Iranian Oscar winner adjusts to cultural go-between role in Hollywood

Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, known for A Separation and with his latest film The Salesman also up for Academy Award, says he writes from the heart about aspects of Tehran foreigners rarely see, but doesn’t target audiences overseas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 8:01am

Asghar Farhadi stepped out into the biting winter Tehran air clutching his Oscar, taken aback by the huge crowd waiting at the airport to crown him Iran’s next national hero.

Cinema in the Islamic republic had been winning critical plaudits for decades but had failed to break into the mainstream until the celebrated auteur brought home the country’s first Academy Awards in 2012.

“I tried to go surreptitiously, precisely to avoid any kind of scene, and somehow they had managed to glean what day I was arriving and there were crowds at the airport,” Farhadi remembers. “The numbers were so huge that I began to be concerned about crowd control.”

The best foreign language win for Farhadi’s A Separation prompted nationwide celebration as millions of Iranians burned the midnight oil to watch the director, then 40, accepting the award.

It came as huge morale boost to many Iranians whose lives were overshadowed by civil unrest following the “Arab spring” uprisings in nearby Egypt and Tunisia, the ever-present threat of conflict and crippling economic sanctions.

Separation anxiety: meet Iranian director Asghar Farhadi

“It was a period of time when politicians both in Iran and the United States were talking about war,” Farhadi says on a promotional visit to the US ahead of the awards season.

“I was so happy that they were now speaking about culture. I had this impression that it was the people of the two countries that were in communication rather than the politicians talking.”

The filmmaker once again finds himself as a cultural go-between, representing Iran in Hollywood with his latest film, The Salesman, picked by his country as its 2017 entry for the foreign film Oscar.

A taut, visceral morality tale about a married couple thrown into turmoil after the wife is attacked in their home, it picked up two major awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

As with A Separation, Farhadi’s new film presents a nuanced Tehran that looks beyond the firebrand mullahs and morality police seen on Western televisions and into the lives of ordinary people.

Farhadi doesn’t feel he has to address American misconceptions about Iranian society, but he recognises that his work is becoming something of a dialogue between his own people and US popular culture.

“When I sit and down and start writing a script I don’t say to myself this is a film that’s going to be viewed by foreign audiences and, because foreign audiences are going to be seeing it, I should maybe do some extra things,” he says. “I approach it thinking the audience could be anyone anywhere and I write what my heart dictates.”

Farhadi, now 44, made his first short film at age 13 in a youth cinema club. A theatre studies graduate of the University of Tehran, he went on to read for a masters in stage direction at Tarbiat Modares University and started work immediately, directing television series he himself had written.

In 2002, he wrote and directed his first feature film, Dancing in the Dust, before winning acclaim for Fireworks Wednesday, a vivid portrait of marriage against the backdrop of a Persian New Year.

Psychological drama About Elly followed in 2009 before A Separation burst into the international public consciousness, winning best film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011 and going on to pick up prizes at festivals across the world.

As well as winning the best foreign language film Oscar and Golden Globe, it was nominated by the Academy for its screenplay, earning the director a place among the filmmaking elite.

Farhadi’s work has been praised for showing life in all its moral complexity, not judging his characters but inviting audiences to draw their own conclusions.