One of the nice things about Germany is that the rules are clear and unmistakable, and often even make a certain amount of sense. It's because of these rules that the film director Asghar Farhadi is standing alone outside the entrance of the luxury Hotel Concorde near Berlin's Kurfürstendamm avenue on a June afternoon, smoking a cigarette. Smoking isn't permitted inside the hotel, and Farhadi is accustomed to obeying the rules in his own country, at least most of the time.
Farhadi is Iranian. There are many laws in Iran, written and unwritten, and some change from one day to the next. Sometimes Iranian cabinet ministers decide to ban films, as they recently informed Farhadi via text message.
In Germany a rule is a rule, and people know when they are violating that rule. In Iran, however, everything is possible at all times. Farhadi smiles. He has decided to pursue a strategy that involves making the best of circumstances over which he has no control.
Since the week before last, Farhadi, together with his wife and their two daughters, has been living in Berlin's Wilmersdorf neighborhood, under a fellowship provided by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). It's a temporary stay of only six months, he points out repeatedly. He calls it "a time of quiet," adding, "I love my country. When I wake up in the morning, I want to be in my country." He insists the rumors that he intends to leave Iran for good are false.
Looking For Encoded Criticism
Farhadi, 39, a short man with a neatly trimmed goatee and an Armani watch on his wrist, is currently Iran's most internationally renowned director who also doesn't happen to be out of favor with the regime. In February, his film "Nader and Simin, A Separation," won seven awards at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran, an annual showcase for the government film industry. A few days later, the film received three main awards at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, making it the first production in the event's history to earn so many distinctions. The awards were well-deserved.
Farhadi himself won the Golden Bear for Best Film, while two Silver Bears went to his actors, one to the women in the cast and one to the men. At first glance, this gender separation seemed like a nod to conservative Muslims, but in fact it was a reflection of the jury's desire to recognize as many of the artists involved in the project as possible.
The awards were also a signal to the regime in Tehran, with the Golden Bear symbolizing the freedom of art. At the end of last year, a Tehran court sentenced Farhadi's fellow filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof each to six years in prison and banned them from making films for 20 years, on charges of alleged "crimes against the national security and propaganda activities against the system of the Islamic Revolution." To protest the sentence festival organizers invited Panahi to sit on the jury, but he was refused a travel permit. His appeal has been dragging on for months.
Many other Iranian filmmakers have been living in exile for years, with no prospect of returning to Iran. They include Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Kandahar"), Marjane Satrapi ("Persepolis") and Rafi Pitts ("The Hunter"). Farhadi is only too familiar with their fates, and discussing them is a delicate matter for him. Tehran pays close attention to what Iranian artists say to foreign journalists. Some of the most important alleged pieces of evidence in the indictment against Panahi were interviews the director had given in recent years.
'I Hate Politics'
Almost every Iranian film is a political issue, especially if it is successful abroad. There is no neutral, innocent way of looking at Iranian cinema, not in Iran, not in the West and not in times of occupational bans and prison terms for strong-willed directors. Viewers look for more or less subtly encoded criticism of the regime, which is sometimes taken more seriously than a film's artistic merits. Easily decoded criticism can translate into recognition at international festivals, a ban of the film in Iran or both.
Farhadi is no provocateur like Panahi, who has recently continued to shoot films in his own living room and whose only life insurance consists in not being forgotten abroad. Farhadi is a diplomat for his own cause, both in his films and in conversations about them. One word too much could jeopardize his future in Iran, while one word too little can make him seem like an opportunist in the West. When he was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlinale Palace in Berlin, he said, to great applause: "I want to remind you of Jafar Panahi."
"It bothers me that people see me as a politician and not a filmmaker," Farhadi at his Berlin hotel. "Basically, I hate politics and want to concentrate completely on my films." At the same time, he says: "What I can do for Panahi is to talk about him."
Farhadi speaks very little English, and a Farsi interpreter who lives in Berlin is sitting next to him. The two men have known each other for years. The interpreter also helps out the Farhadi family in their daily lives. Last week he accompanied them to the district authority so that they could register for their six-month stay in Berlin. In Germany, everything must have its order.
Farhadi's award-winning film "Nader and Simin," which debuts in German theaters this week, begins in the offices of a government agency in Tehran. A close-up of an open passport fills the screen. The passport is lying on a photocopier.
Then the protagonists, a married couple, appear in the picture. Nader (Peyman Moadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) look directly at the camera. They are sitting next to each other in front of a judge, who remains invisible to the audience though his voice can be heard. Simin wants to get a divorce, as a makeshift solution to her current problem.
She wants to leave Iran with her 11-year-old daughter Termeh. After waiting for one-and-a-half years, Simin has finally been given a visa. Her only problem is that her husband, Termeh's father, refuses to let her go, and yet he doesn't want to go with them, either. He says that he can't leave because his elderly father has Alzheimer's and requires nursing care.
An argument ensues. "I don't want my child to grow up under these conditions," says Simin. "What conditions do you mean?" the judge asks. Simin says nothing. Her petition is denied.
What conditions does Farhadi mean?
There is a pause. The director and the interpreter have a brief conversation. Then Farhadi says: "The entire film is the answer to this question."
Intimate Family Drama
"Nader and Simin" is an intimate family drama that escalates into a crime story and incidentally weaves a social panorama of modern-day Iran. At first glance, the lives of the upper middle-class protagonists resemble those of many people in Western Europe. He is a bank employee, somewhat cantankerous but not unsympathetic, and she is a teacher, an attractive woman who wears her headscarf loosely and drives fast. They live in a large Tehran apartment with a mountain bike leaning against the wall in the hallway and a table football game in one room. They share the apartment with their daughter Termeh (played by Farhadi's daughter Sarina), who is too serious for her age, and Nader's elderly, senile father. So far, they seem relatively straightforward.
When Simin moves in with her parents after the failed divorce attempt, Nader hires a caretaker for his father during the day. The woman, who comes from a completely different social class, is deeply religious, her body encased in a black chador. She lives so far outside the city that it takes her three hours to get to work. Her husband, an unemployed shoe repairman, cannot find out that she has a job. What the woman does not tell Nader is that she is pregnant.
The caretaker, who is untrained, is completely out of her league with Nader's father. When the old man soils himself, she calls a hotline that dispenses advice on the practical application of the Koran. Can a woman help an old man who is not a relative change his trousers, she asks? Or would she be committing a sin?
Nader throws the woman out, literally, within a few days. She falls down the stairs. A few hours later, she is in such pain that she goes to the hospital. But it's too late. The woman loses her unborn child.
Is Nader to blame for this tragedy? The caretaker and, most of all, her hot-headed husband are convinced that he is, but Simin doesn't know whether to believe her husband. The case of suspected infanticide ends up in court.
The story is about wounded pride, and about the conflict between a secular middle class and deeply religious people who have little else but their pride. A convoluted canon of regulations makes the situation even more volatile. This portrayal of society cannot possibly appeal to the regime and Iran's religious leaders.
"The important thing is how you say something," says Farhadi, speaking from experience. "The government doesn't strictly oppose my films, because I simply ask questions without providing tangible answers."
Answers can be dangerous in Iran. Last fall, during the filming of "Nader and Simin," Farhadi received an award in Tehran for his last film, "About Elly." In his acceptance speech, he mentioned colleagues who are not allowed to work in the industry, and he said that he hoped Iranian directors would return home from exile.
The deputy minister at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, who is responsible for film-related issues, was not amused. Although the screenplay for "Nader and Simin" had been approved by the censorship agency, he demanded that Farhadi stop filming immediately, calling the project "immoral." He sent the notice via text message, a relatively civil way of threatening someone. In Panahi's case, police officers stormed the set.
Farhadi did not respond with a text message, though it was inadvertent. He often turns off his mobile phone for weeks during filming to avoid being disturbed. "A few days later, a colleague told me that I should call the ministry right away, and that they were pretty upset."
Officials Watching Closely
Filming was put on hold for two weeks, during which time Farhadi and his crew had a lot of time to drink tea, until Iranian newspapers began reporting on the case. Farhadi was eventually allowed to continue filming.
The director smiles as he tells the story. The deputy minister who briefly put a stop on Farhadi's film protested publicly when the Cannes Film Festival declared Lars von Trier a persona non grata after the Danish director called himself a Nazi at an unsuccessful press conference in May.
"This is a policy of double standards," says Farhadi. "But perhaps it also has its benefits. The same person who prevents you from working today can give the permission tomorrow. You're never sure."
In one of his films Farhadi once commented with uncustomary directness on the omnipotence of Iran's censorship officials. A scene in the 2006 film "Fireworks Wednesday" takes place in the office of a production company, where a technician is trying to retouch film material on the computer in response to pressure from the authorities. "They say that the girl's hair isn't sufficiently covered," the character says. One of his superiors gets involved and orders the scene to be reshot, "with my grandmother, as far as I'm concerned, so that the censors will leave us alone."
The censor who approved "Fireworks Wednesday" may have been sleeping on the job. Or perhaps he had a sense of irony.
The question is whether Farhadi can expect the same treatment in the future. How do Iran's cultural bureaucrats treat a director who is celebrated abroad?
"My work has become more difficult," says Farhadi. "The people who hand out the permits are now paying closer attention. If it weren't for the awards in Berlin, they wouldn't bother as much."
Nevertheless, says Farhadi, he's still pleased about his Golden Bear.