Is There a Lesson for the U.S. in Iran's Oscar-Nominated 'A Separation'?


The author of Reading Lolita in Tehran talks about a raved-about new film from her home country.

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Sony Picture Classics

As with the escalating tension between Washington and Tehran, it's hard to assign blame to a single character in Oscar-nominated Iranian drama A Separation for an explosive chain of events that threaten devastation.

Simin (Leila Hatami) threatens to leave her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) if he won't walk away from his Alzheimer's-afflicted father to pursue a better life abroad for their daughter Termeh. Nader pushes his father's pregnant caretaker Razieh (Sareh Bayat) down some stairs after she perpetrates an unspeakable act of neglect, and it is up to the Islamic Republic's court system to decide whether Nader's blow terminated her pregnancy.

What follows is an almost dizzying attribution of blame to different characters in the film, all of whom at the end appear imperfect and human. Just as soon as the narrative finds one character guilty, he or she is redeemed by an act of compassion, and the blame shifts to another player. Of course, this is how war starts: as a dizzying exchange of blame between a variety of painfully flawed parties.

"Great works of art are great ambassadors," Nafisi says. "We should focus on the resonances of this film rather the empty threats of Iran's leaders."

The film is making its way through American theaters in the wake of a Golden Globe win and two Oscar nominations—including a nod for Best Original Screenplay, rare for a foreign-language film. The awards buzz certainly seemed to be paying off at the theater I visited earlier this month in Maryland, where a Friday-night showing was entirely sold out. Not bad for a subtitled flick about, in part, Iran's judicial system

At a time when the U.S. is teetering on the edge of a military confrontation with Iran, what does it mean that A Separation has found such a warm reception in the U.S.?

For perspective, I spoke with the creator of another Iranian work that's found an audience in America: Dr. Azar Nafisi, Iranian-American author of long-standing New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book that artfully ties the Western literary masterpieces that Nafisi read with her book club in Tehran to developments in Iranian society just after the Revolution.

Nafisi pointed out that A Separation is almost politically apolitical. Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi urges viewers to focus not on the regime but on the situation of the Iranian people.

The film begins with Simin and Nader arguing in front of a judge in family court. We don't see the judge's face. The regime is a disembodied voice. All we (Americans) see, for perhaps the first time, are Iranian citizens. Not politicians or religious leaders, spewing inflammatory calls to war.

Much as Nafisi wrote about women in the early Islamic Republic struggling to obtain photocopied manuscripts of Western classics, banned by their newfound theocracy, Farhadi shows us how American culture exists in Iran. We see a family, in a home, surrounded by American cultural paraphernalia that the Ayatollah might damn as a sign of Western decadence. Christina's World, recently deceased painter Andrew Wyeth's piece of classic Americana, is prominently displayed in Simin and Nader's house. There is a foosball table. A drawing of a Native American in traditional dress. A Christmas nutcracker. Simin and Nader's daughter Termeh implants a cocktail umbrella on her school project diorama, in a country that is ostensibly without cocktails.

More important than the family's Western knickknacks, we see Iranian people. And when you see people—not politics, but people—that may make it a little harder to go to war with them.

Azar Nafisi reuters 300px.jpgDid you see any similarities between Reading Lolita in Tehran and A Separation?

One of things that bothered me when I came to the U.S. was that when I was living in Iran, the people's voices, images, and lives were mutilated and censored by the regime. When I came here, the same thing was happening. Most of the news here reduced Iranians to a few representatives in the regime.

One of incentives to writing Lolita was a reaction to this idea. The most important aspect of Iran is the people that have always, in fact, resisted their oppression—not just with protests, but also by continuing to live the way they lived before the regime. A movie like A Separation brings out that same aspect of Iran, the human aspect. When you see a film like A Separation, you realize not how different Americans are from the Iranian regime, but how similar they are to the Iranian people.

Husbands and wives have their differences everywhere. You have a strong-minded woman in an anguished situation. She has to choose between her husband and living the life she wants to live. That is what really matters. That is what is so revealing. At least more than hundreds of interviews with Ahmedinejad.

So many other Iranian films have come and gone from American art-house theaters. Why is this particular film resonating with American audiences?

The reason why this film resonates with people is because it doesn't have a political message. A movie, like a book or poem, has to be true to itself. It connects to people on a deeper level than politics. That's what made me angry about my own book: when people tried to turn it into a political statement, when it was really just about ordinary people, under difficult circumstances, using their imaginations to connect to the world.

A Separation shows ordinary people struggling with ordinary problems. Although regime is not present in this film, we hear that the woman Simin wants to leave certain conditions in Iran—we are not even told what. To appreciate this film, you didn't have to take a position against the regime.

Politics make a film, and any work of art, limited. Films become effective when people are able to connect to the characters—get involved in the tensions and the dilemmas that the characters feel. But then again, Nabakov said, "Fancy is fertile only when it is futile." A film can at once not comment on politics and thereby comment on politics.

Another film on Iran that also became very successful was Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. I also empathized with Marjane. Even more than in A Separation, there was a great deal of political critique. But it's the way you bring in political critiques that determines whether a work of art is propaganda. Marjane made us empathize with that little girl. She allowed us to glimpse into her heart and mind. That's what made us follow her into adventures—some very painful.

Movies like Marjane's resonate with viewers because they are about more than politics. Audiences didn't leave thinking about WMDs. WMDs are transient—here today and gone tomorrow.

A Separation is subversive on a much different level than a political, ideological film against the regime. In this film, there is the idea of free will. Simin wants to leave, but she has to pay a great price. There's no happy ending. The film shows that freedom is fraught with anguish and pain. While it is not saying Islamic regime is killing a lot of people, it is saying you won't be a human being if don't suffer to be free. I think that this message is a lot more subversive than any other.

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

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