'I Hate Politics' Iranian Director Performs Difficult Balancing Act

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival for his drama "Nader and Simin, A Separation." Since then, the West has regarded the filmmaker as an authority on political conditions in Iran. But the new role could be dangerous for Farhadi.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.
Norbert Michalke

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.


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.


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Photo Gallery: Iranian Drama "Nader and Simin - A Separation"
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.

Denied Divorce

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."


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