An Iranian director’s rule: “Always focus on ordinary people”.
Asghar Farhadi made his first film at age 13, shot with an 8mm camera, about two boys who agree to share an abandoned radio every other day, but then throw it away because neither can listen to their favorite late-night program.
The film – which won him a new bike as a prize – is a story of children struggling with trivial challenges. But like all the stories Mr. Farhadi has scripted and directed to wide acclaim as one of Iran’s most prominent filmmakers, he deployed the mundane to convey the profound.
“It’s very valuable to me to always focus on everyday people,” Mr. Farhadi, who at 49 is a two-time Oscar winner, said in an interview from Los Angeles where he was traveling from his port of call. attached to Tehran. “I don’t think my work will ever be about special or famous people because they are not part of my emotional bank.”
For the characters in this emotional bank, drawn largely from one’s own childhood, circumstances can turn a treasured object into an unnecessary annoyance. People grapple with arduous decisions and complex trade-offs, anticipating one outcome but facing an entirely different outcome. Individuals are nuanced, not easily categorized as saviors or villains.
His most recent film, “A hero,” which won the first prize at Cannes, integrates all these sub-themes. Its ordinary characters are immersed in chaos, suspense and thrill.
After all, Mr. Farhadi is a child of a revolution that overthrew the monarchy, instituted an Islamic theocracy and turned America into a political enemy. By the age of 10, Iran was at war with Iraq and children were practicing bunker drills in elementary school.
“Our childhood happened at a time when we saw a bomb go off in our neighborhood,” he said. “It’s something that won’t fade from our memory, and it will influence us forever.”
If Mr. Farhadi had to name his personal hero, it would be his grandfather with whom he spent most of his childhood. He was not highly educated, but a gifted storyteller who brought the family together to tell feel-good stories.
Mr. Farhadi, his grandfather’s captive audience, wanted to be like him. So he made storytelling his job.
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The protagonist of “A Hero” is a man imprisoned for financial debt and struggling with a moral dilemma that could secure his release. Media coverage and social media buzz make him an overnight hero for a good deed. But the same forces quickly destroy him when twists and half-truths emerge, casting doubt on his motives.
Mr Farhadi said the film examines why a society needs to make someone a hero. He wanted to show the flaws of idolizing one person and expecting others to follow. Time and insight will eventually unveil the not-so-perfect sides of a hero and the image will shatter, he said.
If his films are meant to be social and political commentary, “A Hero” delivers a bold dismantling of Iranians’ tendency to revere religious and political figures as divine. Mr Farhadi said this outcome was inevitable “when you’re trying to tell a story that’s as close to real life as possible”.
Iranians still name their children after ancient literary heroes. Shia Islam, Iran’s dominant religion, is rooted in the emulation of the religious clergy. The political structure of the country, from the Shahs to the current Supreme Leader, is centered on the cult of personality.
“In a society saturated with slogans, this could happen,” Farhadi said. “We constantly want to create idols and, say, look like them. The heart of it is fake. He added: “When we have heroes in society, we basically escape our responsibilities.”
Mr. Farhadi, who lives in Tehran with his wife and youngest daughter, says he is at his creative best when working in his home country. But he is not indifferent to the suffering he witnesses. He said the anger simmering among Iranians was palpable and no one was trying to address it.
But at the same time, the younger generation of Iranians gives him hope, he said, because they are asking questions and demanding accountability.
As a public figure with an international platform, Mr Farhadi is under pressure to take sides. He is aware that navigating the Iranian political landscape requires a balancing act. If he remains silent, he is criticized as a tool of the government. If he speaks too loudly, he could be exiled like other filmmakers have been.
Government supporters accuse him of making films that show a negative side of Iran. Others criticize what they see as his excessively bright depictions.
“For everything, not just for artists, for every aspect of Iranian life, there is this polarization. It’s not very transparent, you say something and they interpret it another way,” Farhadi said. “The question is asked, where are we?
Mr. Farhadi prefers to make statements through films, he said, because art is more enduring and impactful than passing commentary. Sometimes, however, he just can’t hold his tongue.
In November, Mr Farhadi railed against the government in a lengthy Instagram post that said: “Let me make it clear, I despise you.”
He condemned factions trying to define him as a government-affiliated artist and said if that was the perception, Iran should remove ‘A Hero’ as its official Oscar entry. Iran did not. (The film made the initial Oscar list but was not nominated.)
In 2017, Mr. Farhadi took a stand against former President Donald Trump’s travel ban policy, which affected Iranians, by boycotting the Academy Awards, where he won his second Oscar.
Hamid Naficy, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University and an expert on Iranian cinema and culture, said that while Mr Farhadi is one of Iran’s most renowned filmmakers, one should not expect he serves as a political ambassador.
Mr. Farhadi’s contribution, Mr. Naficy said, was “to create a complex, thrilling, painful and joyful image of a society that is thousands of years old.”
If Iranian filmmakers were to see their work as an ambassador, he said, “it would be a kind of propaganda film for both sides – pro-regime or anti-regime.”
Mr. Farhadi was born in 1972 in Homayoun Shahr, a small town outside Isfahan, to a middle-class family that owned a grocery store. He spent summers working at a local print shop framing and cutting photographs from customers’ rolls. As a teenager, he finds a book on filmmaking and writes his first screenplay, on the radio. He made the short film with the support of a local government-sponsored cultural center.
He moved to Tehran to attend university, majoring in theater and earning a master’s degree in stage design. Mr. Farhadi wrote scripts for state television and radio before writing and directing his own films.
In 2009, his film “About Ely” won Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival and Best Picture at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the world of world cinema, he attracted attention.
It went on to win two Oscars in the Best International Feature Film category for “A separation” in 2012 and “Sellerin 2018. Mr. Farhadi now belongs to an elite club made up of a handful of iconic directors – Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman – who have won several Oscars in the category of foreign films.
Despite all the accolades, Mr. Farhadi remembers the joy of seeing his first prize, a beautiful bike placed on stage. He had attended the award ceremony in Isfahan alone and was worried about how he would cycle home. Night had fallen and the rain was falling. Mr. Farhadi says he cycled for two hours.
When his father opened the door and saw him soaked and exhausted but proudly showing off his prize, he didn’t have the heart to scold him. He asked gently, “Was it worth it?”
This question preoccupied Mr. Farhadi as he reflected on his career.
“I don’t want to say I’m not happy with my journey, but successful people in life make other sacrifices,” Mr. Farhadi said. “And sometimes you wonder, ‘Was it worth it? “”
If he could ask his now 13-year-old son, with the hindsight of a famous director, Mr Farhadi said, he would reply that “you didn’t have to work so hard, you didn’t have to start so early .”
Cinema, he says, “isn’t all there is to life. I realized that a bit late. »