Skip to main content

Shahab Hosseini in a scene from "A Separation."

There are those who argue that censorship has paradoxically created some great films; that directors in places such as the former Soviet Union, China and Iran became masters of metaphor as they dodged the censor's knife. Asghar Farhadi is not one of them.

"Such a slogan is an indirect insult to freedom," the Iranian film director said, through a Farsi translator, in a phone interview. "I believe art and creativity have thrived whenever there has been a breath of freedom."

And yet, Farhadi's creativity is currently thriving in a country where he has to submit his scripts for approval and where the director had to apologize for remarks supporting two dissident filmmakers, the banned Jafar Panahi and the émigré Mohsen Makhmalbaf, so that his own work could proceed.

Before that apology in late 2010, the government had briefly revoked permits for his latest film, A Separation, but on its release early last year it won wide praise in Iran and the prize for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Now Iran's official entry into the best-foreign-film category at the Oscars, A Separation looks set to become Farhadi's international breakthrough after the critical success of his 2009 film About Elly, which had won him the best director prize in Berlin.

Both are taut domestic stories that portray the divisions between individuals against a backdrop of larger social unease with an almost thriller-like tension. They expose society's workings, but they don't overtly criticize.

"Because I was born under these conditions, at times unconsciously, without even being aware my mind is doing this, I gravitate towards stories that are going to work in those conditions," Farhadi said when asked how censorship affects his artistic choices.

About Elly deals with the disappearance of a young woman during a holiday at a Caspian Sea resort and the lies that ensue; A Separation is the story of a couple in Tehran who are about to separate because they cannot agree on their future. For the sake of their 11-year-old daughter, Simin wants to emigrate but Nader refuses to leave his father, who has Alzheimer's.

When Simin moves out, Nader hires a woman to look after the old man, but soon becomes embroiled in a dispute with the caregiver and her intemperate husband over whether Nader has inadvertently caused her to miscarry a pregnancy. The dispute takes them to a chaotic sharia court, where a long-suffering judge must hear everyone's story but seems, like the filmmaker himself, reluctant to take sides.

"This manner of attempting to tell a story without judgment is actually a very good way of avoiding the pitfalls of censorship," Farhadi continues, but adds "Even if there were no censorship, this is a way of filmmaking that I like because it respects the viewer the most. I believe that the direction cinema should go is one where filmmakers no longer predigest a thought and hand it to the audience but one where they allow the audience to do the work."

So, we can wonder why Simin can't see that Nader can't leave his father; we can both understand and lament Nader's stubbornness in the miscarriage dispute; we can puzzle over why the caregiver would make her accusations, but in end we are left without heroes and villains. It's a result that takes some careful balancing from Farhadi, first as screenwriter, then as director.

"The natural trajectory when writing a story is finding individuals on whom you can blame certain events and others that come out looking timid or innocent. But when you want both sides to be equally in the right your task becomes very difficult," Farhadi said, explaining he stands back, assesses the situation and spreads the blame around.

When directing, he literally places his camera in the middle. For example, the film opens with a scene in which Simin and Nader sit side by side, sharing the screen equally as they appear in court seeking a divorce. Our sympathy shifts to and fro as we hear from each in turn.

From a Western perspective, the determined yet heartbroken Simin is an intriguing character. An educated middle-class woman, she's a complete contrast to the veiled caregiver who is pulled in different directions by her financial need, her religious beliefs and her subordination to her husband. Simin, on the other hand, kowtows to no one, repudiating stereotypes of oppressed Islamic women.

"The West's image of Iranian women is not a very accurate picture," Farhadi said. "The impression is that women in Iran don't have a presence in society and are locked up at home. ... In fact, precisely because of the real limitations that were placed on them, women have in reaction become extremely active, in many cases more active than men in society."

It is a society to which Farhadi remains deeply committed despite the obstacles it throws in a filmmaker's way. He travels abroad regularly but, unlike Simin, he has no desire to emigrate. The genesis of A Separation was a picture in his mind's eye – a scene of a man washing his old father that Farhadi's brother had witnessed – and the director suspects it was no coincidence that he was visiting Germany when that persistent image actually became an idea for a script.

"When I was in Berlin I suddenly thought I wanted to make a film about it," he said. "Perhaps being away from Iran had created in me a longing to return."

A Separation opens in select theatres on Jan. 13.