There is no shortage of ugliness in the world,
If Man closed his eyes to it there would be even more.
But Man is a problem solver.

The House is Black (Khaneh siah ast, 1963)

Introduction

Today morality is an awkward word associated with genuflections and fairy tales, prejudices and superstitions. Morality is concealed from ourselves, either out of convenience or coercion. The persistent and patient reflection required by true morality is unfashionable in some places, punishable in others. Yet it is there in all our thoughts and actions. It permeates our expectations and emotions. It is the language of self-identity. The first step to the rediscovery of morality, a terribly difficult one, is to see its reality, to appreciate its weight and to acknowledge its complexity.

With Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation, 2011), Ashgar Farhadi shows us what cinema can do; it can make us believe again in a moral world.

Yet Farhadi is no preacher, no cinematic priest. He hands us the judge’s gavel only to show us the crudeness of its sound. Farhadi disarms the powerful and the cynical through a pluralism of moral perspectives dealing with issues of common concern without attracting the revulsion of authority. In order to engage such matters in an environment controlled by inconsistent regulation, Farhadi has had to undertake a carefully nuanced approach both on and off screen.

His desire for us to see that life is moral asks each of us not only to assess our judgements but how we make them. He refuses to be called on to deliberate for us. Instead, he weaves and reweaves his story’s threads so that we can appreciate ever more its undeniable pattern, even when we are not precisely sure its picture.

Ashgar Farhadi – An Overview

Ashgar Farhadi is the director of five titles: Raghs dar ghobar (Dancing in the Dust, 2003), Shah-re Ziba (The Beautiful City, 2004), Chaharshanbe-soori (Fireworks Wednesday, 2006), Darbareye Elly (About Elly, 2009) and now A Separation. Including these five, he has also been a full or contributing writer on Ertefae Past (Low Altitude, 2002), Canaan (2008), Shab (2008) Tambourine (2008) and Mohakeme dar khiaban (Trial on the Street, 2009).

Each of Farhadi’s directed films explicitly concern the pressures of social life and how human interaction develops to pose deeply complex, some say intractable, difficulties. Dancing in the Dust follows the struggles of a newly divorced Azerbaijani who has to meet the high demands of his matrimonial dowry. In The Beautiful City a youth is imprisoned for murder; as he approaches legal adulthood he becomes eligible for execution. Fireworks Wednesday again turns to the trials of marriage: A young woman, soon to be wed, begins to work in a wealthier north Tehran home. Her employers are undergoing their own marital problems and she is soon drawn in. About Elly takes a group of seemingly close middle class friends and charts the decline of their relationships when an outsider’s disappearance plunges them into doubt and acrimony.

Farhadi’s career as a filmmaker has seen an intensification of characterisation and plot, reaching a zenith now with A Separation. Farhadi’s training is in theatre and he says he feels more a writer than a filmmaker.(1) The influence of the stage on him is openly acknowledged: “We took our time to rehearse [for A Separation], working from a very detailed screenplay, which we followed precisely, to enable each actor to understand the different dimensions of their character. This approach may very well come from my experience with the theatre… Once we started shooting, we agreed that variations would be minimal.”(2) This has been to the immense benefit of A Separation in which characters engage in sharp dialogue in tight quarters delivering a remarkable intimacy.

The Double Success of A Separation

In 1986 only two post-revolution Iranian films were shown at foreign festivals. By 1990 two hundred and thirty were screened in some seventy eight international film festivals, winning eleven prizes. (3) When introducing Jafar Panahi’s Badkonake sefid (The White Balloon, 1995) at the 22nd Telluride Film Festival in 1995, Werner Herzog remarked: “What I say tonight will be a banality in the future. The greatest films of the world today are being made in Iran.”(4) Yet consensus amongst Iranians and non-Iranians as to which films deserve praise has not always been reached. A Separation, however, has managed to do just that.

Irrespective of their quality, there are three broad factors that make Iranian cinema alluring for non-Iranian audiences. First is their exoticism; Chris Marker gives us a sense of the country’s hypnotic effect on the outsider: “Tehran with its sky that always looked ten times more vast than the skies of the Occident. The moment of dusk when daylight still hangs, bluish, and when brass lamps are being lit already.”(5) Second, geo-politics plays its part. An inside view as to what Iran is ‘really like’ is always desirable to the politically curious. Third, Iranian cinema is celebrated for giving a sense of purpose to the medium. In its challenges to repressive government both in front of and behind the camera, Iranian cinema gives the impression of transcending mere commercial entertainment. Masoud Golsorkhi writing for The Guardian said that “This work’s [A Separation’s] role in contributing to the wider public dialogue that is determining the future of Iran should not be underestimated.”(6)

For reasons related to the above, the Iranian films that are popular on the international circuit can often be derided at home for what are perceived to be unrealistic and heavily allegorical representations of their day-to-day lives. Conversely, films that are well-liked in Iran, take for instance Tahmineh Milani’s Atash bas (Cease Fire, 2006), are frequently deemed too sentimental or politically dubious by non-Iranian audiences.(7) Yet A Separation has managed to avoid both sets of criticisms.

In Iran, Farhadi won the Farj Festival’s top prize, the Crystal Simorgh, for best director and best screenplay. Additionally, A Separation took the Audience Award at the festival. Currently, it is the Iranian nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. It also had strong popular appeal with more than ten billion rials, or 1 million US dollars, worth of ticket sales in Tehran within 19 days over the Iranian holiday of Nowruz.(8)

Meanwhile, A Separation has won a number of awards beyond Iran’s borders. This includes best film and best screenplay at the Durban International Film Festival and, of course, the Berlin Golden Bear for best film and Silver Bears for both the male and female acting ensembles. In France, for instance, the film has had astonishing box-office success with sales in excess of five million US dollars.(9)

This consensus is as a direct result of Farhadi’s masterfully ambiguous, but not impartial, treatment of matters that are of primary concern to Iran’s wider population, as well as non-Iranians around the world. In fact, its ability to compromise between audiences is itself a consciously political act. Farhadi has said that “…in all my films, I have tried to multiply the points of view, rather than imposing my own. To enable the viewer to have different angles of the story. It is not difficult to agree that cinema, in essence, is a dictatorial art, where the director dictates what the spectator must see. It is exactly that attitude which I fight against…I hope in all cases that it is a democratic cinema!”(10)

A Separation’s politics

Released alongside the government-sponsored third installment of Ekhrajiha (The Outcasts), A Separation came to be associated with the opposition, known as the ‘Green Movement’. The director of The Outcasts series, Masoud Dehnamaki, was a journalist for Ansar-e Hezbollah, a paramilitary group accused of beating up student demonstrators in 2009 protests. Others believe he was much more centrally involved than he acknowledges.(11) His latest film satirizes the opposition in Iran, showing them as power-hungry partiers who are manipulating the nation’s youth. Dehnamaki has said that “The film warns against the wrong methods of democracy and election campaigns.”(12)

Some in the opposition movement called for a boycott of Dehnamaki’s film. To further bolster their protest they sought to actively support another film and so turned to A Separation. While somewhat a matter of chance, it also reflected the opposition’s appreciation for Farhadi’s measured backing of persecuted Iranian artists.(13) As a result, an unspoken contest emerged between the government and the opposition over the two films. The Outcasts 3 was heavily promoted on state television and shown in thirty two screens in Tehran as opposed to twenty three for A Separation.(14)

In addition to this unexpected clash with Dehnamaki’s film, A Separation picked up on a political issue that young Iranians are most conscious of: economic opportunity. Farhadi has described A Separation as a complement to its immediate predecessor: “This [A Separation] is a logical development from About Elly. I had the feeling that that story wasn’t finished. I see this film as a continuation of that film. With Nader the hermeneutical circle and journey was complete.”(15) Farhadi is referring to the issue of class.

About Elly comprises a group of middle class Iranians and their children who go away for a short break north of Tehran to the Caspian Sea. New to the group and invited by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) is uneasy about mingling with the others and the group is unsure of her. It becomes apparent that they are trying to match her with their friend, Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who has come from Germany. They are unaware at this point that she is, apparently, engaged. When it appears that she has vanished from the camp, guilt, frustration and anger show the group to be less cohesive than originally thought.

Key to the film is Farhadi’s use of Iran’s social norms and religious regulations, especially around unmarried women. He exploits the prevailing social stigma to curtail his characters’ actions and choices, following Elly’s disappearance.

Nevertheless, About Elly remains confined to the sphere of the middle classes. Hence, as admirable as it is, it fails to articulate the divide between Iran’s middle and lower classes. A Separation brings socio-economic divisions to the fore through the frustrated existence of Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), his wife Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and their daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) but also through a very quiet class-based prejudice in Nader (Peyman Moaadi).

The family of Razieh and Hodjat are struggling financially. Hodjat has been let go from his job with no redundancy. They embody the economic reality of so many Iranians today. The unemployment rate, not to mention the numbers of underemployed, is given by Iranian officials at 11.5% for 2011 but others say it is closer to 17-20%.(16) A rigid formal labour market in Iran has locked people in long term joblessness. The term ‘waithood’ has emerged to denote the extended period of transition between youth and adulthood in the country (and for much of the Middle East and North Africa, more generally). These pressures have put a perceptible strain on marriage and family formation.(17)

Meanwhile, Nader reveals an inability to understand the struggles of the lower classes. He mistreats or distances himself from Razieh, who he has employed as a carer and housekeeper, on a number of occasions. He is aware that she is pregnant but is ambivalent to the long commute and heavy manual work she is undertaking. He is quick to assume that Razieh stole the money from his flat. When Nader plays table football, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), Somayeh and even Nader’s father (Ali-Ashgar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s disease, are participating but Razieh is shown tired and worn out in the kitchen.

Other potential indications of Nader’s prejudice is that he does not deal with the car fuel attendants and his working life puts a glass wall between him and the general public. Most emphatically, though, towards the end of the film, he makes a belligerent move into the home of Razieh and Hodjat. He embarrasses them in front of Hodjat’s creditors, knowing Razieh will be unable to swear on the Quran. Nader is not extreme or even very consistent in his prejudice but, nevertheless, at key moments his actions are shaped by it.

With these socio-economic tensions infusing the film, a sense of uncertainty for the future of the country reveals itself.

Termeh and Somayeh, the two children of the film, are absorbing the values and observing the actions of their parents. They exhibit optimism for Iran’s future when they play together with smiles and cheers, but penetrating gazes, in the courthouse and in Somayeh’s home, reveal fear for what may be to come for each other.

In the aftermath of the bitterness that has developed between her parents and Somayeh’s, Termeh is left to choose whom she is to live with. Ultimately, attempts to reconcile her mother and father have broken down; the situation is now recalcitrant. The current reality in Iran reflects a similar stalemate. Opposition figures, such as Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been unable to gain change in Iran, instead facing arrest and censure for making demands. Factionalism is intensifying between supporters of President Ahmadinejad and those of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Just as we are left waiting in the courtroom corridor for what young Termeh will decide, we speculate as to what Iran’s future will be.

Farhadi has said: “It is probably easier for an Iranian audience to establish a complete relationship with the film. Knowing the language, but also the context and social texture in which the story is set will no doubt open up less obvious interpretations.”(18) A Separation, in contrast to many other Iranian films of recent years, is an urban film, which centres on two adult, middle class subjects. As such, it has managed to reach people by presenting to them a view of their lives in Iran that they can accept as sincere and engaging.

Overcoming Censorship

Farhadi sees the risks of his films being prohibited as unpalatable: “What’s the point of making a movie if it can’t be seen by the 70 million people in my home country?”(19) A Separation came under threat when production was temporarily halted after he voiced his desire to see the return of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi to filmmaking in Iran. Farhadi reportedly apologised, to the dismay of some, regaining permission to have his film made.(20) Despite its noted themes and Farhadi’s controversial comments, A Separation has been chosen as the official Iranian candidate for the Foreign Film Academy Award. Much pessimism was expressed by Iranian cinema enthusiasts in the lead up to the decision.(21) But it was chosen.

The current censorship system dates back to the early days of the Islamic Revolution, when cinema had come to be associated with the corrupt regime of the Shah. As tensions fermented in the lead up to the revolution, 180 cinemas were burned, most dramatically the Rex Cinema fire of 1978 which resulted in the death of some 400 people trapped inside. That specific attack was in response to the showing of Masud Kimiai’s Gavaznha (The Deer, 1976) a portrayal of drug addiction amongst miscreants.(22)

The theological basis of this antagonism towards cinema was fourfold: (a) Creative visual representation would overcome one’s reason, (b) Sustained reflection on visual representations of real things would prevent examination of reality, (c) The cinema screen invited idolatory, and (d) Cinema’s simulation of God’s creative act risks blasphemy.(23) As a result of this world-view, within the first four years of the Islamic Republic, 1,956 of 2,208 domestically-produced films were banned.(24)

A shift occurred, however, when the Islamic Regime realised that cinema could be used for its own purposes. Ayatollah Khomeini said that “we are not opposed to cinema, to radio, or to television…The cinema is a modern invention that ought to be used for the sake of educating the people, but as you know, it was used instead to corrupt our youth. It is the misuse of cinema that we are opposed to.”(25) Moving cinema from haram to halal (‘forbidden’ to ‘lawful’) required the close supervision of the authorities. This would fall upon Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance which continues to supervise film production and distribution in Iran.

The ‘1996 Code of Regulations for an Islamic, Anti-imperialist Cinema’ listed the following as prohibited from film:

Tight feminine clothes.
Showing any part of a woman’s body except the face and hands.
Physical contact and tender words or jokes between men and women.
Jokes on the army, police, or family.
Negative characters with a beard (which could associate them with religious figures)
Foreign or coarse words.
Foreign music or any type of music which brings joy.
Showing a favourable character who prefers solitude to collective life.
Policemen and soldiers badly dressed or having a disagreement.(26)

In 2005, two months after the election of President Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council announced the banning of films that promoted: “secularism, feminism, unethical behaviour, drug abuse or violence.”(27) Recently, Mohammad Hosseini, the 8th and current Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, has been coming under severe criticism for what has been daubed the “un-Islamic nature” of the relationships depicted in Iranian films in recent years.

Yet despite the institutional weight behind film censorship in Iran and the specification of codes, it is a mistake to believe that there is either an iron grip on cinema in Iran or that Iranian officials are simply duped when a seemingly critical film emerges. Cinematic censorship does not operate in a uniform way through the application of standardised rules. As Mohsen Makhmalbaf put it: “In cinema, sometimes the person in charge was strict and his deputy was sympathetic, and vice versa. We always found loopholes which we went through like water through a crack.”(28) Decisions are not even always permanent. Take for instance, Barbod Taheri’s 1979 documentary on the Islamic Revolution entitled Soghoot-e 57 (The Fall of 57). After many years of popularity, it suddenly found itself on the prohibited list in 1984. The authorities informed Taheri that “there are moments in a nation’s life when people no longer need to know what has actually happened.”(29)

Decisions are always malleable and reversible. This is not to say that punishments are not often severe, but as Dr Zeydabadi-Nejad explains: “Examination of the shifting and complex framework and application of censorship and its relationship with the political atmosphere of the country shows that in the absence of a clearly defined censorship code or a unitary censorship mechanism, the ‘red lines’ are blurred and open to negotiation.”(30) A Separation is the archetypal example of a challenging film emerging in such a context.

Farhadi has become a master at eluding positions that might provide traction to censors, by engaging pluralistic moral perspectives to imply that he himself is saying nothing at all: “I don’t think it’s important for the audience to know my intention. I’d rather they left the cinema with questions. I believe that the world today needs more questions than answers. Answers prevent you from questioning, from thinking. From the opening scene, I aimed to set this up.”(31)

Three examples can illustrate Farhadi’s skilful approach in the context of a restrictive environment:

  1. When Simin (Leila Hatami) is moving out of the family home she takes one piece of music with her. It is that of Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, the prized Iranian singer, composer and musician. Shajarian is not only a national treasure in Iran but a vocal supporter of the Green Movement. He, in fact, went so far as to demand that the authorities stop using his music for their propaganda. His status as an icon of Iranian arts makes Simin’s choice simultaneously banal and subversive.
  2. Termeh is learning vocabulary with her father Nader in their home. At one point Nader asks her to give a synonym for “insurrection”, she offers the answer “rebellion”. The Farsi word she uses is “Jonbesh”. This is noteworthy as “Jonbesh-e Sabz” is the term for the Green Movement. Emphasis is put on the word with the ringing of the doorbell. At this precise moment we are also shown Nader in the kitchen with an intensely green wall in the background. Described in this way may make the scene sound blunt but the flow of interchange between Termeh and Nader is quick and certainly not laboured. For all intents and purposes, the scene depicts nothing more than a typical father-daughter pair working together on homework.
  3. Termeh recites a passage of history schoolwork with her grandmother at the courthouse: “During the Sassanid period, people were divided into two classes, the royalty, the upper class and the normal people.” Her grandmother interjects: “The regular people.” The Sassanid Empire between 224 CE–650 CE marked a period of high civilization, with a culture that was influential far beyond its territorial borders. The Sassanid period preceded the Muslim conquest and the adoption of Islam. It was hierarchical and divided into four groups: the priests, the warriors, the secretaries and the commoners.(32) Its society put a great emphasis on centralised charismatic leadership; the controlling class was the priests. Termeh’s error about the number of classes suggests she is not properly aware of the divisions that exist in her own society. Somayeh, for her part, mimics Termeh in the courthouse; she aspires to be her, to enjoy her opportunities and experiences. Termeh and her grandmother gaze in Somayeh’s direction but fail to see her, they do not understand her circumstances. The Sassanid period offers a variety of prisms through which to interpret this scene.

In using such references Farhadi avails of their numerous interpretative political dimensions to allow him develop deep currents but not endanger his film.

Separate Moralities

The divorce of Nader and Simin is clearly only one axis across which the schism implied in the title manifests itself. There is also that between men/women, adults/children, observant /non-observant, middle class/working class, insiders/outsiders, public/private, kin/non-kin and, indeed, audience/character. Nader and Simin’s home is circular in shape with glass windows and doors that simultaneously allow for visibility and persistent division; Farhadi uses traffic and bus shelters in public spaces to retain a disjunction between us and the object of our attention. The effect of all this is to evoke how we are at once divided and irrevocably together.

In a similar way, Farhadi presents us with characters that are separated from each other by their moral outlooks on life but who cannot avoid dealing with each other. The moral typologies they represent are tested in the real world of choice and action revealing vibrant inner lives, which only slowly become apparent to us.

Nader is progressive but still motivated by an underlying sense of duty. He wants his daughter to be an independent and strong woman, as illustrated at the car fuel pump when he insists she takes her change and in teaching her vocabulary at home (“What’s wrong is wrong, no matter who says what,” he tells her). Yet Nader also believes in a traditional respect for the older generation that makes certain demands on him. Duty justifies the means towards the end. The nature of his father’s illness requires him to stay in Iran, regardless of his wife and daughter’s wishes. Lying to his daughter and to the judge is permissible to him as a pragmatic consequence of the responsibility he has for his father’s well-being. This subjective morality puts the protection of his father over the welfare of others. He is aware that Razieh is pregnant but he is guided first and foremost by his father’s needs. Duty is linked to respect for Nader, which limits his behaviour. For instance, he is unable to unbutton his father’s shirt at the doctor’s surgery despite his need to clear his own name. A sense of resentment is perceptible in his arguments with Simin who he sees as unaware of these duties or as undervaluing them. For Nader, then, one has an obligation to deal with one’s traditional responsibilities with courage.

Simin too is progressive but for her it is underlined by a sense of optimism and a faith in the ideal of truth. Her longing to leave Iran represents a belief in the abstract, the other place. She believes in the possibility of a better world and in a better future. She thinks that one should move on from traditional duties, which are cyclical and repressive. In the film this manifests itself in the desire to give a better opportunity to her daughter, notably when she refers to the “circumstances” in Iran. Simin desires change and improvement; while respectful of the past, she is persuaded by the need to reform their lives. She wears the head scarf but has dyed her hair a magnificent, deep red. She believes that truth is a value to be honoured irrespective of the context. This is illustrated when she is asked by the teacher, Ms Ghahraii (Merila Zare’i), what she should say in the court if asked questions by the judge. Simin’s reply is “Tell the truth.” Simin embodies the need to resolve problems through compromise. Progress is possible with effort and negotiation. Markedly, she tries to mediate between her own family and that of Razieh’s.

Razieh is a woman of faith. She holds a superstitious rather than a critical belief in God. This system of thought guides her actions both in private and in public. One must put oneself in God’s hands; otherwise, one risks harming oneself or one’s family. Respect for God and the Quran are paramount. Humility and obedience are core values. Razieh requests guidance from a religious advisor over the phone when Nader’s father has soiled himself. She refuses to swear on the Quran that Nader has caused her miscarriage because she cannot be certain. She says she is more hurt by being considered a thief than to have lost her baby.

Hodjat is a man who views the world in terms of social justice. He is guided by the fact that an inegalitarian society has prohibited him and his family to progress in life. The Iranian society he is a part of views him as a monster because he is poor; he is thought to be abusive of his wife and a danger to others. He has lost his job without compensation due to economic forces he has no control over. Debt and imprisonment have caused him psychological illness requiring medication. He considers his inability to defend himself in court a result of inarticulacy. Wealthier Iranian society owes him and his family reparation for the unfair treatment they have experienced. He is particularly outraged when the loss of his unborn baby appears to be taken less seriously than the mistreatment of Nader’s elderly father. Justice overrides religion and he sees it as acceptable to swear falsely on the Quran in order to receive the money justly due from Nader and Simin.

These typologies are neither fully consistent nor complete; A Separation’s characters are more than these sketches. However, through these characters we see that moral stances can clash and demand evaluation. Duty, truth, faith and justice come into conflict with one another. Our intuitions and judgements go through a process of critical refection. With the slow release of information Farhadi plays on our own biases, ones we may not even have been aware of prior.

A Separation’s Morality

In 1997 Kim Longinotto and Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini made a documentary entitled Divorce Iranian Style. Set inside Iran’s divorce courts, we encounter a number of women who struggle in a patriarchal system. Through intelligence and charm, however, they manage to carve out acceptable positions from which they can make gains, albeit sometimes small ones.

Though Divorce Iranian Style and A Separation are ostensibly of different genres, there is something striking that links them. It seems inadequate to say they address the same topic for those who watch both will feel a deeper resonance. On reflection it becomes apparent that in this case it is not a conventional classification of fiction and non-fiction that is important. Longinotto has said that in creating her documentaries she approaches them as if making a fictional film.(33) What they are both appealing to is a particular way in which audiences are touched by cinema, and that is their moral affectivity.

In her discussion of the relationship between literature and philosophy, Cora Diamond notes that “we cannot see the moral interest of literature unless we recognise gestures, manners, habits, turns of speech, turns of thought, styles of face as morally expressive – of an individual or of a people. The intelligent description of such things is part of the intelligent, the sharp-eyed, description of life, of what matters, makes differences, in human lives.”(34) Cinema gives us the opportunity to attend with care to the lives of others. Skilfully prepared, a film of this sort can reveal our own processes of recognition and point out their inadequacies.

A woman, Jamileh, in Divorce Iranian Style comes to court with her two children. She recounts her husband’s misdemeanours and demands the court’s intervention. She is insistent, clearly made determined by her hardships. The judge is eventually convinced of her difficulties and makes her husband pledge better behaviour. Then, suddenly, she turns in our direction and smiles with one hand concealing her face from the others in the court. In an instant our beliefs about her are changed. In a very real sense she is no longer the same person we had seen before us hitherto.

The key element common to both Divorce Iranian Style and A Separation is that they are able, through the camera, to bring to the surface the moral lives of their characters. They both present to us “gestures, manners, habits, turns of speech, turns of thoughts, styles of face as morally expressive” without ever enforcing their own judgement upon these individuals. In fact, to do so requires that they do not impinge on the viewer their own verdicts.

Is Hodjat beating Razieh and Somayeh? Towards the end of the film when he learns that his wife had a car accident and so cannot in good faith swear on the Quran, Hodjat becomes incandescent with rage. Razieh stands before him in that tiny, impoverished kitchen. Several blows rain down from his fists. However, they do not hit her but fall upon his own head. In a ferocious scene we now see that he does not beat his family at all, that he is in fact a deeply troubled man, driven to despair by debt and stress. Earlier at Termeh’s school, Hodjat asks those there: “Why do you think we beat our wives and children like animals? I swear on this Quran, we’re humans just like you.” We, the audience, are the real target of his words and we recall them vividly as he strikes his skull repeatedly and remorselessly.

After Farhadi’s hypnotic opening sequence of identity card photocopying, we find ourselves in the seat of a divorce court judge. The gaze of the spectator is emphatically asserted. The characters are appealing to us to be seen, to be heard and to be understood. We are to pass judgement. For the remainder of the film we essentially retain the seat of judge and spectator simultaneously, receiving evidence and testimony of a very private sort. It is thus unsurprising that Farhadi would say: “In all my films I try to touch upon justice: Justice that people have upon each other, the justice that the justice system has on people and the justice that people have on themselves.”(35) Yet, Farhadi is discouraging self-righteousness, absolutism and moralism. In offering layer upon layer of moral complexity he refutes anyone’s confident, total or self-satisfied judgements.

When Forough Farrokhzad, poet and filmmaker, made her ground-breaking film Khaneh siah ast (The House is Black) in 1963, she brought her camera and sensibility to the lepers of Iran. Her unrelenting eye demanded her world to see differently, to reflect on the humanity behind a perplexing and frightening disease. Despite the trials of life she recognised the strength of cinema to bring about a transformation in how we see the world. Farhadi is using his camera and sensibility to show us ourselves. He is inculcating a respect for pluralism and critical thinking. Ultimately, he is making the problems of today’s Iran real, not by simplifying them with easy solutions, but by showing us the unanswered questions that underlie human morality.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to Kim Longinotto, Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Prof Richard Tapper and Dr Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad for their generous time in discussing Iranian film, Farhadi’s oeuvre and their own work. Errors and poor interpretations are my own. May I also offer my gratitude to Chris Barwick at Second Run DVD, Jake Garriock at Artificial Eye, Abby Peck at Women Make Movies and Raphaelle Schwarzberg for their help.

Endnotes

  1. Dan Geist, “’A Separation’: At Sea in the City of Ten Million Tears”, Tehran Bureau, Oct 5, 2011. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/10/cinema-a-separation-at-sea-in-the-city-of-ten-million-tears.html
  2. “Interview with Asghar Farhadi”, Artificial Eye. http://www.artificial-eye.com/film.php?cinema=aseparation&dir=asghar_farhadi&plugs&qt=false&wm=false
  3. Hamid Naficy, “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran: A post-Khatami Update”, in The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, ed. Richard Tapper (London: IB. Tauris. 2002), p.51.
  4. Tim Porter, “World Cinema: Iran – A Rich Tradition in a New Wave”, Paste Magazine, October 1, 2004. http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2004/10/world-cinema-iran.html
  5. Dorna Khazeni, “Book Review: Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future”, Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 35, January, 2002. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/35/iraniancinema.php
  6. Masoud Golsorkhi “A Separation can’t be divorced from Iranian politics”, July 5, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/jul/05/a-separation-iranian-politics
  7. William Brown, “Cease Fire: Rethinking Iranian Cinema through Its Mainstream”, Third Text, Volume 25, Issue 3, June 29, 2011.
  8. Ali Chenar, “An Iranian Movie ‘Masterpiece’…And Why It Might Not Make It to the Oscars”, Tehran Bureau, September 2, 2011. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/09/an-iranian-movie-masterpiece-and-why-it-might-not-make-it-to-the-oscars.html
  9. As of only the 7th of October, 2011. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=aseperation.htm
  10. Original reads: “…dans tous mes films, j’essaie de multiplier les points de vue, plutôt que d’imposer le mien. Pour aider le spectateur à avoir des angles différents de l’histoire. Car nous sommes d’accord que le cinéma, par essence, est un art dictatorial, où le metteur en scène dicte au spectateur ce qu’il doit regarder. C’est justement contre cet esprit-là que j’essaie de lutter…J’espère en tout cas que c’est un cinéma démocratique!” N.T. Binh, Ashgar Farhadi, “Interview d’Ashgar Farhadi, Réalisateur de ‘Une Séparation’”, Evene, June 7, 2011. http://www.hellocoton.fr/interview-d-asghar-farhadi-realisateur-de-une-separation-2879476
  11. Former Ansar-e Hezbollah Founder Criticizes the Iranian Leadership”, NIAC, July 23, 2009. http://www.niacinsight.com/2009/07/23/former-ansar-e-hezbollah-founder-criticizes-the-iranian-leadership/
  12. Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran’s political struggle hits the box office”, Washington Post, June 24, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/irans-political-struggle-hits-the-box-office/2011/05/01/AGiRkxiH_story.html
  13. Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran’s political struggle hits the box office”, Washington Post, June 24, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/irans-political-struggle-hits-the-box-office/2011/05/01/AGiRkxiH_story.html
  14. Ali Chenar, “An Iranian Movie ‘Masterpiece’…And Why It Might Not Make It to the Oscars”, Tehran Bureau, September 2, 2011. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/09/an-iranian-movie-masterpiece-and-why-it-might-not-make-it-to-the-oscars.html
  15. Andreas Wiseman, “Interview: Ashgar Farhadi”, Screen Daily, February 18, 2011. http://www.screendaily.com/reports/one-on-one/asghar-farhadi/5024047.article
  16. “Iran’s unemployment rate 11.5%”, Press TV, July 20, 2011. http://www.presstv.ir/detail/189932.html; “Conflicting Reports on Iran’s Unemployment Rate” Payvand News, July 4, 2011. http://www.payvand.com/news/11/apr/1062.html
  17. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, “Iranian Youth in Times of Economic Crisis”, Iranian Studies, Volume 44, Issue 6, 2011, p. 790.
  18. “Interview with Asghar Farhadi”, Artificial Eye. http://www.artificial-eye.com/film.php?cinema=aseparation&dir=asghar_farhadi&plugs&qt=false&wm=false
  19. “Reluctantly, an Iranian director becomes a symbol”, LA Times, October 3, 2011. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2011/10/ashgar-panahi-iran-jafar-panahi-arrested-sentence-separation.html
  20. William Yong, “Iran Lifts Ban on Director, Saying He Issued an Apology”, New York Times, October 3, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/04/world/middleeast/04iran.html
  21. Ali Chenar, “An Iranian Movie ‘Masterpiece’…And Why It Might Not Make It to the Oscars”, Tehran Bureau, September 2, 2011. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/09/an-iranian-movie-masterpiece-and-why-it-might-not-make-it-to-the-oscars.html
  22. Christopher Gow, From Iran to Hollywood and Some Places In-Between: Reframing Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema, (London: I.B. Tauris. 2011), p.14
  23. Hamid Dabashi, Close Up Iranian Cinema Past, Present And Future, (London: VERSO Books), p.14.
  24. Mostafa Khalaji, Bronwen Robertson and Maryam Aghdami, “Cultural Censorship in Iran – Iranian Culture in a State of Emergency”, Small Media Foundation, July, 2011, p.27. http://issuu.com/smallmedia/docs/culturalcensorshipiniran
  25. Hamid Naficy, “Iranian Cinema Under the Islamic Republic”, American Anthropologist, Volume 97, Number 3, September, 1995, p.548.
  26. “Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran”, Article XIX, September 2006, p.23. www.article19.org/pdfs/publications/iran-art-censorship.pdf
  27. Golnaz Esfandiari, “Tehran Bans Movies that Promote Nihilism and Feminism” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, November 27, 2011. http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1062367.html
  28. Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad, The politics of Iranian cinema: film and society in the Islamic Republic, (London, Taylor & Francis, 2009), p. 48.
  29. Hamid Naficy, “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran: A post-Khatami Update”, in The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, ed. Richard Tapper (London: IB. Tauris. 2002), p.48.
  30. Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad, The politics of Iranian cinema: film and society in the Islamic Republic, (London, Taylor & Francis, 2009), p. 53.
  31. “Interview with Asghar Farhadi”, Artificial Eye. http://www.artificial-eye.com/film.php?cinema=aseparation&dir=asghar_farhadi&plugs&qt=false&wm=false
  32. “Sassanid Empire”, The Iran Chamber Society. http://www.iranchamber.com/history/sassanids/sassanids.php
  33. “Kim Longinotto – Pink Saris: ‘My dream is that this film will be part of a change of consciousness’” http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/video/2010/dec/24/documentary-pink-saris-kim-longinotto?INTCMP=SRCH
  34. Cora Diamond, “Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy Is”, New Literary History, Volume 15, Issue 1, 1983. p.163.
  35. Panel Discussion with Ashgar Farhadi by The Movie Times. Date and location not provided. Uploaded October 1, 2011. Last Accessed November 30, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFA0qYzxH7Q

About The Author

Joseph Burke is educated in philosophy, politics and sociology at universities in Ireland, the UK and the US. He has worked as an independent political researcher in East Africa and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a variety of academic and cultural publications.