Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi: “Global recognition is a double-edged sword” | Movies

We pulling your film out of the Oscars would be career suicide for most directors, but in November Asghar Farhadi appeared to be doing just that. Shortly after the film’s state-controlled Iranian board of directors presented his film, A Hero, for the Oscar for Best International Feature, Farhadi posted a statement on Instagram saying he will. was “fed up” with suggestions in the Iranian media that he was sympathetic to the hardline government of the country. . “If your presentation of my Oscar film has led you to conclude that I am indebted to you,” he wrote, “I explicitly state now that I have no problem with you overturning this decision. “

Farhadi, one might argue, can afford to make such a gesture. He has already won two international feature films – for A Separation in 2012 and The Seller in 2017 – and many other awards (A Hero won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year). Such achievements inevitably convey the status of a national hero. At the same time, he appears to have followed a cautious line when it comes to his country’s oppressive regime. Other Iranian filmmakers, such as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, have paid a heavy price for criticizing aspects of Iranian society, from prison terms and house arrest to travel bans. Farhadi appears to have been spared a similar treatment. Hence the accusations that he was “pro-government”.

In his statement, Farhadi strongly disagreed: “How can anyone associate me with a government whose extremist media have spared no effort to destroy me, marginalize me and stigmatize me? He explained how his passport was confiscated and questioned at airports, told not to return to Iran and that he remained silent in the face of “accusations and name-calling” from the government. Until now.

In the running for an Oscar… A Hero, about a father who was built and then attacked by the media. Photography: New Zealand Film Festival

Speaking from Paris through an interpreter, Farhadi is unwilling to go into details. “It’s a very complicated business,” he said. “I don’t know which translation you read. For people who do not know my country, it can cause misunderstandings, but the Iranians have understood it well. It was for domestic use only.

There is a certain impatience in Farhadi’s tone. He seems resigned to the fact that he still has to discuss his status as an Iranian filmmaker as much as his actual work. But also, perhaps, there’s the knowing that anything he says could be used against him at home. International recognition is “a double-edged sword,” he says. “It protects you in a way, but it makes [the Iranian authorities] more sensitive. Whatever you say, whatever you do, it’s more in the spotlight.

Ironically, A Hero is a film about the role of the media in building and destroying heroes. His subject is Rahim, a divorced father with a winning smile. After two days out of prison, Rahim and his fiancée find a purse containing gold coins. At first they try to sell them, but then Rahim, played by Amir Jadidi, chooses to find the owner of the bag and return it. The story comes out and Rahim is hailed as a hero. A TV crew comes to jail to make a story about him, and a local charity is organizing a fundraiser to help pay off his debt.

But then a series of half-truths about the incident becomes a tangle of deception in which everyone involved becomes trapped. “Really,” says Farhadi, “what was at the heart of the film was the sudden rise and fall of a person. And that’s something we often see in our society these days: people who are put in the spotlight very quickly, and they come out just as quickly. ”

Farhadi’s films have a knack for turning ordinary life into a thriller. They’re so realistic, they might be docudramas, but they’re full of tension, surprise, and mystery. Her breakthrough, About Elly, concerns the unexplained disappearance of a woman from a vacation group. The seller is based on the sexual assault of a woman by an unidentified perpetrator. Likewise, in A Hero, Rahim must search for the mysterious woman who claimed the missing handbag in order to validate his story (he finds a workaround that gives him even more trouble).

'I don't judge my characters'… A separation.
‘I don’t judge my characters’… A separation. Photography: artificial eye / sports photo / Allstar

“What really interests me and what I want to face is ordinary, everyday life,” says Farhadi. “This, to me, is precious. But I also know the danger of being boring and full of repetitive details that no one wants to focus on. It must therefore be realistic, but with an element of suspense that intrigues the audience. “

As usual in Farhadi’s work, nothing is black and white in A Hero. There are no unambiguous “good” or “bad” characters. Behind his easy going nature, Rahim turns out to be a slippery proposition. “As a filmmaker, I don’t judge the characters,” says Farhadi. “It’s not that I think they shouldn’t be judged: on the contrary, it’s an invitation to judge. But I leave it open to the public. I don’t want to impose my point of view.

Farhadi acknowledges that his films are less overtly political than the work of some of his counterparts. Rasoulof’s recent There Is No Evil was an indictment against the death penalty and conscription. Rasoulof, who was banned from filming and sentenced to one year in prison in 2020 (but has so far avoided prison), had to use guerrilla tactics, using false names and scripts, while filming in remote rural areas. Farhadi, on the other hand, is now a global operator. He has also made films in France (The Past) and Spain (Everybody Knows), starring Penélope Cruz and Tahar Rahim. In Iran, he explains, it depends on the type of film you’re making. “If your subject matter or the way you tell stories is less directly social or political, then that may be less of a problem. You work with the restrictions as best you can. But it also depends on whether you want your films to be shown in Iran or not. It has always been my priority. “

However, he does not have it easy. In addition to being criticized for being “pro-government”, it is constantly criticized for its opposite. “It always comes from the extremists and their media – I have been criticized for giving an ‘unrealistic picture’ of the country. And I really don’t agree. Despite the complex situations that I describe in my films, there is always a very noble image of people, characters, relationships. I don’t see what “unrealistic picture” they are talking about.

In public life, Farhadi has been outspoken against radical elements in Iran. He was one of the many filmmakers who accompanied Rasoulof to court to appeal his prison sentence. And, via Instagram, he made his point of view clear to the government on everything from the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner in January 2020 to “the cruel discrimination against women and girls” and “how the country allowed the coronavirus massacre. his people “.

'I am interested in ordinary, everyday life'… The Seller.
‘I am interested in ordinary, everyday life’… The Seller. Photography: Arte France Cinema / Kobal / Rex / Shutterstock

Likewise, Farhadi has taken a stand against Western extremism. He refused to attend the 2017 Oscars to protest the controversial travel ban imposed by the Trump administration on seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. Instead, his acceptance speech was read by Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari. “Dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear, a deceptive justification for aggression and war,” he wrote. He could have talked about the United States or Iran.

“There is a strong resemblance in all kinds of extremism,” he says. “They’re all more or less the same. Farhadi believes that culture can be a weapon against this. Wherever his films take place, they address universal human qualities and weaknesses: they create, he says, an empathy between “us” and “them”. This has always been his mission. Does he feel that culture is winning this battle? “I don’t know, but I think there is an element of time. I think the impact of the arts, literature and cinema is long term.

He seems to have survived this particular battle: A Hero remains the international feature film submitted by Iran to the Oscars. Unlike Rahim, the film’s protagonist, Farhadi’s story is neither morally ambiguous nor a rapid rise and fall. Does he see himself as a hero? “Not at all,” he said. “I always said I was nothing but a filmmaker. I don’t want to be anything else.

A Hero is in UK cinemas.

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