Asghar Farhadi on why he returned to Iran for 'The Salesman'
The acclaimed maker of "A Separation" talks about how his dramas are sometimes discussed as thrillers and the subtleties of Persian languages.
With 2011’s “A Separation,” Asghar Farhadi went from an Iranian filmmaker largely known among the film festival circuit to an international master. The drama won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for its screenplay. Farhadi went to France next, making “The Past.” Then he decided to return home. Now we have “The Salesman,” in which a teacher/actor named Emad (played by Shahab Hosseini) becomes singlemindedly obsessed with finding the man who assaulted his wife (Taraneh Alidoosti). Farhadi spoke to us about why he went back home, the film’s theatrical roots and the subtleties of Persian languages.
After “The Past,” you had spoken about making your next film in a different country. Instead you returned to Iran. What were the reasons for that?
I was about to go to Spain after “The Past.” I even wrote the treatment and looked at locations. But then something made me change my decision. It would have been very hard for me to spend the next three years outside my country. I asked my producer if I could go back to Iran for my next movie. I only had one year to write this film. It was mostly an emotional decision.
And you’re still going to make the film in Spain. How different do you think it will be from “The Salesman”?
It’s in the same direction of filmmaking I’m going right now. It’s another thriller about family.
It’s interesting to hear you refer to these films as thrillers. While they’re treated like dramas, there are genre elements about them.
In Iran they talk about this quality of my films, actually. They always say that some stranger walks into the film and changes everything. In “A Separation,” the maid comes to the house to take care of the old man, and everything changes. In “About Elly,” Elly herself is a stranger going into that group of people. In “The Past,” a stranger goes to another country. In “The Salesman,” a stranger walks into a couple’s apartment. This is completely unconscious. I think it’s because home for me is very important. When I say “home,” I don’t mean a physical building but somewhere where you can feel safe.
In Iran, are your films treated differently than they are everywhere else? In America, they’re dramas, they’re art house films.
There are two kinds of approaches to my films, which is very interesting to me. There are the film critics and filmmakers, who usually focus on the drama. But the theatrical audiences look at them like documentaries, seeing how close they are to real life. That’s very interesting to me, the combination of drama and everyday life.
Since “A Separation” catapulted you onto the international cinema scene, do you find that your approach has changed? Are you writing in part with an international audience in mind?
When I write, I have only one audience in my head, and that’s me. If I believe something, I believe everyone can believe it.
I don’t want to fall in the trap and say that this film, or any Iranian film, represents all of Iranian culture, but are there certain things about “The Salesman” that you feel are distinctly Iranian?
There’s something in our language: We don’t speak directly. A word in Iran has different layers of meaning. Sometimes the meanings can be completely contradictory of each other. That makes everything complex, but not in a bad way — in a very good way. That’s why we have lots of poetry, because this language has that potential. For example, there is this word that’s a form of shame but is different; it’s the positive side of shame. It’s a kind of prideful shame. In “The Salesman,” when the husband comes in and asks what happened [to Rana], she can’t tell the whole story. There are some things she doesn’t want to talk about. It’s like clothes she doesn’t want to get rid of and be naked. That’s the kind of shame I’m talking about.
You have a long history with theater, and I get the sense that the way you work with your actors — from rehearsing more than usual to, sometimes, even the way you block them in frames — that there’s a theatrical nature to your filmmaking.
There are some things that are similar. If you walked in one day while we were rehearsing, you might think we were getting ready for a play. But we don’t just get the script and rehearse it. We try to do the backstory of the characters. For example, the old man who comes in at the end of the film, we did a scene where he comes home, takes off his socks and shoes and goes to the bathroom. We did that in rehearsal a couple times. It’s not in the film, but it helped him. When he talks about this scene in the film, he has something in his head already. When I was working in the theater when I was younger, it was very important for me to do that as well.
The long climax is even almost like its own little play, with minimal characters and a single room.
What I was trying to do was the more the story goes forward, the more it becomes like theater. Even the lighting and the movement of the characters in the end look like theater. I wanted at some point to get rid of the border between the real life and theater, to vanish that border gradually. It’s this idea that something that looks like everyday life gradually becomes more like theater. The last part of the film that’s shot in the house, there’s only one light and empty chairs. It looks like a stage. There’s two chairs in an empty space, and then the lights turn off.
Your films are part of this long tradition in art of asking us to empathize with people who do or believe things that may be heinous, even evil. There are no villains in your films. That’s something all of us struggle with, even those of us who think themselves enlightened.
All I can say is that human beings generally always have a reason for their attitudes. Maybe we don’t understand those reasons. Maybe they can’t even express their reasons very well. But every person has a reason for why do something. If we understand this, there’s no reason for violence or to be harsh to one another.