When the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi announced that he would not attend the Oscars this month because of Donald Trump’s travel and immigration ban, he released a strong statement about extremism that was as critical of his own country as it was of the United States.
“This is not just limited to the United States; in my country hardliners are the same,” he wrote in a letter released to The New York Times on Sunday. “For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hardliners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behaviour by narrow-minded individuals.”
Farhadi, whose film The Salesman has been nominated in the foreign-language category, said there were now too many ifs and buts attached to his appearance at the 89th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, and that he would not travel to the United States even if an exception to the ban against Iranian citizens were made in his case.
The statement against extremism is a strong reminder of how much latitude the director currently enjoys in Iran, where The Salesman is his biggest box-office success to date. When it was released there last summer, after generating strong reviews at Cannes, lineups formed outside theatres at six in the morning; in 2012, his previous film, A Separation, became the first Iranian film to ever win an Oscar. While some of his colleagues are persecuted by the authorities in a country where the government pre-screens all films, Farhadi says he is no longer asked for script changes by the censors.
“Fortunately, it is a little bit harder now for them to touch my films,” he said through a translator in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival last September. “If they hear this, they are going to be very sad. It is mainly because the films are well received.”
The relative artistic freedom accorded a star director seems to work well for both sides: With The Salesman, Farhadi returned to working in Iran and in Farsi after shooting his 2013 film The Past in Paris and in French.
Still, he remains a tactful artist. The Salesman is the story of the strains placed on a couple’s marriage after the wife is assaulted by a visitor to their new apartment. The film is deeply sympathetic to the victim, an amateur actress appearing in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but never openly critical of the limitations Iranian society imposes on women.
Asked about the euphemisms and ellipses in the film – a prostitute’s profession is inferred but never named; the nature of the assault is never revealed – Farhadi explains that this reflects Iranian culture rather than self-censorship.
“It goes back to the Persian language. Farsi is not a very direct language. For example, if they want to say this woman is a prostitute, they would say this woman has many friends. They talk about it indirectly. In the Persian language, this word [prostitute] is not an informal, everyday word, so they talk around it.”
There is also no overt discussion of class differences, although, as in A Separation, the film depicts comfortable Tehran professionals in conflict with working-class characters who are clearly much more religious.
“Nowadays in Iran, there is a huge middle class, which is good, and there is a poorer class, and there is a subtle war between them,” Farhadi said.
Still, some traditional attitudes cross class lines. The director is surprised to learn that sexual assault is believed to be grossly under-reported in Canada and that convictions are rare, but he figures that in Iran, the victim’s sense of shame is worse.
“There is another thing in Iran, which is reputation, the way the public looks at you, especially if there is someone well known, like an actor in theatre. This reputation plays a huge role in Iranian culture. One of the first reasons a woman doesn’t want to go to the police in Iran is because of reputation.”
He reflects that the clemency the character ultimately shows, even as her husband seeks revenge on her attacker, reflects her sensitivity to shaming the culprit in front of his family. “That is why I really like the character of this woman in this film; she doesn’t want something for other people that she doesn’t want for herself as well,” he said.
In other words, she is compassionate – a quality that, given the circumstances in which The Salesman is making its North American debut, might be a good thing to start importing from Iran.
“I believe,” Farhadi said in his recent statement “that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.”
The Salesman opens Feb. 3 in Toronto and Vancouver