Iranian cinema sometimes seems to draw more from documentaries and poetry than conventional narrative sources such as novels, but that’s not the case with director Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 film A Separation was the first Iranian film to win the Oscar for best foreign film.
Farhadi’s plots, with their chains of consequences and flawed characters, often suggest the influence of European dramatists such as Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, whose work he has directed for the stage.
The 41-year-old filmmaker’s sixth film, The Past, is his first set outside his homeland, had a substantially bigger budget and presented the challenge of working in French, which he doesn’t speak. The story follows Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian who arrives in France after a four-year absence to finalize his divorce from his estranged wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), but soon finds himself entangled in a net of troubling family secrets. Farhadi spoke with The Globe and Mail at the Toronto International Film Festival through an interpreter.
Let’s start with the 2011 Oscar. What did it mean to your career? Did you get more scripts and offers to work outside Iran?
Even before I won the Oscar, I had offers from outside, including for making The Past. But after the Oscar, they multiplied. That didn’t really change anything for me. It just made more work for my agent.
How difficult was it for you to direct in a foreign language?
I had a translation team with me. The process of translating and changing the script from Persian to French was a long process. It’s true that I don’t speak French but I knew exactly what my characters were talking about. To make the film, I lived two years in France and I got used to the melody and rhythm of the language. I also had 12 members of my crew who were Iranian, including my cinematographer and my sound mixer. When we were rehearsing, the problem of the language completely disappeared and by the time we got to the shooting, we had absolutely no problem.
What are the other main differences between working in Paris rather than Tehran?
The budget was much different. This movie cost about €8-million [$12-million] while my last film in Iran cost €800,000. But I feel very at home in France, which is the second-largest audience for my films outside Iran. People stop me on the street in Paris to ask me about my work, and because I’m so familiar with the country through cinema, I feel I know it. At the same time, I was very careful that The Past didn’t show the cliché Paris of the cinema. The house of the main character was in the suburbs and, this way, I could stay away from the touristy side of Paris.
You went through a three-month rehearsal period, which seems long, especially for holding in-demand actors. We tend to associate Iranian art cinema more with non-professional performers. Can you talk a bit about the differences?
I rehearse eight months at home, so this was actually short for me. I found that even really big actors really like the rehearsal process. In Iran, there are also films that use professional actors, though they’re probably not always the ones seen outside of the country. In my earlier films I used non-actors but in my later films, I prefer to use professionals. The more complex you’re characters become, the more you need pros. I don’t think the characters in The Past could have been played by non-professionals.
Your films don’t have overtly political themes. But have you struggled with some of the same censorship issues of your filmmaking compatriots.
On every film in Iran, you have to submit the screenplay to be approved; but if you live there, you kind of know how to manoeuvre through the process and more or less make the film you want to make. All the films I’ve made, I completely have faith in them. I promise you there isn’t a shot in them that I don’t like.
This interview has been condensed and edited.