Asghar Farhadi is a 2017 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, having caught voters’ attention with his delicate, intricate family drama The Salesman. He’s also a former winner, for 2011’s stunning A Separation, one of the best films of the decade.
But Farhadi now likely won’t be able to attend the ceremony where he could win a second Oscar. Farhadi is an Iranian citizen, and on January 27 — about a month before the awards are scheduled to take place — President Donald Trump signed an executive order on refugees stipulating that for the next 90 days, the US will not take any immigrants or visa holders from seven “majority-Muslim countries,” including Iran. (We’ve reached out to Amazon Studios and Cohen Media Group, the American studios releasing The Salesman, for comment.)
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had this to say in a statement:
The Academy celebrates achievement in the art of filmmaking, which seeks to transcend borders and speak to audiences around the world, regardless of national, ethnic, or religious differences. As supporters of filmmakers—and the human rights of all people—around the globe, we find it extremely troubling that Asghar Farhadi, the director of the Oscar-winning film from Iran A Separation, along with the cast and crew of this year’s Oscar-nominated film The Salesman, could be barred from entering the country because of their religion or country of origin.
A source at the White House told People magazine that Farhadi might be allowed to attend the Oscars anyway, thanks to a waiver, but provided no further information.
Trump’s executive order is especially hard to swallow given the way Farhadi’s films beautifully depict Iran as a society just like any other on Earth. Yes, the country might have different laws and regulations — but it’s made up of normal human beings all the same.
In The Salesman, which opens in the US on Friday, January 27, two of those human beings are a husband and wife, starring in a production of Death of a Salesman. Then tragedy strikes: She is assaulted in their home, and the couple’s lives are shattered. The connection to the play is tenuous but intriguing — as in Arthur Miller’s masterwork, The Salesman suggests much about Iranian society from the examination of one family. And as in any Farhadi film, the director follows every single thread of the story, to a conclusion that will leave you feeling something for everyone who’s touched by what happens.
I met with Farhadi in November, a few days after the election, to talk about his new film, as well as how to keep politics from dividing us, the differences between stage and screen, and his philosophies of storytelling.
Our conversation, which occurred with the help of a translator, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
It’s a politically fractious time in the US right now, and I’m wondering how you construct art that’s politically engaged and politically active, without it being overwhelmed by trying to offer up a simplistic moral.
I see human beings as transcending politics, as transcending everything. Everything that falls under the shadow of humans and respects humanity is acceptable to me, including politics.
Where problems begin to arise is when their positions become switched. For instance, ideology ascends, and humanity falls below ideology, or politics are on top and humanity takes a lower position. When the places are switched in this way, then human beings are categorized, divided.
When we place humanity at the top of the pyramid, at the pinnacle, then black or white, Iranian or American, everybody resembles one another. They are all human. But if the places are switched, the first division that will occur will be, for instance, Muslim/non-Muslim. When politics dominates humanity, then it becomes Americans versus non-Americans, or immigrants.
You use Death of a Salesman in this film. What inspiration do you draw from plays like this? And the movie also deals with the difficulties of presenting such a play in Iran. What’s your experience in that world?
I spent an important part of my life in the theater. The plays I came across in that period — European and American plays, as well as Iranian plays — were a significant part of forming my inclinations. For instance, [Henrik] Ibsen had a great influence on me with the type of plays that he wrote that were both social and psychological. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller — they all had a part in forming me and forming my tastes.
What’s always struck me about Arthur Miller’s work is that, not always, but insofar as possible, he refuses to divide people into black and white. This is something that I’ve tried to retain in the work I do. The other aspect of Arthur Miller’s work is that you can look at it from a number of different perspectives — from a social perspective, from a psychological perspective, from a political perspective.
For instance, in Death of a Salesman, the relationship that exists between Willy Loman and his son Biff is a very complex relationship to be explored psychologically. And at the same time, their relationship is under the influence of society and the environment within which it exists. The play Death of a Salesman, in that way, functions as a mirror in front of my main story.
What have you found to be the biggest similarity and the biggest difference between working on stage and working on screen?
Inside of me, there’s a place where the boundary between the two of these has dissolved, and they have merged. In this film, I’ve tried as the film progresses for this boundary between theater and real life to become more and more invisible. The most important difference that exists between these two is that in theater, the audience is given the greater freedom.
Where you are sitting and your point of view in the theater affects your perspective. You might be sitting on this side of the theater and be looking at the action through one perspective, and if you’re sitting in a different place in the theater, you see the action from a completely different angle. This is not true of the cinema. Everybody, wherever they are seated, are seeing the same thing.
I offer this just by way of example to demonstrate a difference between theater and cinema. What I’ve tried to do in cinema is for each audience member to be able to see from their own perspective.
The theater affords the audience the opportunity to have a more active presence and to contribute themselves an aspect or a part of what’s onstage. For instance, you see a table with a lamp overhanging it and two chairs, and you imagine this is a house. But this is not an opportunity that’s afforded to you in the cinema.
What I do is I try to make it possible for you to imagine what’s outside the frame and to construct it in your own mind. All of this is the influence the theater had on me in my work in the cinema.
Do you think there’s room in cinema for that sort of abstract visual storytelling, like with the lamp and the two chairs?
I think it exists, but not just in terms of the image that you see. It’s about the story that the audience can contribute a great deal with their imagination.
I’ll give you an example for clarity. Imagine a character at a crossroads, who ultimately chooses one path. Whereas in your mind, you’re imagining the story of what would happen had he chosen the other fork. This opportunity is given to the audience to build a story in their own mind.
For instance, in [The Salesman], we don’t see the bathroom scene, but we see the characters talking about the scene. Necessarily, as the audience, we’re forced to construct it in our minds.
You love to put actors in wide shots so they can play off each other and react to each other. What do you think is the best way to elicit a great film performance from an actor?
The first point is that the way to interact with and behave with each actor is different from the next. I try never to speak to the actors about the meaning of the film or the themes of the film. The rehearsals we undertake have as their aim, for the most part, to turn what is in my screenplays into something quotidian and daily.
When they’re before the camera, or prior to shooting, when we’re in rehearsal, what I tell myself all the time is, “This is a documentary.” What I try to achieve is for what they are doing in front of the camera to not be like a film, but be like a documentary.
Where some actors are concerned, in order for them to be as though this were a documentary, one has to place them in an emotional context. But others, one has to speak with and try to logically affect them.
Your stories are always so complicated, yet the emotions are always believable and understandable. What’s your approach to coming up with stories for your films?
I always begin with very simple things. I try to find a story in which there is a crisis situation. What creates the complication and the conditions is the crisis moment.
The story itself isn’t complicated. When the characters are placed in a situation where they don’t know what to decide, that’s what makes the situation complicated. My greatest effort is that the complicated situation should be constructed with simple, daily elements.
My effort is never for this crisis situation to be made up out of some very weird or unusual events. When it’s the product of daily events, the audience feels that this could also happen for them, because they also have an ordinary daily life.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times human behavior and psychological complexity. How do you keep yourself open and empathetic to all sorts of people and human experiences?
I think what helps me the most is that I don’t see people as being very different from one another. I find their similarities are great.
I always feel that each person has their own reasons for the behavior they exhibit. We may not accept those reasons or affirm them, but we can grasp that the person has reasons for their conduct. This creates the phenomena that can be referred to as empathy.
What I try to keep alive in myself is a sense of empathy for the characters in my films. If we were to summarize all of my films and have to come up with just one word, I would choose the word empathy.
In The Salesman, you end up finding great empathy for the man who is revealed to be the criminal, who’s done a terrible thing but is still very human. How did you find your way into his head, into what makes him human?
What I do is I give him the opportunity and the time in the course of the story to defend himself. Many films that divide people into good and bad camps don’t allow the bad characters to mount any kind of defense for their own actions.
When I say “to mount a defense,” what I mean isn’t necessarily that they should speak to defend themselves. As a writer, it’s my job to create the emotional conditions in which they may have an impact on the audience. This is how I tried to bring that character closer to the audience and for the audience to think perhaps if I were in their place, I might have done this too.