On stage, camera and comedy

DOHA: Asghar Farhadi doesn’t feel his Oscar win for “The Salesman” is the least bit tainted by the pall of politics surrounding it.

When the Iranian writer-director was awarded the Academy’s prize for best foreign language film late last month – his second Oscar, having won for “A Separation” in 2011 – it was a surprise to pundits, since many assumed Maren Ade’s “Tony Erdmann” would take the award.

The upset was attributed to Hollywood’s revulsion at the Trump regime’s imposition of a travel ban discriminating against select Muslim-majority countries. In an expression of protest, Farhadi himself refused to attend the Oscar ceremony.

“The film was having its own journey before all this happened,” he told journalists in Doha this week. “And I have no control over what happened afterward. For myself, of course, there was no calculation. I simply reacted spontaneously to this travel ban. Then again, to assume by what criteria people vote for one film or another is quite complicated. I don’t know how we can know why [Academy members] vote for one film over another.”

The filmmaker’s remarks were made during Qumra, the Doha Film Institute’s film incubation platform for young filmmakers, now in its third year. With producer Paolo Branco and writer-directors Lucrecia Martel, Rithy Panh and Bruno Dumont, Farhadi was among this year’s Qumra “Masters” – internationally lauded cinema veterans who conduct master classes during the event and offer advice about aspiring filmmakers’ projects.

Farhadi couldn’t attend the event personally because he’s on location in Spain for his next feature. His remarks during Qumra were his first to the international press since his Oscar win, he said, so naturally the interview was dominated by that matter, and his new project – a Spanish-language film, his first to have no connection to Iran, set to star Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, co-produced by Pedro Almodovar.

Asked about the Iranian response to his Oscar win, Farhadi was amicable. “Generally speaking the people were very happy and welcomed the news warmly. There are some who see everything from a political angle, who had some more bitter interpretations, but this isn’t what matters most. What matters for me is the general response of the people.”

Distinguishing between politics and cinema was among several motifs marking Farhadi’s contribution to Qumra. Asked if he was interested in making a politically inspired or message-centered film, he smiled.

“There are two things I will never do. One is make a political film. I don’t like to see the world through the very narrow prism of politics. I like dealing with society and people, not politics, which is decided by a very small group of people. The other [thing I’ll never do] is try to deliver a message through cinema. Messages are no longer valid these days. Our films should ask questions rather than try to provide answers.”

Earlier Farhadi had led a master class – also via video link – with Richard Pena, the veteran director of the New York Film Festival (1988-2012), nowadays a film studies professor at Columbia University. It was a wide-ranging discussion covering his practice as seen in the films “About Elly” (2009), “A Separation” and “The Salesman.”

After the master class, an audience member pointed out that “The Salesman” has an uncharacteristically political opening scene. In it, the two protagonists – Rana and Emad (Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini) – are forced to flee their flat when their building is rocked by what appears to be an earthquake. The damage turns out to have been the work of a construction crew working in the next lot – a gesture to the avaricious real estate development that makes Tehran a replica of most other major cities in the world.

Here too Farhadi disavowed any interest in politics. “We live in a very political time,” he replied, “Wearing jeans can be a political statement. I can’t help it if people read the plot politically but that’s not my intention. Social critique is more effective that political criticism.”

It’s widely known that the filmmaker emerged from the Iranian theater scene and critics have pointed out that his best work is at once highly theatrical without being “stagey.” Qumra’s master class provided some interesting insights into how Farhadi’s theater background informs his uniquely unobtrusive film language.

“In the theater you see things from different perspectives, depending on where you sit in the theater,” he observed. “Each viewer has a different play in his mind. Theater gives us an opportunity to see the same story from different angles.

“What I expect [from my DP] is that lighting and cinematography should not be felt in the film,” he continued later. “The idea of cinema is to say, ‘This is life, not a film.’ Whatever puts me or my crew in front of the viewer goes against this idea.

“When I started the shoot for ‘A Separation,’ I showed the cinematographer a documentary shot in an Iranian family’s courtyard with a hand-held camera. I told him, ‘This is how I want it to look.’

“It’s very easy to show your bias through the camera. The camera takes must not be biased in favor of one character or another. Nowadays I notice that new tools that technology has made available to us – which allow for great uniformity of lighting, especially in interior shots – have detracted from the creativity of cinema.”

He returned to this point later in the conversation.

“When I say that the camera doesn’t judge one character or another, that doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t judge them,” he smiled. “Quite the opposite. It’s when the camera and the director don’t judge that the audience is freed to do so. If I say who is right and who is wrong, then I force the audience to take the same position. There is no room for dialogue after the film.”

Pena also had the filmmaker elaborate upon his writing process and how he has commanded such superb ensemble performances from his actors. Some of the conversation’s more amusing moments centered on his work with child actors.

“Working with children is so difficult that every time I do, I swear this will be my last time. At the same time it’s so rewarding that I feel I must do it again. When you have a child in a film she can be the first character to whom the audience can relate. They bring some level of effective relationship with the audience. They bring sincerity to the film, so their presence is valuable.

“Working with them is very different from working with adults because you can never tell them what you want from them. You have to provoke a situation. They love playing but acting is not what they call playing. I must put them in some situation in which their reaction would be their performance.”

He described how he induced a 3-year-old to appear authentically anxious on cue by having his actors perform for her – off-camera.

“We had many takes that didn’t work so I decided to take the two actors who were playing her parents in the film [whose relationship to her was quite intimate during the shoot]. She ran from behind the wall and saw, behind the camera, her ‘parents’ pretending to have a violent row. The surprise and anxiety that shows on her face in the film arose from what she saw behind the camera.

“Unfortunately,” Farhadi leaned forward, “some [children] are too clever for this trick.”

Farhadi’s work has consistently focused on human conflict and resiliency while avoiding the cheesiest features of melodrama, turning the screws of suspense in a manner that’s been likened to a thriller. It’s been noted, though, that his films have little of one key element of resiliency – namely humor.

After the master class, The Daily Star asked Farhadi whether he’d ever make a comedy. He replied that such a film would have to speak Farsi.

“This is one of my biggest wishes,” he smiled, “to deal with humanity through comedy. That would be a very difficult task, but I hope to do it soon. When I’m back in Iran and working, I hope to start work on a comedy. One of my favorite directors is Billy Wilder.”

For more information on Qumra, see:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 10, 2017, on page 16.




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