An Iranian Director’s Rule: ‘Always Focus on Ordinary People’

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Asghar Farhadi made his first film at age 13, shot with an 8-millimeter camera, about two boys who agree to share an abandoned radio on alternate days, but who then discard it because neither can listen to their favorite nightly program.

The film — which won him a new bicycle as a prize — is a story of children grappling with trivial challenges. But like all stories Mr. Farhadi has scripted and directed to wide acclaim as one of Iran’s pre-eminent filmmakers, it deployed the mundane to convey the profound.

“It is very valuable for me to always focus on ordinary people,” Mr. Farhadi, who at 49 is a two-time Oscar winner, said in an interview from Los Angeles where he was visiting from his home base in Tehran. “I don’t think my work will ever be about people who are special or famous because they are not part of my emotional bank.”

For the characters in that emotional bank, drawn largely from his own childhood, circumstance can turn a prized object into a useless annoyance. People struggle with painstaking decisions and intricate compromises, anticipating one outcome but facing an entirely different result. Individuals are nuanced, not easily categorized as saviors or villains.

His most recent film, “A Hero,” which won the second-most prestigious prize at Cannes, integrates all these subthemes. Its ordinary characters are engulfed in chaos, suspense and thrill.

After all, Mr. Farhadi is a child of a revolution that toppled the monarchy, instituted an Islamic theocracy and turned America into a political enemy. By the time he was 10, Iran was at war with Iraq and children were practicing bunker drills in elementary school.

“Our childhood was at a time when we experienced a bomb exploding in our neighborhood,” he said. “This is something that won’t vanish from our memory, and it’ll influence us forever.”

If Mr. Farhadi were to name his personal hero, it would be his grandfather with whom he spent most of his childhood. He was not highly educated but a gifted storyteller who gathered the family around to tell feel-good tales.

Mr. Farhadi, the captive audience of his grandfather, wanted be like him. So, he made storytelling his profession.

The protagonist in “A Hero” is a man jailed for financial debt and struggling with a moral dilemma that could secure his release. News coverage and social media buzz elevate him into an overnight hero for a good deed. But the same forces quickly tear him down when twists and half-truths emerge, casting doubt on his motive.

Mr. Farhadi said the film examines why a society needs to make someone a hero. He wanted to show the flaws of idolizing a person and expecting others to follow. Time and insight will eventually bare the not-so perfect sides of a hero and the image will shatter, he said.

If his films are meant as social and political commentary, “A Hero” delivers a daring takedown of the tendency among Iranians to revere religious and political figures as Godlike. Mr. Farhadi said this outcome was inevitable “when you are trying to tell a story that is as close as possible to real life.”

Iranians still name their children after ancient literary heroes. Shia Islam, Iran’s dominant religion, is anchored on emulating religious clergy. The political structure of the country, from the Shahs to the current Supreme Leader, has centered on a cult of personality.

“In a society saturated with slogans, this could happen,” said Mr. Farhadi. “We want to constantly create idols and, say, be like them. The core of it is wrong.” He added, “When we have heroes in society, we are basically escaping from our responsibilities.”

Mr. Farhadi, who lives in Tehran with his wife and younger daughter, says he is at his creative best when working in his home country. But he is not indifferent to the suffering he witnesses. He said the anger brewing among Iranians is palpable and nobody is trying to address it.

But at the same time, the younger generation of Iranians gives him hope, he said, because they ask questions and demand accountability.

As a public figure with an international platform, Mr. Farhadi is pressured to take sides. He is mindful that navigating Iran’s political landscape requires a balancing act. If he keeps silent, he is criticized as a tool of the government. If he speaks too loudly, he could be banished to exile as other film directors have been.

Government supporters accuse him of making films that show a negative side of Iran. Others criticize what they regard as his excessively bright portrayals.

“For everything, not just for artists, for every aspect of Iranian life there is this polarization. It’s not very transparent, you say something, and they interpret it another way,” said Mr. Farhadi. “The question is raised, where does one stand?”

Mr. Farhadi prefers to make statements through films, he said, because art is more enduring and impactful than passing comments. Occasionally, however, he just cannot hold his tongue.

In November, Mr. Farhadi railed at the government in a long Instagram post that declared: “Let me say it clearly, I despise you.”

He condemned factions that try to define him as a government-affiliated artist and said if that’s the perception, Iran should withdraw “A Hero” as its official entry for the Oscars. Iran did not. (The film made the initial Oscar list but was not nominated.)

In 2017, Mr. Farhadi took a stand against former President Donald Trump’s travel ban policy, which affected Iranians, by boycotting the Academy Awards ceremony, where he won his second Oscar.

Hamid Naficy, an emeritus professor at Northwestern University and a scholar of Iranian cinema and culture, said that while Mr. Farhadi is one of Iran’s most renowned filmmakers, he should not be expected to serve as a political ambassador.

Mr. Farhadi’s contribution, Mr. Naficy said, was “to create a complex and thrilling and painful and joyful picture of a society that has had thousands of years of existence.”

If Iranian filmmakers were to see their work as ambassadorial, he said, “it would be a kind of propaganda film for either side — pro-regime or anti-regime.”

Mr. Farhadi was born in 1972 in Homayoun Shahr, a small town outside of Isfahan, to a middle-class family that owned a grocery store. He spent summers working at a local print shop framing and cutting photographs from customers’ camera rolls. When he was a teenager, he found a book about making films and wrote his first screenplay, about the radio. He made the short film with the support of a local government-sponsored cultural center.

He moved to Tehran to attend university, majoring in theater and obtaining a master’s degree in stage design. Mr. Farhadi wrote screenplays for state television and radio before writing and directing his own films.

In 2009, his film “About Elly” won best director at the Berlin film festival and best picture at the Tribeca film festival. In the world of global cinema, he attracted attention.

He went on to win two Oscars in the category of best international feature for “A Separation” in 2012 and “The Salesman” in 2018. Mr. Farhadi now belongs to an elite club of just a handful of iconic directors — Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman — who have won multiple Oscars in the foreign film category.

Despite all the accolades, Mr. Farhadi reminisces about the joy of seeing his first award, a beautiful bicycle placed onstage. He had attended the awards ceremony alone in Isfahan and worried how he would ride the bike home. Night had fallen and rain was pouring. Mr. Farhadi said he pedaled for two hours.

When his father opened the door and saw him drenched and exhausted but proudly showing off his prize, he didn’t have the heart to scold him. He asked gently, “Was it worth it?”

That question has preoccupied Mr. Farhadi as he reflects on his career.

“I don’t want to say that I’m not happy about my path, but people who get successful in life make other sacrifices,” Mr. Farhadi said. “And sometimes you ask yourself, ‘Was it worth it?’”

If he could ask his 13-year-old self now, with the hindsight of a celebrated director, Mr. Farhadi said, he would answer that “you didn’t have to work so hard, you didn’t have to start so early.”

Cinema, he said, “isn’t all there is to life. I realized this a bit late.”


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