Withdrawing your film from the Oscars would be career suicide for most directors, but in November Asghar Farhadi appeared to do precisely that. Shortly after Iran’s state-controlled film board put his movie, A Hero, up for the best international feature Oscar, Farhadi released a statement on Instagram saying he was “fed up” with suggestions in Iranian media that he was sympathetic to the country’s hardline government. “If your introduction of my film for the Oscars has led you to the conclusion that I am in your debt,” he wrote, “I am explicitly declaring now that I have no problem with you reversing this decision.”
Farhadi, it could be argued, can afford to make such a gesture. He has already won two international feature Oscars – for A Separation in 2012 and The Salesman in 2017 – and many more awards besides (A Hero won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year). Such achievements inevitably convey national hero status. At the same time, he seems to have trodden a careful line when it comes to his country’s oppressive regime. Other Iranian film-makers, such as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, have paid a heavy price for criticising aspects of Iranian society, from prison sentences and house arrests to travel bans. Farhadi seems to have been spared similar treatment. Hence the accusations that he was “pro- government”.
In his statement, Farhadi strongly disagreed: “How can anyone associate me with a government whose extremist media has spared no effort to destroy, marginalise, and stigmatise me?” He wrote of how he has had his passport confiscated and been interrogated at airports, been told not to return to Iran, and had remained silent in the face of the government’s “accusations and name-calling”. Until now.
Speaking from Paris through an interpreter, Farhadi is not minded to go into further details. “It’s been a very complicated case,” he says. “I’m not sure which translation you’ve read. For people who are not familiar with my country, it might cause misunderstanding, but Iranian people understood it clearly. It was for domestic purposes only.”
There is a certain impatience to Farhadi’s tone. He seems resigned to the fact he must always discuss his status as an Iranian film-maker as much as his actual work. But also, perhaps, there is the knowledge that anything he says could be used against him back home. International recognition is “double-edged”, he says. “It protects you in a way, but it makes [the Iranian authorities] more sensitive. Whatever you say, whatever you do, it’s more under the spotlight.”
Ironically, A Hero is a film about the media’s role in building up and tearing down heroes. Its subject is Rahim, a divorced father with a winning smile. On a two-day release from prison, Rahim and his fiancee find a handbag containing gold coins. At first they try to sell them, but then Rahim, played by Amir Jadidi, opts to find the owner of the bag and return it. The story gets out and Rahim is hailed as a hero. A TV crew comes to make a story about him in prison and a local charity holds a fundraiser to help pay off his debt.
But then a series of half-truths about the incident becomes a tangled web of deceit in which everyone involved finds themselves trapped. “Really,” says Farhadi, “what was at the heart of the film was the sudden rise and fall of a person. And this is something we observe often in our society these days: people who are put under the spotlight very quickly, and they get out of it just as quickly.”
Farhadi’s films have a knack of making ordinary life feel like a suspense thriller. They are so realist, they could be docudramas, yet they are full of tension, surprise and mystery. His breakthrough, About Elly, concerns the unexplained disappearance of a woman from a group holiday. The Salesman hinges on a woman’s sexual assault by an unidentified perpetrator. Likewise, in A Hero, Rahim must seek out the mystery woman who has claimed the missing handbag in order to validate his story (he finds a workaround that lands him in even more trouble).
“What I’m really interested in, and what I want to deal with, is ordinary, everyday life,” explains Farhadi. “This, for me, is precious. But I also know the danger of it being boring and full of repetitive detail nobody wants to focus on. So it has to be lifelike, but with an element of suspense that intrigues the audience.”
As usual in Farhadi’s work, nothing is black and white in A Hero. There are no unambiguously “good” or “bad” characters. Behind his easy nature, Rahim turns out to be a slippery proposition. “As a film-maker, I don’t judge the characters,” Farhadi says. “It’s not that I think they should not be judged: quite the opposite – it’s an invitation to judge. But I leave it open to the audience. I don’t want to impose my view.”
Farhadi acknowledges that his films are less overtly political than some of his counterparts’ work. Rasoulof’s recent There Is No Evil was an indictment of the death penalty and conscription. Rasoulof, who was banned from film-making and sentenced to a year in prison in 2020 (but has so far avoided jail time), had to use guerrilla tactics, using false names and scripts, while shooting in remote rural locations. Farhadi, by contrast, is now a global operator. He has also made films in France (The Past) and Spain (Everybody Knows), starring the likes of Penélope Cruz and Tahar Rahim. In Iran, he explains, it depends what kind of film you are making. “If your subject or your way of telling stories is less directly social or political, then it can be less of a problem. You work with the restrictions as you can. But it also depends on whether you want your films to be screened in Iran or not. That has always been my priority.”
Still, he does not have it easy. As well as being criticised for being “pro-government”, he is constantly criticised for being the opposite. “It’s always from the hardliners and their media – I’ve been criticised for giving an ‘unrealistic image’ of the country. And I really don’t agree. In spite of the complex situations I describe in my films, there’s always a very noble image of the people, of the characters, of the relationships. I don’t see what ‘unrealistic image’ they’re talking about.”
In public life, Farhadi has been outspoken against Iran’s hardline elements. He was one of several film-makers who accompanied Rasoulof to court to appeal against his prison sentence. And, via Instagram, he has made his views clear to the government about everything from the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January 2020 to “the cruel discrimination against women and girls” and “the way the country has allowed coronavirus to slaughter its people”.
By the same token, Farhadi has taken a stand against western extremism. He refused to attend the 2017 Academy Awards in protest at the Trump government’s contentious travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. His acceptance speech was instead read out by Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari. “Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war,” he wrote. He could have been speaking about either the US or Iran.
“There is a strong resemblance in all kinds of extremism,” he says. “They’re more or less all the same.” Farhadi believes culture can be a weapon against that. Regardless of where his films are set, they address universal human qualities and frailties: they create, he says, empathy between the “us” and “them”. That has always been his mission. Does he feel culture is winning that battle? “I don’t know, but I think there’s an element of time. I think the impact of arts and literature and cinema is a long-term one.”
He seems to have survived this particular battle: A Hero remains Iran’s international feature Oscar submission. Unlike Rahim, the film’s protagonist, Farhadi’s story is neither morally ambiguous nor a rapid rise-and-fall. Does he consider himself a hero? “Not at all,” he says. “I’ve always said that I’m nothing but a film-maker. I don’t want to be anything else.”