Azar Nafisi and Robin Wright Discuss 'A Separation'

An Iranian-American author and a foreign correspondent on the lessons of Iran's Oscar-nominated family drama

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Sony Picture Classics

Iran's A Separation has sparked critical praise ("one of the most dazzlingly complex, and morally provocative, domestic dramas that I have ever seen"), Oscar nominations (for Best Foreign Film and, impressively, Best Original Screenplay), and, moreover, conversation. A recent Atlantic interview with author Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of the bestselling-in-the-U.S. Reading Lolita in Tehran, launched a correspondence with her friend Robin Wright, who has been covering Iran as a foreign correspondent since 1973. As Iranian and non-Iranian Americans, their correspondence reflects the diverse interpretations of a film they both deeply admired.

The following is part of their conversation, including an interview with Wright about the politics and timing of the film.

Hi, Azar,

What I found so interesting about your Atlantic interview was how we saw this movie from very different angles. For me, A Separation was all about lying, and how it started out as the ends justifying the means. The characters then ended up getting so trapped in their lies that the lying got deeper and deeper and became outright betrayal of those they loved or the things they believed in. Virtually everyone lied. And the lies were all perpetuated to each character's own detriment.

So "the separation" played out not only in terms of the parents' split and the daughter's choice of which parent to live with and the caregiver/mother's loss of her child and the husband's loss of his father to Alzheimer's, but also the separation between truth and falsehood, values and self-interest.

I think the daughter wanted to stay with her father but his betrayal was so basic or profound that all of her affection for him could not compensate. She wept because she went with her mother, which meant leaving Iran—and not seeing her father.

But so far I haven't found a single person who agrees with me!

On your question about tenderness, I thought there was enormous tenderness in little touches too-the mother for her father-in-law with Alzheimer's, the pregnant woman for her erratic or deranged husband, the pregnant woman for her Alzheimer-afflicted client, the father for his own ailing father, everyone for the little girl. There was so much more genuine and raw if conflicted feeling in this movie than in most American movies. It's what so often makes Iranian films great. There's a honesty about imperfections.

Nafisi responded:

Hi, Robin,

I am so glad we are having this conversation, which has made me want to try and see it again. It is very important what you point out about values and self-interest and all those other splits.

I also agree with your wonderful insight about lying and of course that lying can become a metaphor for the bigger, social and political lie they live in. What I found interesting is that often making choices is presented as something heroic, and in fact the reality is that it is often fraught with lies, especially in desperate conditions, and there is a great deal of anguish and there is no right or wrong choice, I mean in the moral sense at least.

In the film, almost everyone has to make a choice, and almost every major character is placed within a desperate situation where their livelihood, their future, and future of those they love are at stake. And they lie, even minor characters like the teacher who lies to the judge in order to protect her student's father. But this is not simply about ends justifying the means; things are more complicated. In case of the traditional woman (Razieh) who takes care of the Alzheimer patient, should she lie to her husband and work without his permission in order to save her family from utter poverty? And in another instance should she lie in order to get money under false pretenses to save her family from the creditors and her husband from going to jail just because he cannot find a job? The concrete social and economic conditions in her country and her own personal life constantly pit her faith against the attempt to just barely survive (her husband alludes to justice being blind to his complaints when he was thrown out of this job). She lies to her husband, but of course cannot lie against her faith. Also from a different perspective, the secular teacher who swears to a lie on Koran, when later confronted by her accusers, feels bad enough to recant her testimony.

In both cases these two women with different values and backgrounds first lie, but in the end make a choice that despite all the dire consequences is the right thing for them to do. Thus these imperfect characters might not always win our approval, but they gain our sympathy and understanding. For different audiences, no matter where they come from, the film poses a question: What would we have done in their place?

In both my books I talk about this, about the fact that the worst part of living in Islamic Republic was the constant lying, the negation of who you were and what you valued. It made you feel dirty. More painful than that for me was my own family relations, the feeling of guilt and complicity. It is not just about the end justifies the means, it is also about a sense of captivity, of having nowhere to go and that is also what made me empathize with each and every one of these characters...

I am so glad you brought to my attention the tenderness aspect of the film, I had thought I needed to see it again, because for some reason I was not sure of some of the body language... but the points you make are great. And in support of what you say, not just in terms of father and son, but the mother also is trying to "save" her daughter, and the daughter is entangled because she cares for her parents. They all do care a great deal about one another, and yet I was not sure of love for example between husband and wife. I cannot articulate but somehow in that relationship I was looking for something else as well. It might have been the gestures, it might have been that the tension overwhelmed everything else. I was looking at their past, some residue. There is so much to say, and thank you for reminding me of these so essential points.

For me of course, whenever there is a film, a book, a work of art, anything that is true to itself, without letting the politics dominate, that is so important. This film showing us not just how different we are but how much we share, how much we can empathize as individuals was my concern.

Regarding the girl, I really am not sure, really, I can see your point, maybe deep down I wanted her to go with her mother, and so to be "fair" I gave a different verdict. Because I did also feel for her father. When in Iran, this point constantly came up between husbands and wives, and it was usually the wives who wanted to leave. In fact in my own case, it almost led to divorce, and yet I did love my husband, and I felt terribly pained and anguished at the thought of leaving Iran, so I think in the interview, I was also thinking about this, about Simin's "choice" and the price not just she but everyone else had to pay for it.

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.

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.

Nafisi responded to Wright's interview:

Robin makes a great point about women in today's Iran, and I love the way she relates her point at the beginning to the one about women in Iran today and in the film at the end.

But again, I feel that the reader without Robin's rich background and knowledge on the subject might not grasp that Iranian women's present show of resistance and strength is also rooted in their past struggle. Robin's point about traditional families sending their daughters to higher education after the revolution and its effect on women's attitudes and lives is very important. But I think another equally important factor that the American public in general might be unaware of is Iran's over a century and half struggle for modernism and pluralism, a struggle in which various strata of Iranians, including progressive clerics, intellectuals, women, and even some among the nobility participated. This struggle led to the first Constitutional revolution in Asia at the beginning of last century.

Women since then have been constantly fighting for their rights. Before the revolution, Iranian women were active in all walks of life, not only as ministers (of higher education and women's affairs) and parliamentarians, but as pilots, engineers, doctors, and members of the police force. After the revolution, the regime's implementation of laws against women—and its attempts through force and violence to limit and in certain cases eliminate women's rights both in public and private—rather than neutralizing and pacifying the Iranian women, made them bolder and more resilient.

I think this point is important, because these strong and determined women of today do not have to look to the West to fight for their rights, but have their own history and culture to rely on—they are following in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers.