneh Cinema (House of Cinema), Iran’s rough equivalent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, reportedly because the independence prized by the filmmakers association had become too nettlesome to the regime.
Given all this, it’s important to recall that that regime is authoritarian, not totalitarian. Visitors often marvel at how candid and open Iranians are in expressing their displeasure with the latest official idiocies. As soon as one set of troublesome newspapers gets shut down, another springs up. Punk rock, heavy metal, and rap flourish in underground Tehran, and the blogosphere remains a hotbed of dissident opinion of every sort. This cultural climate helps explain the apparent paradox that, while Iranian filmmakers are hemmed in by restrictions and impediments on every side, they keep making vital films, sometimes great ones. Within days of Khaneh Cinema’s being suppressed, Farhadi’s A Separation, which has received worldwide critical acclaim, became the first Iranian film to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film. And as it plays across the United States in early 2012, our art houses will also see the release of Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, made clandestinely while the director was under house arrest awaiting the appeal of his prison sentence.
Although each of these films is artistically formidable in its own right, together they represent different sides of the spectrum that is current Iranian cinema. A Separation was temporarily shut down during production after writer-director Farhadi made a statement supporting certain filmmakers in disfavor with the regime, but it was completed, received top honors at the state-sanctioned Fajr Film Festival, went into release, and became a major box-office hit in Iran. In contrast, it is inconceivable that This Is Not a Film will ever be released under the current regime (though Iranians manage to see pretty much everything, foreign and domestic, via underground DVDs). While Panahi’s film is overtly political, Farhadi’s evinces the subtlety and resonance that have become hallmarks of Iranian filmmakers examining their culture’s complex challenges.
A SEPARATION opens with an upper-middle-class couple, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi), asking a judge for a divorce. There’s no hostility in their voices, but plenty of exasperation. That’s because they really don’t want a divorce. She wants the couple to move abroad for the sake of themselves and their eleven-year-old daughter, and has gone to months of trouble to obtain all the necessary permissions, which will soon expire. Her husband now won’t go along with the plan because he has to care for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. She: “He doesn’t know you are his son.” He: “But I know he’s my father.” Divorce seems the only solution.
This opening scene is shot from the point of view of the judge (which effectively puts us in the position of judging the couple), who is heard but never seen. It’s one of three important passages in the film involving magistrates, and all three men seem fair and reasonable. If Farhadi were out to skewer Iranian officialdom, he might have started here. However, his intent, it seems clear from the context, is neither to make nor to avoid a political statement, but rather to show how such situations play out in Iran. More important, and politically suggestive, are the emotions elicited by these men. When Simin is asked why she doesn’t want to bring up her daughter in Iran, she replies, “Because of the conditions [here].” The judge gets no response when he asks, “What conditions?”
The set-up for the rest of the movie, this scene typifies the delicate ingenuity of A Separation. The couple’s dilemma is affecting in part because it could happen anywhere in the world. But it has a special sting taking place in Iran. In a sense, the movie exists to answer the judge’s question, “What conditions?” Iranian audiences don’t need to be told the manifold reasons an educated, affluent woman would want to move abroad, and indeed would want to so badly that she would split up her family. Farhadi leaves it to other viewers to deduce Simin’s motives from the rest of his story, which has a second main level of conflict beyond that of the couple.
Once Simin moves out to stay with her parents before leaving Iran, Nader, needing someone to care for his father while he’s at work, hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a poor, devout woman who’s always accompanied by her young daughter. The first day on the job, Razieh has a crisis when the old man soils himself. Calling a religious hotline, she’s told it’s not a sin to clean him, but feeling uncomfortable with this new responsibility, she urges Nader to hire her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) instead. Nader is willing, but when Hodjat is sent to jail by his creditors, Razieh is obliged to return. One day, Nader comes home and finds his father on the floor with one hand lashed to the bed. When Razieh returns, apparently after running her own errands, he berates her furiously and pushes her roughly out of the apartment. The next day, he and Simin learn that Razieh has had a miscarriage and blames Nader. Thus begins a confrontation between two families that will bring them in front of a second magistrate, to whom virtually all the main characters will tell different sorts of lies.
Beyond the divorce requested in the first scene, the title’s “separation” could refer to the distance Simin wants to put between herself and Iran or to the chasm of class separating these two families. This is a common theme in Iranian films, one that often implies a lingering disappointment over the failure of Iran’s revolution to produce a truly egalitarian society. But here again, the film isn’t out to score obvious polemical points. Farhadi has extraordinary gifts as a writer and director, and the meticulous construction of his script (which received Iran’s first-ever Best Screenplay nomination in this year’s Oscar contest) and the energetic precision of his staging, which entails terrific performances from the whole ensemble, together create a drama that seems to shift subtly from one character’s perspective to another. As in the films of Jean Renoir, “everyone has their reasons,” and Farhadi scrupulously avoids playing favorites; it’s a mark of his humanism that we are finally invited not to judge the characters but to understand them in a way that transfers our concern from the individuals themselves to the entire society—“the conditions”—surrounding them.
JAFAR PANAHI got his start in film working as an assistant to Iran’s most celebrated director, Abbas Kiarostami, who is generally credited with introducing cinema itself as a subject for Iranian films. Through the Olive Trees (1994), for example, the last film on which Panahi assisted Kiarostami, dramatized the making of Kiarostami’s previous film, And Life Goes On (1992), which itself concerned a film director journeying through the ruins of an earthquake. Panahi took up this self-reflexive motif in his second film, The Mirror (1997), which follows a little girl trying to make her way homeward across Tehran, until the child actress playing the lead suddenly rips off her costume, says she’s sick of acting and runs away. Panahi plays himself in the film, a director confounded by the impetuous abdication of his star.
In This Is Not a Film, Panahi, returning to the role of Panahi, finds himself confounded at being confined to house arrest while awaiting the appeal of his six-year prison sentence. The regime has also forbidden him from making films for twenty years, but he reasons that only means writing and directing, not appearing in front of a camera. So, just as this is not a film (in the usual sense), Panahi is not acting as a filmmaker, he’s a filmmaker-as-actor in a documentary-like fiction (or fiction-like documentary?) about his own life. In the hands of many directors, such a premise might end up looking like bad reality TV; but Panahi is one of the Iranian cinema’s acknowledged masters, and his execution renders it faultlessly understated and witty. Panahi deadpans his way through an account of one day in his life as a sidelined filmmaker, talking to his lawyer on the phone (she’s not optimistic), playing with his daughter’s pet iguana, musing on DVDs of his previous films (including The Circle and Crimson Gold), acting out scenes from one of his un-produced screenplays, and joking around with documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who runs the camera when Panahi is not running it himself.
THE BLENDING of fiction and documentary is another tactic that Iranian cinema is known for, and it here produces results that are both droll and revealing. Although much that we see seems improvised, it’s hard to tell for sure. Without question the film registers certain current Iranian realities that are fascinating to ponder. One is the ubiquity of media technology. Pahani is surrounded by digital cameras, computers, DVD players, TVs, iPhones, and so on; indeed, he’s able to make himself into a one-man movie studio thanks to these gadgets. Watching this, one can’t help but think back on the importance of cell phones and social media to Iran’s 2009 protests and the Arab Spring uprisings; whatever the controls exercised by repressive regimes, these technological enablers seem to point inexorably toward individual empowerment and democratic decentralization.
Other realities are recorded in the film’s amusing final scene. It is now the evening of Fireworks Wednesday, the pre-Islamic holiday that precedes the Persian New Year at the vernal equinox. We hear a television news report that, in the wake of the 2009 protests, the Ayatollah Khamenei has denounced the holiday as impious. But that evidently has not kept Iranians from celebrating. As fireworks explode everywhere outside, Panahi is visited by a young man who is collecting trash in the now near-empty building. Panahi grabs his camera and follows the amiable guy as he continues on his rounds, talking about his life as an art student and having to take on lots of crummy jobs like this one to get by. Whether scripted and acted or a bit of actual documentary, this wonderful passage serves to remind us that Panahi’s film is ultimately not about him alone but about the whole social environment he inhabits.
This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran into last year’s Cannes Film Festival and from there has made its way into distribution around the world. A remarkable piece of cinematic samizdat, it testifies to the tenacity, courage, and sheer film smarts of a resilient artistic vortex that perhaps has no real equivalent anywhere in the world. Its final title tells us it is “Dedicated to Iranian Filmmakers.”
Godfrey Cheshire is a filmmaker, journalist, and critic who has written extensively about Iranian cinema. He lives in New York City.