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.

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.

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Did 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.

You talk about Simin as a free and strong-willed woman. What kind of a message does A Separation offer American audiences about Iranian and Muslim women?

I wanted people to see us women from Iran as individuals. It's degrading to Iranian people to generalize them all the time as being represented by Iranian politics.

You see that women's right movements started in Iran and Egypt since the early 20th century. Some women wanted to wear veil, others didn't. Iran had a very strong women's movement before the revolution. And it wasn't something Shah gave Iranian women for the Ayatollah to take away.

This context is important in terms of A Separation—this film breaks that whole view. It does not negate the fact that the Islamic Republic imposes horrible things on Iranians and particularly women. But it shows the heroism of victims. The wife doesn't submit to her husband's will and breaks away from what he wants her to do. She's articulate and courageous enough to do what she sets out to do.

Just by virtue of the fact that this woman's voice is stronger than the judge's or anyone's is a testament to her power. Rather than focusing on the regime, the film shows how intelligent and courageous these citizens are, even those who are most victimized, the women.

Although after the revolution, there are enormous pressures on Iranian women, women are coming out stronger than ever before. This is something that I experienced in Iran in terms of everyday life. This is something that makes Iranian women proud.

What message should Americans take from works like this film and your book about Iranians and Muslims in America?

I really would like to turn this into a serious debate. It's so vulgar the way we are being portrayed. In every single religion you see this sort of attempt to say that, for example, the Bible says the women's place is at home. In every country, women fight. Iranian women have been excellent in their struggle. Muslim women who struggle against some aspects of Islam are still Muslim women.

I understand that A Separation comes from a different place than Lolita. My book was a book of memoirs. Women in my classes were not fighting against Islam. I had more positive Muslim characters in my book than any character. But everyone was united in the fact that they were not saying religion is bad, but women need to have a choice to choose who we want to be. We need to have a choice to not be a part of religion we are born into. What I wanted to say is how diverse Iranians are, and that literature defends the individual's rights to be who they want to be.

A Separation made me very excited because it was an artistic expression of this urge. It shows that the struggle for freedom doesn't start with the protest in streets that get attention. Struggle begins with the individual. Begins with woman asking herself how she wants to live. She battles her husband and a judge. I think many non-Muslim Americans would tell you that they've also, at times, had to make very difficult choices, maybe not the same exact choices, but, in essence, the same choice.

Do you think that a film like A Separation has the power to stop America from an impending military face-off with Iran?

One of the things I constantly try to remind people here is that if the U.S. has a strength, its not military might—it's a cultural strength. In Iran, we never thought about who the American president is. The things that drew us to America was its thinkers, writers, and artists. We used to watch Marx Brothers and Woody Allen. We disliked a lot of American politics, but it was the art that we connected to.

It is one of the stupidest things for us [in America] to constantly say that we want military strikes against Iran. The more we say we want to go war against Iran, the more the Iranian regime feeds on the hostility.

A film like this is significant at a time when the only time we hear about Iran is about WMDs and Iran threatening to close the Gulf—everything we hear about Iran right now dehuaminzies Iranian people. This film is like an amazing breath of fresh air to remind the American people that there are people who are against the Islamic regime. Once Americans connect to the Iranians as people, I think it will become a little bit more difficult to want to drop bombs on them.

I am not saying that this film will make us not go to war. But great works of art and culture are great ambassadors. We should focus on the resonances of this film rather the empty threats of Iran's leaders.

I always used to tell people when they ask what can we do about Iran, "The most respect you show a people is to genuinely trying to know and understand them—you go to that country's history and culture." If Americans did this, they would become the Iranian people's voice— they would want to support them against harm.

Can we expect any upcoming works like Lolita that will humanize Iranians for American audiences?

My next book will come out in 2013 and is called The Republic of the Imagination and it is about the degradation and trivialization of thought in this country. Great works of American fiction and art are valued sometimes far more in Iran, and that is a matter of heartbreak to me. We in Iran, as in many other countries, got to appreciate the U.S. through its great works of fiction. That's what I saw in Iran. When I came to the U.S., I saw bookstores closing down. Schools with cut funds take away the humanities first.

And I travel around this country—kids come up to me after our talks say we are encouraged to learn Middle Eastern literature and languages to go work for the state department. We aren't encouraged to learn about culture for its own sake as useful feature of society.

It is important for us to look to Iran at this time. Iranians are reminding us of the importance of imagination and thought in a society where it is dying out.