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Good people facing impossible questions

In its own way, the success of the Iranian film "A Separation" is as remarkable as the success of "The Artist." Neither one seems made for an American audience. One is silent and black and white. The other is from Iran, a nation not currently in official favor. Both just won Academy Awards nominations, following their victories at the Golden Globes last week. "The Artist" had ten, and "A Separation" was nominated not only for best picture but, in a surprise, for Asghar Farhadi's original screenplay.

The intriguing thing about his screenplay is that it gets us deeply involved, yet never tells us who it thinks is right or wrong. How do you choose between a husband and a daughter? Between a wife and a father? There's an ancient ethical question, I mentioned to Farhadi in an online conversation. "Your wife and your mother are both drowning -- which would you rescue?" Is there a correct answer to this question?

"I would want to save both of them or die trying," he said. "I know that's a cop-out, but the pain that comes along with choice is a result of real liberty, and the pain of choice is the result of being free to choose. Determinism and Authority exist side by side in this ancient example. In the film I essentially try to ask this very question. Do we choose Termeh, the adolescent girl with a long future in front of her, or do we choose the old man with a past that is already behind him? Do we sacrifice the future for the past? Having them both is the obvious ideal, but it is impossible here. This is the crossroads, and the choice is the important thing. The choice between Termeh and grandfather, representatives of the past and the future, runs through the film on a greater level and through the struggle of two social groups. One looking towards the future and the other attached to the roots and the past. It is the struggle of the past and the future."

In a broader sense, we might expect the film to be critical of Iranian society. Although its events are embedded in the fabric of modern Iran, I'm unable to determine what its opinions are. All the important characters in the film are seen positively. There are no bad people here. Nothing that happens is the "fault" is anyone. They are good people facing impossible questions of the heart. In his Oscar-nominated screenplay, what is Farhadi's point of view?

"I've always felt that the filmmaker's point of view is secondary to the way that the film is accomplished," he said. "That's what really links the viewer to the film. The viewing public sees a series of images and either embraces it or lets it go. For me the cinema has always been the most important thing -- and features like being critical only come next. Being critical doesn't add value to a film, any more than a choice of genre does. It really comes down to precise and focused writing and structure.

"Instead of the expression of 'critical cinema,' I prefer to use the term 'questioner cinema.' I like to put a question mark around the issues I'm concerned about. This is a way of inviting the viewer to critique, without my views getting in the way. I prefer to add numerous question marks to every issue. I think a cinema that asks questions is preferable to a cinema that is stylistically critical."

The great Iranian director Jafar Panahi is now in prison. Reuters reports: "He is accused of making a film without permission and inciting opposition protests after the 2009 Iranian election. He was jailed for six years and banned for 20 years from filmmaking, writing or any other form of artistic work." Now that "A Separation" has won the most international acclaim of any Iranian film, what has the popular and official reaction been like?

"Mostly people have liked the movie. It has had a large audience and fortunately has evoked a lot of discussion, which is exactly what I hoped would happen. Seeing people gather in little groups after each screening to discuss the film: That's exactly what I wanted, and gives me a nice feeling. It was also well received by the critics in Iran. But the official reaction was mixed. Being cautious towards commenting on the film was the common thing in all their reactions. Officials are used to judge the film and the filmmaker together. And they know that we don't agree on a lot of subjects. Well, let's just say that they can't make any comment without reservation. We have a proverb in Iran: 'a hit on the nail, a hit on the horseshoe'."

Did the jailing of Panahi influence you in creating this work about a touchy area of religion and the law?

"If there was any influence, I was not aware of it while creating my work," he wrote me. "In general, these cases don't really have an immediate effect, but more of a long-term discouraging influence on filmmakers. When I start writing a script, I try to keep these boundaries out of my mind in order to avoid limiting my thoughts. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't.

"No doubt the situation and the atmosphere, consciously or unconsciously, have led me to this narrative style [the "questioning cinema"]. But now that I've reached this style I feel that it's applicable in all social and cultural situations. As you see, this film was made and shown in Iran, using this very style. The same film was shown in countries with very different social situations and atmospheres. The viewers of other countries could relate to the film and to its style, a style that does not look at them from a superior level and does not treat them as passive viewers just like soccer spectators. So even without the boundaries, I like this style.

"Some watch it from a social angle, some from a moral angle, and some from a psychological or philosophical angle. The same thing happens with the characters: some people will think the filmmaker is on Simin's side, some will think I'm on Nader's side, some will think my empathy lies with the maid. And everyone is right. I won't deny that in reality and outside the film I'm closer to some characters than others -- but in the film, I've tried not to make any judgments and to write and direct in such a way as to show sympathy for each of the characters.

How, I asked, did the idea for the film come to him?

"I had an image in mind and later I figured that it must have come from something my brother once told me -- the image of a middle-aged man giving a bath to his elderly father who is afflicted with Alzheimer's. This image was like a button that made me need to find the whole suite for it! I wanted to know: 'Who is this man? Where is his family? Why is he keeping his dad in the house? Why is he responsible for washing him? And does his father even recognize him?' And so many other questions. These really made different aspects of the story come to light for me."

The result is, I think, a great film that steps outside Iran and poses questions for the whole world. More than any other recent film -- at least among widely popular films -- it does seem to inspire its audiences to step outside after the screening and continue the conversation.

Timed for its expected Oscar nominations, "A Separation" opens Friday at the Music Box in Chicago, and is opening or playing around the country.

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