Azar Nafisi and Robin Wright Discuss 'A Separation'

Following their exchanges, I interviewed Wright by email.

What is the political significance of this film garnering so much media attention and awards at a time when the U.S. and Iran are on the brink of a military stand-off?

In many ways, governments reflect human nature—including the themes in A Separation. The Iranian regime is at a crossroads. The world believes it is caught in a growing web of lies about a suspected nuclear weapons program. And like the characters in A Separation, the theocracy seems to be making decisions based on its own self-interests rather than on its purported idealistic or religious values. In turn, it faces increasing isolation—a form of separation from the world. What a tragedy for its people.

How should Americans—and in particular non-Iranian, non-Muslim audiences—understand what this film is saying about Iranian people?

The film offered powerful glimpses into Iranian society. The two female leads reflect the contrasts of modern and traditional Iran, or of secular and religious Iran. The wife was willing to abandon family and nation for greater personal, political or economic freedom. She was also the secular character. In contrast, the pregnant caregiver (Razieh) called a fatwa hotline to get permission to touch a man to whom she was not related. She was also willing to lie—until she was asked to swear on the Koran. Iran is a very diverse society, which the film really captured.

"Like the characters in 'A Separation,' the theocracy makes decisions based on its own self-interests rather than on its purported idealistic or religious values."

Azar is very astute in explaining how the middle-class wife was empowered enough to make a choice about her future and her marriage—in bold ways that would probably not have been true to that extent in that part of society before the revolution. One thing American audiences won't know is how female literacy has soared since the revolution, with Iran earning recognition from the United Nations for closing the gender gap in education between males and females. The majority of university students in Iran for years have been female. (After the revolution, many traditional families were more willing to send their girls for higher education not necessarily because they liked the regime, but rather because they felt an Islamic education system would better protect them from the evils of society.) Education has in turn created a far more dynamic female factor in all walks of life as women (or, in the movie, the daughter too) begin to take control over their destinies—and not leave them either to the state or the main men in their lives.

But whatever the cultural or religious differences between Iranian and Western audiences, the commonality of the human condition comes across in the film—the aching choices, the imperfections of character.

Much like the actual film, your response to Dr. Nafisi's interview on A Separation was strikingly apolitical. Given your knowledge of Iranian society, is there a political message in A Separation, and why did you choose to steer the conversation away from politics?

The backdrop of the film is Iran's troubled political environment, but it is surprisingly subtle. The question of whether to stay in Iran provides the context for characters to make choices—choices which then delve into larger universal themes about human nature.

The only visible sense of the state was in the judicial system and its dealings with the divorce, the money theft and the manslaughter charge. Again, the film showed the contrast between modern and traditional. The judge ran a modern court created in a constitution modeled to a large extent on French and Belgian law. But the family was prepared to pay "blood money," an ancient way of compensating wronged parties, to settle the case.

But at a time of the largest migration in world history, the setting could have in dozens of countries. I suspect the set-up resonated more with Iranian audiences, whether inside or outside Iran, who have such extraordinary national pride that leaving means extraordinary desperation. I often tell American audiences that to understand Iranian nationalism, they should think of the most chauvinistic Texan they know—and then add 5,000 years. But a viewer would have to understand that to fathom the depth of political disillusionment or economic despair behind the wife's choice to leave.

The brilliance of the film is that there were so many themes, some obvious but many others nuanced in ways that slowly hit you (or me anyway) hours or even days later.

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Massoud Hayoun is a digital-news producer for Al Jazeera America.

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