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Asghar Farhadi on The Past, A Separation, and Crafting Earth-Shaking Drama From Small Moments

Every filmmaker is an anthropologist to some degree, but Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (above with The past actress Bérénice Bejo) is a rarity among the studiers. In his two most recent films alone, the Oscar-winning triumph A Separation and this year’s Cannes sensation The Past (which hits theaters today), the 41-year-old has proven himself a master chronicler of human minutiae, weaving the smallest of quotidian details into the grandest of layered, domestic drama. A filmmaker of richly palpable empathy, Farhadi can turn — as seen in A Separation — the pushing of someone out of a door into a life-destroying choice, whose consequences are only known long after the viewer, as guilty of everyday human error as those depicted on screen, has been casually misdirected. He can position — as seen in The Past — the simple sending of an email into an action that forever upends the lives of nearly a dozen people.

The yarns Farhadi spins are as notable for their humane specificity as they are for their stunning effortlessness. The Past may not be quite as wondrous as A Separation (could anything be?), but it carries the same seemingly minor, epically interlocking pieces, and that’s not all that links the two divorce-themed gems. In a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, Farhadi discussed both movies, shared a bit of the methods behind his magic, and dished on shifting his setting from his homeland of Iran to the historic streets of Paris. From professing an identification with children to likening divorce to being trapped in an elevator, his unique insights confirm that his perspective on humanity transcends all cultural barriers.

Filmmaker: It’s pretty unmistakable that The Past and A Separation can operate as companion pieces, as there are a lot of similarities. Can you describe how The Past came to be in relation to your last film? Were both stories germinating at once?

Farhadi: It’s interesting. The story of The Past came to me before the story of A Separation. And everyone thinks the idea developed after A Separation. The story of The Past is a memory from one of my friends, and that friend had told me this memory years ago. But it seems to me that, yes, the two films do have common points, because the substance of both films is the complexity of human relationships. And family has a crucial role in both films. If someone sees one of the two films, it’s not like they’re missing something without seeing the other one. But if they see them together, they can look at a bigger world, and have bigger picture. Therefore you can see the two films interconnected.

Filmmaker: Though it happens slightly later in The Past, you begin both films with a shot of direct address, where two characters are looking directly toward the camera before the title card is revealed. Can you discuss this formal decision and what you hope it achieves for the viewer?

Farhadi: I really wanted to remove myself from the film, and I wanted the audience to be directly seeing the film. When the actors are looking into the camera at the beginning of the film, it’s as if they’re looking straight into the audience’s eyes. Everything becomes like theater. It’s also inviting the audience to act like a judge for this film. Even though I don’t judge the characters in the film, I’m always inviting the audience to judge them, and to judge the film itself.

Filmmaker: Both The Past and A Separation involve the push and pull between two people who are facing a split. Why the fascination with divorce? You seem to be very compassionate when it comes to human frailty or error, but do you have a particular opinion on the matter in terms of pro or con?

Farhadi: The main issue, to me, is not the separation between a woman and a man. This is just an excuse for me so I can talk about something else. I need the characters to be put in a situation of crisis so we can find the layers behind the characters. In regular situations it’s difficult to find these layers behind the people. But divorce and separation present me with this crisis. I’ll give you an example: Imagine that a few of us are in an elevator, and the elevator is going down, and everything goes well. Nothing happens, so we don’t get to know each other. But if the elevator is stopped between two floors, we can get to know each other more, even if we’re stopped for a short time. To me, divorce is like getting stuck on an elevator between two floors.

Filmmaker: What about the interplay between the males and the females in both films? Because in both films, the female is perpetuating the separation, but her comfort with it involves putting up a certain facade, and manipulating the situation. Which partners are more willing to let go?

Farhadi: There is a common point between men and women in these two films. Women are the ones who want to move forward and change things, and men are the ones who want to keep the status quo and look back. In A Separation, the man wanted to keep his father, and keep his past, and stay in that house. In The Past, Ahmad also returns to his past and leaves his present family, and four years before the film starts, he had gone back to his home country. In A Separation, the character of the woman wants to leave with her daughter and move forward, and in The Past, Marie is doing the same thing — she’s pregnant, and she wants to have a baby and start a new life. I think this is a common point about all the cultures — that women represent the future. They’re symbols of the future, whereas men are symbols of tradition.

Filmmaker: I think many would agree that the most amazing thing about your work is how you’re able to take seemingly small human errors and have them yield epic, devastating results. Where does this come from? Is there something that’s made you especially interested in human behavior?

Farhadi: I think life itself has done this to me. If we look at life with a realistic view, it is exactly those little, minute, ordinary things that change our destinies. We have this misconception that we think it’s the bigger events in our lives that change our paths. And we always think about the big events, and it takes a lot of time for us to decipher them. For instance, decisions like marriage. But we don’t really think about the small things because we think they have no influence. All the while, they’re what change our lives. It’s a tragedy that we don’t pay attention to them. For instance, in The Past, when Ahmad was leaving this family four years ago, if he had been more honest and simply told them that he’s leaving and not coming back, perhaps this family would not have been in such crisis at that time.

Filmmaker: Again, the urgency with which these films are constructed can achieve a sense of grandeur that, in its unique way, is on par with something of much greater scale. Can you articulate the balance of how this is achieved, between writing and editing? Because clearly both are essential for your specific storytelling style.

Farhadi: I think it takes form more in the writing of the script. That’s when the general rhythm of the film comes out, but the details come out in editing. So this puzzle format that connects the events is part of the scriptwriting process, and it actually makes it difficult for the editors, because they can’t really move things around. Because everything is interconnected.

Filmmaker: Both A Separation and The Past take place primarily in a single home, and in The Past in particular, the home itself stirs up and signifies a lot of memory and danger for the characters. What are the formal and thematic benefits of using a key location like that?

Farhadi: When we talk about family, the house itself becomes a main character. Perhaps it’s unconsciously part of my theatrical background. Because, for a period, everything I wrote took place in a designated, fixed location, and this gave me the opportunity to look at human beings more. I’ve also had films with lots of locations in them, but it’s my deep wish to have a fixed location, and then have humans come and go. This indirectly makes me closer to theater.

Filmmaker: Speaking of location, while these two films relate, The Past shuffles us over to Paris, and I think the shift in region and language, and the way one barely notices it, is a testament to the universal nature of your stories. Still, why Paris?

Farhadi: To answer you honestly, I didn’t really decide this. The story decided for me to go to Paris. I was thinking for a while about how I could make this story in Iran, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw that the story was not coming together the way that I wanted. And then I chose Paris because I needed a city or a place where one could smell the past. Because the story, of course, had so much to do with the past. For instance, in a modern city without a past, the story would not be coming together. Another reason I chose Paris instead of another city that has a deep past, like Rome, is when I think of my audience, I see that after my home country of Iran, my second largest audience is in France. And this sort of made me closer to their culture. And every time I went there I didn’t feel like  stranger.

Filmmaker: Do you speak the language?

Farhadi: No. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Was that difficult?

Farhadi: The start of it was difficult. I lived there with my family for two years, and I had a real life there. My kids went to school there, and I wanted to do everything myself. I didn’t want to get help from anyone because I wanted to be part of the society. And even tough two years was not enough time for me to learn the language, I still could focus on the lives of people.

Filmmaker: Another recurring thing that happens in both of these films is you often place the “right” decision right at the fingertips of your characters, and yet you often opt to have them not go for it — to take a different approach and not solve a problem because of stubbornness, or fear, or any number of things. In your experience, do you think people are likely to make selfless, “right” choices or mistakes?

Farhadi: I really don’t decide for my characters. It usually seems that the characters decide for themselves. And the characters sometimes want to choose the right path, but there are obstacles along the way that prevent them from doing so. Do you really think that Lucie [played by Pauline Burlet], who was forwarding her mother’s private emails in The Past, really wanted to do this, or do you think that the situation that forced her to do it? I think it’s really the situation that decides for people.

Filmmaker: You mentioned Lucie. Both The Past and A Separation position children as a kind of conscience — the ones who question the motives of adults and sometimes, such as in Lucie’s case, change the course of events. Your objectivity, as you said, is rather clear, but if you were to put yourself in one of your characters, would it be one of the children, who tend to act as mediators amid the drama?

Farhadi: I see myself closer to children, yes. Or my wish is to be like children. Children bring a certain honesty in films that the adults have less of. Of course I’d like to be more like that. But the adults gradually change children. In The Past, there’s a scene in which they make Fouad [played by Elyes Aguis] apologize for something that they’re not sure whether or not he’s done. This is the beginning of teaching this child to separate himself from his childhood. They’re teaching him that he can hide the truth as need be, and that even if you don’t believe that you’ve done the wrong thing, you still have to apologize for it.

Filmmaker: If there’s one thing that most distinguishes The Past from A Separation, it’s not the locale or the language, but the way in which every single major event is dictated by a decision that was made before we, as viewers, enter this story — a decision from the past. You mentioned the film was inspired by a friend’s memory, but what else inspired you to produce that kind of structure?

Farhadi: Well, of course, it comes from my own life. I started writing this film when I turned 40, and the age of 40 is the unconscious age when you start looking back — at least, that’s true in my culture. Perhaps I wrote the story because I’d turned 40. I heard the memory 10 years ago, and I never thought I would turn it into a film, but when I turned 40, I did. Again, this is a significant number in my culture. In other cultures, the age may be a little higher. But it seems to me that when people reach a certain age, wherever they may be from, they begin thinking about their past, and they look behind.

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