Cinema and Society in Iran: 1900s to Present

Ever since the humble beginnings of Iranian Cinema in the early 1900’s, directors have used the movie screen as a platform to make commentary on Iranian politics, religion, and everyday life. In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, Iran was one of the most prominent countries in the Middle East for cinema. After a brief decline post-revolution, Iran found itself once again leading the region in terms of production and quality. Iranian cinema capitalized on the richness of Persian Poetry, mythic literature, and traditional Shi’a values of ethics and justice (Lecture, Oct 2). From the era of Pahlavi rule, through the Islamic revolution, all the way to the current day, Iranian filmmakers have drawn on the richness of Persian culture and civilization to create an art that communicates important elements and criticisms of everyday life and sociopolitical realities within Iranian society.

For this paper, I will be researching how Iranian cinema evolved from the artistic New Wave and thriller films of the sixties and seventies, to the post revolution films of the new Islamic Republic, onwards to contemporary Iranian cinema. Films from each of these eras of Iranian history provide the viewer with a glimpse of the nuances of everyday life. Through film, we can attempt to understand how everyday life changed over time, how certain socioeconomic or sociopolitical forces affected everyday people, and how people resisted or submitted to those forces. Throughout this paper, I will highlight methods in which elements of Iranian culture, tradition, religion, and current political reality are portrayed in film. I will attempt to tell the history of Iranian cinema chronologically while using specific films from each era as references.

I chose to focus on four films: two from before the Iranian revolution and two from after. For the two pre-revolution films, I chose to screen Qeysar by Masoud Kimiai and Gozaresh (The Report) by Abbas Kiarostami. Next, I focused on Kiarostami’s groundbreaking film A Taste of Cherry, and finally, I screened the contemporary Iranian movie A Separation, by Asghar Farhadi.

It is important to note that Cinema in Iran is not exempt from any other export or product of the Middle East at the time, and must be seen within the context of colonialism, global capitalism, and the larger “modernization” project undertaken by many Iranian leaders. Hamid Dabashi argues that cinema, along with other types of modern Iranian art, was simply a tool in a larger machine that was the Iranian modernization project. He argues that “At its best, this cinema has succeeded in resubjecting the Iranian self where the project of modernity has failed” (Dabashi, 13). Filmmakers throughout the history of Iranian cinema have attempted to contextualize the nature of Iranian reality; through that process of documentation and critique, some successfully transcended the forces of modernization that Dabashi speaks of, and some become a force of modernization themselves. When analyzing and commenting on Iranian cinema, it is of utmost importance not to orientalize the content and understand how cinema fits into larger power structures as a force of modernization.

 

Iranian Cinema: The Early Beginnings

Historians argue that the first Iranian filmmaker was a man named Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi, a court photographer for Mozaffar al-Din Shah, a Qajar king of Persia who ruled from 1896-1907 (Mehrabi). On a trip to France in 1900, the Shah happened upon a cinemagraph and instructed his photographer to acquire one and bring it back to Iran. This was the beginning of Iranian cinema, as Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi went on to film royal celebrations and events, although unfortunately none of this early footage survives to this day.

Motion pictures began to spread in popularity during the very early 20th century. In the year 1904, Mirza Ebrahim Khan Sahaf Bashi hosted the first public movie screening in Iran, in the back of an antique shop in Tehran. A year later, he would open up the first movie theater in Iran, although the movie theater would not survive for more than a month before getting shut down as a result of Bashi’s political activities and support for the budding Iranian nationalist movement, as well as his support for a constitutional monarchy. Another important name is Khan-baba Khan Motazedi. Motazedi, similarly to Sahaf Bashi, was a court cinematographer and photographer for both Qajar and Pahlavi kings (Parhami). He was the first person to arrange a movie screening exclusively for women, and was also the first filmmaker to introduce foreign films to Iranian society through the use of subtitles and voice dubbing. Ovanes Ohanian, another early cinema pioneer, was an Iranian of Armenian and Russian descent who studied film at the prestigious Cinema Akademi of Moscow. Upon his return to Iran, he founded the first film school in Tehran, the “Parvareshgahe Artistiye cinema” (The Cinema Artist Educational Centre). In 1929, with the help of some of his new graduates and Motazedi, he produced one of the first Iranian silent movies, a film called “Abi va Rabi.” Abdul Hossein Sepenta created the first ever Iranian talking movie, Dokhtar-e-Lor (Parhami). His films were overwhelmingly symbolic of a glorified and rich Persian history and culture and emphasized the importance of humanism and ethics.

 

screenshot:  Dokhtar-e-Lor (1932)

 

After the late 1930s, Iranian cinema would go through a period of dormancy. World War Two brought about a sharp decline in film production which would not resurface until the late 1940s and early 1950s. Slowly but surely, Iran’s cinematic rebirth would take place in the mid 1960’s, largely thanks to the efforts of legendary director and cinematographer Masoud Kimiai. Kimai, alongside other directors such as Dariush Mehrjui and Bahram Beyzai, would help launch Iranian cinema onto the international stage and help create the distinct style of Iranian New Wave. Films such as Qeysar (1969), The Cow (Gaav) (1969), and Downpour (Ragbar) (1972) would cement Iran’s status as a world leader in alternative films. New wave would eventually become a distinctly Iranian cultural and literary trend. New wave films were highly artistic, dramatic, political, and poetic, drawing on rich Persian literary and poetic tradition. Directors did not steer away from making commentary on disenfranchised people within Iranian society, including rural tribespeople and the urban poor, despite Pahlavi government censors (Sadr, 109). In this sense, the films of this era had a subtle yet distinct anti-government taste. Richard Tapper argues that The Cow started an allegorical genre of “protest” film against Pahlavi rule. “However,” he writes, “films were appreciated only by a small elite local audience and foreign critics, and the Pahlavi regime stifled the protest more effectively by appropriation than by censorship”(Tapper, 5). Hamid Dabashi expresses this sentiment very well. He writes:

“It is sad but nevertheless undeniable that much of the secular culture of the 1960s and 1970s Iran, as expressed not just in the Tehran Film Festival but even more offensively in the Shiraz Art Festival, was sponsored by, and gave cultural credence to, the Pahlavi monarchy… the unfortunate state of the pre revolutionary art was such that, in order to see the work of even Amir Naderi or Dariush Mehrjui, two of the most progressive filmmakers at the time, one had to sit next to the Pahlavi ruling elite” (I.d., 5).

Despite de facto legitimization and the creation of ideological consensus for the regime, many filmmakers successfully navigated the forces of Pahlavi rule and censorship and managed to make subtle allegorical critiques of certain aspects of Iranian society and the PahIavi regime. I decided to screen the film Qeysar (1969) to get a better understanding of this era of Iranian filmmaking.

 

Rebirth of Iranian Cinema and Iranian New Wave: Qeysar, 1969

Qeysar is a story of a man who sets out to avenge the deaths of his sister and brother. The film begins with a scene of a young woman, Fati, being rushed to a hospital after an attempted suicide. Upon her death, her family learns that she had been raped by a man named Mansour while his two brothers were aware and did nothing to stop it. The scene of the rape is startling and graphic – it begins almost playfully, as Mansour somewhat jokingly knocks Fati’s veil off of her head. After she puts her veil back on and scolds him, Mansour pulls her veil off yet again. The scene escalates quickly and becomes graphic, as Mansour strips Fati of her clothing and forces himself upon her. This shocking scene depicts to viewers the horrors of rape by invoking well known Islamic imagery. By beginning the scene with Fati’s unveiling, Kimiai is signifying the drastic nature of the act. By removing a woman’s veil, Mansour defaces and destroys something godly, holy, and pure.

 

screenshot: Qeysar (1969)

 

After his sister’s rape, Fati’s brother, Farhan, sets out to avenge the her death, but is advised by his father to leave his knife at home and fight Mansour with honor. Farhan arrives at Mansour’s house, and attacks him. Farhan attempts to strangle him to death, and almost succeeds, but Mansour’s brothers intervene at the last second and stab Farhan in the back, killing him. They dispose of his body in a ditch.

After this scene the viewer meets the protagonist, Qeysar, played by the prominent pre-revolution Iranian actor Behrouz Vossoughi. Qeysar returns home from business and learns of the death of his sister and brother. Inspired by revenge and family honor, he promises to kill the three men responsible for Fati’s rape and Farhan’s death. Early on, Kimiai invokes the core Shi’a concept of divine justice. When discussing his plans, his mother tries to assure Qeysar that the government will find those who were responsible and punishment. He responds, “The government will find them, yes, and they will punish them,” implying that punishment and detainment by the government will not bring the killers to justice according to God.

Qeysar then departs to kill Mansour’s brother, Karim. He finds him in a bath house, and kills him dramatically in the shower. Blood rushes down the tiles and into the drain. When Qeysar returns to his house after the murder, he washes his hands and face as if he is preparing for prayer. Again Kimiai invokes religious imagery, as Qeysar feels the need to purify himself after an unholy deed. After killing Karim, he then leaves to find Mansour’s second brother, Rahim. Qeysar finds him in a slaughterhouse and kills him, disposing of his body amongst the slaughtered meat.

After Qeysar successfully kills his first two targets, he meets with his lover, Azam. She is shy, modest, emotional, and obedient, and serves Qeysar in an almost overly exaggerated performance of traditional gender expectations. They then discuss their relationship, marriage, and future, until Qeysar dramatically reveals his belief that any further relationship with Azam would harm his quest for revenge. He then sets off to find Mansour, who, afraid for his life, has gone into hiding.

Qeysar hears that Mansour had been dating a woman named Soheila, who performs as a singer and dancer at a cafe. Soheila, with her scantily clad clothing and hip-gyrating dance moves, is more than just Mansour’s girlfriend. She represents lust, not only sexually, but also in the sense that Qeysar’s obsession with divine revenge has turned lustful and unholy. Through the pursuit of divine justice, Soheila represents how even a divine quest can become corrupted. Soheila exudes confidence and sexuality. She commands the stage in front of a mixed audience of men and women, she teases the male members of her band, and after the show, she invites Qeysar back to her apartment where she lives alone. She then removes her clothing as Qeysar sits uncomfortably in her bed. Through Soheila’s character, Kimiai is asking the viewer to engage in self-conversation. The viewer is faced with questions of Iranian identity, and is forced to circumstantiate female liberation and changing gender roles within the context of conservative tradition, patriarchy, and Pahlavi-sponsored modernity and globalization.

 

screenshot: Qeysar (1969)

 

Blake Atwood points out the drastic differences between the two main female characters in this film, Azam and Soheila, and how Qeysar interacts with them differently. Not only are there differences between the physical spaces they occupy (Azam in the home with her family and Soheila at a nightclub), there are differences in how Kimiai chose to film the two characters. In Qeysar’s interactions with Azam, the camera does not show her standing over Qeysar. However, with Soheila, the camera is placed at a low angle to give the perspective of Soheila towering over Qeysar, which fits perfectly with her commanding, confident presence. With Azam, Qeysar is clearly comfortable in the role in which he plays. He is attracted to her chasteness and her obedience. When Soheila brings Qeysar back to her apartment, however, he looks utterly confused, uncomfortable, and emasculated. Atwood argues that the female characters in the film absolutely demonstrate the changing roles of women in society, and that Kimiai’s subtle choices in cinematography also provide an opportunity for the film to reflect on how those changes affected men in their own confidence, sexuality, and demeanor (Atwood, 106).

The next morning, after finally finding out from Soheila of Mansour’s whereabouts, he tracks him down in an old railcar depository and the final battle ensues. Qeysar is wounded by Mansour, but he persists, eventually finding him and killing him. The police encircle Qeysar’s hideout and the movie ends, leaving the viewers unsure of Qeysar’s fate.

Although we are unsure about whether or not Qeysar is found by the police, the viewers are left feeling confused. Was it worth it for Qeysar to leave his family and loved ones, corrupt himself by the sexual advances of a modern woman, and kill three people to avenge the rape and murder of his two siblings? Just as early Muslim theologians and jurists debated essential questions of justice, forgiveness, and mercy, the director continues this ancient dialogue through this film. In Qeysar the viewer is forced to confront and struggle with some of the most essential elements of Islam, such as justice and forgiveness. Qeysar is also political commentary; it is an attempt to showcase a neglected portion of Iranian society, the urban poor, and their search for identity and purpose within the context of Persian tradition, Pahlavi modernization, and the forces of global capitalism.

Late 1970s and Pre-Revolution: Gozaresh (The Report), 1978

After its rebirth in the mid 1960s, Iranian cinema began to blossom in the years leading up the Islamic revolution. At this point, Iranian directors and cinematographers had created a distinct style and had expanded Iran’s influence to the global stage. By the late 70s, Tehran was regional hub with many institutions that made cinema much more accessible than it had been in the past. In addition to the many movie theaters and film festivals all over the country, at this point in time Iranian film schools had been producing graduates who would go on to contribute to the industry. One of the most important institutions of the era was the Cinemay e-Azad or “Free Cinema,” formed by a group of young Iranian film students who were interested in screening experimental films and avante-garde projects. Eventually, they would go on to participate in each others’ films, and the movement would spread across the country (Parhami). Another institution of great importance was the “Institution for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults,” which provided a space for youth to develop their interests in many academic pursuits, including film. One of the many products of this institution was Abbas Kiarostami, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated Iranian directors of all time.

I decided to screen the film Gozaresh (The Report), released in 1978, partly because it is Abbas Kiarostami’s first ever feature film, partly because it was one of the last films to be screened in Tehran before the Islamic revolution of 1979, and partly for its ability to give a glimpse into some of the most pressing social issues and struggles faced by Iranian society pre-revolution. Additionally, it will be interesting to examine how Kiarostami’s style changes over time. Through Gozaresh and then later through A Taste of Cherry, we can attempt to speculate on how much of his stylistic changes were due to a change in regime and how much were simply due to his maturation as a filmmaker.

Gorazesh is a film about the struggles of monotony – at work, with friends, and at home. In Gorazesh, Kiarostami paints a very gloomy picture of a life without meaning. The protagonist, Mohammad Firouzkouhi, works as an assistant in a government tax collection office. He is a depressing man who exudes apathy. From the beginning, the viewer is immediately set aback by his pettiness. His unwillingness to give an older man at his job an extra 2 tomans for a glass that he broke shows his basic lack of respect for someone who is both older and poorer than he is. This goes directly against a core tenet of Islam, that one’s debt must be repaid fully for there to be justice. It is clear from the very beginning of the film that Firouzkouhi has no sense of morality or ethics.

We then get a picture of Firouzkouhi’s home life and his relationship with his wife (also named Azam). Their relationship is void of any intimacy and love. It seems as if they are only together because of their young daughter, who, although she definitely receives the most affection from Firouzkouhi, even she is not immune to his apathy and lack of intimacy. His relationships with his friends are no different. In the beginning of the movie, we see Firouzkouhi and his friends sitting around a table, drinking alcohol, smoking, listening to music – all unacceptable activities according to traditional society. Firouzkouhi seems hollow in his interactions with his coworkers. It becomes clear that he is more interested in maintaining his relationships for the purpose of his career prospects than for the friendships himself.

 

screenshot: Gozaresh (1978)

 

When Firouzkouhi is accused of bribery, he immediately denies it, and his accuser gives a passionate soliloquy summarizing his accusation. It is interesting how Firouzkouhi and the older man converse with each other. When his accuser attempts to make Firouzkouhi swear on the holy Qur’an that he did not ask for a bribe, he snaps back at him, saying “You’re not worthy of swearing on the Holy Book,” an insult to the man’s social status and his religiosity. The entire scene not only is a criticism of corruption in the Pahlavi bureaucracy, but is a dialogue between the forces of faith and atheism. One could argue that Firouzkouhi’s apathy and disinterest in morality and ethics can be traced back to his distance from religion and entrenchedness in the vanity of modernity.

As the movie continues, Firouzkouhi’s relationships deteriorate. This culminates with a scene of an argument between Firouzkouhi and his wife, in which she attempts to pack up her stuff and leave the house. In response, he beats her. He then leaves with his daughter and goes to a little bistro to eat a sandwich and drink a beer. During this scene, Kiarostami again puts the apathy and shallowness of Firouzkouhi in direct contention and conversation with piety and morality. His face is expressionless and bleak as he listens to a conversation between men about money and ethics. At one point, one of the men says, “Do you really think that money is worth the degradation it brings? Fame is only good if it comes with honor.” It is also interesting to note that this scene provides a very special visual representation of Iranian life pre-revolution. Parisa Hakim writes:

“It should be noted that, during the making of Gozaresh (or writing its scenario), Kiarostami could not have been thinking that he is realistically recording things and activities that are going to become illegal. Yet, being aware of what has happened in the country during the forty years since the making of this movie, as we watch Gozaresh today it gives a sense of being loyal to the historical specifications of the period in which it was made” (Hakim).

When Firouzkouhi returns home, he realizes that his wife has attempted suicide. He rushes her to the hospital. The doctor at the hospital explains that this is a common occurrence, and that the nurses there have plenty of experience with this type of situation. He instructs one of the nurses to “do the usual,” and then leaves. This, again, is a subtle suggestion that the bland reality in which people lived under in that era of Iranian society contributed to these sorts of tragedies, such as intimate partner violence and suicide. Early the next morning, Azam begins to awaken and makes fleeting eye contact with her husband. After he becomes aware that his wife will survive, he gets up and leaves the hospital.

 

screenshot: Gozaresh (1978)

 

Gozaresh is more than just visual documentation of life right before the revolution. In a sharp contrast with glorified orientalist ideals of Iran under the rule of the Shah, Gozaresh paints a bleak picture of the meaninglessness of life as a result of modernity and distance from religion, culture, and history. Abbas Kiarostami colorfully portrays the colorlessness of the mundane reality and bureaucracy as part of the Pahlavi modernization project. He shows the pressure to adhere to the societal expectation of one’s role as a spouse or employee, ultimately painting a sad picture of the banality of existence.

 

Post Revolution: A Taste of Cherry, 1997

The Islamic revolution of 1979 brought sweeping changes to just about every aspect of Iranian society, including its cinema. There had always been tension between the Shi’a Ulema and the arts; clerics naturally viewed cinema with suspicion, considering it an “ideological apparatus imported from the west by a despotic regime” (Tapper, 5). That being said, many revolutionaries recognized cinema’s potential to aid the revolutionary cause and help build a more just society. This is expressed well in the words of Ayatollah Khomeini himself:

“We are not opposed to cinema, to radio, or to television… The cinema is a modern invention that ought to be used for the sake of educating the people, but as you know, it was used instead to corrupt our youth. It is the misuse of cinema that we are opposed to, a misuse caused by the treacherous policies of our rulers” (Khomeini, 258).

It is safe to say that leading directors and cinematographers faced an unclear future after the revolution, but those who would stay would help reform the country’s cinema alongside many other national institutions, and help move Iran into its next stage of cinematic development. Although the new rulers of Iran would Islamize cinema, both filmmakers and audiences would learn to adapt and work within the system in which they were given, although navigating state censorship would drastically curtail the freedom to express “non-Islamic” ideas or relationships. At least in the early years, directors would avoid portraying women at all, as any eye contact with the camera would be subject to censorship and could delay the production of a film. That being said, directors evolved, survived, and continued to produce films that would engage in important critical conversation of Iranian society, despite the new regime’s censors.

I decided to screen Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry because of the somewhat taboo subject of the movie, suicide. I wanted to engage with how Kiarostami’s style had changed post-revolution and how Kiarostami could navigate such a taboo subject as well as engage in sociopolitical critique under censorship. Despite obstacles, Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. This minimalist film follows a man known as Mr. Badii as he drives around the dusty outskirts of Tehran as he looks for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. The film is a philosophical exploration of the meaning of life and death. It explores the nature and disposition of reality. It engages with certain paradoxes within Islam, such as the reconciliation between one’s duty to bury the dead and the forbidden nature of taking one’s life. Kiarostami plays with time and space, as he places discussions of the linear nature of time and life on top of the curvy, cyclical, seemingly never ending hills of the outskirts of Tehran.

 

screenshot: A Taste of Cherry (1997)

 

The film follows Mr. Badii as he drives around aimlessly and picks up three people, a Kurdish soldier, an Afghani seminary student, and a Turkish museum taxidermist. His conversations with each of these three people show a cross section of Iranian society; as he discusses the job he is asking with each of them, we learn about different perspectives that may go along with age, ethnicity, and level of religiosity. The young Kurdish soldier is made so uncomfortable by his request that he jumps out of the car and runs back to his base. The Afghani seminary student gives the Islamic perspective on suicide, explaining that it goes against God’s will to take someone’s life and decines Mr. Badii’s request. His third discussion is with an older man of Turkish background. He reveals his own struggle with depression and suicide, as well as his healing process and coping mechanisms. He challenges Mr. Badii to reconsider his decision, telling him his story of how he discovered the beauty of God’s bounty by means of a mulberry (toot). However, he eventually accepts Mr. Badii’s offer and agrees to do the job in order to pay for his sick daughter’s medical bills.

The use of Ironic contradiction throughout the film is directly related to the sociopolitical reality at that time. There is tension, throughout the entire film, between the stated wants and desires of Mr. Badii and his actions. For example, when he finishes his conversation with the Afghani seminary student, the student invites him to have some eggs that his friend just finished cooking. Mr. Badii responds, “Thank you! I know he’s prepared food but eggs are bad for me. Some other time! Goodbye!” His concern for his immediate health directly contradicts his upcoming plans to take his own life. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the film’s linear, narrative structure is overlaid intentionally on a visual structure dominated by the cyclical, circular movement of Mr. Badii’s Range Rover. At one point, the Turkish taxidermist says, “Life is like a train that keeps moving forward, and then reaches the end of the line, the terminal. And death waits at the terminal.” Blake Atwood comments on the overlapping visual and narrative structures: “The character’s use of a transportation metaphor forces us to compare the linearity of life/death with the car’s dizzying turns, which scratch circles onto the films dusty landscape” (Atwood, 105).

 

screenshot: A Taste of Cherry (1997)

 

Atwood then argues that these contradictions are directly representative of the sociopolitical contradictions of Mohammad Khatami’s reformist movement of the late 1990s. Khatami promised to adhere to the rule of law, civil society, and democratic principles, while at the same time functioning under a system which limited participation in democracy and civil society to those who passed a “strict loyalty test” (Tabari, 112). In essence, A Taste of Cherry is a representation of the challenges of adhering to the principles of revolutionary Islam while fighting against the stagnation that plagued the late 1990’s. The cyclical juxtaposed with the linear would be themes of both Khatami’s promises and Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry. Atwood writes:

“Khatami’s promise to pay homage to the revolution of 1978-1979 while also moving the country forward appealed especially to the sense of stagnation and revolutionary discontent that had come to a head in the country by the late 1990’s. Taste of Cherry conveys this sense of stagnation while attempting to navigate through it. Like the reformist movement in 1997, the film represents the challenges of overcoming history while maintaining hope for the future” (Atwood, 106).

At the end of the film, after Mr. Badii confirms with the taxidermist the logistics of his plans, the viewer sees Mr. Badii through the window of his apartment, although the viewer is unsure of whether or not he is actually going through with his plan of swallowing pills. He then arrives at the site of his burial, and descends into the grave. The darkness swallows him, and the sound of lightning and rain fill the viewer’s ears. Instead of ending the film, Kiarostami switches to grainy, green, digital shots of himself and his own production team. The viewer sees the actor who portrayed Mr. Badii walk across the screen and offer a cameraman a cigarette. Why end the film in this way? Some argue that this was purely a means of navigating a government censor, and affirming to the audience that this was not a film promoting suicide. However, others look at the coda with a more nuanced approach. Atwood argues that the coda is an attempt by Kiarostami to draw attention to the camera’s delicate position between fiction and reality (Atwood, 105). The coda seems to serve as a bridge between the ideas expressed in the film and the current reality of Iranian life and society.

 

screenshot: A Taste of Cherry (1997)

 

Hamid Dabashi chooses to focus more on the content of Kiarostami’s narrative. Regardless of the sociopolitical context, and focusing exclusively on the discussion of life, death, and reality, he writes, “Inheriting this lyrical gift to see beauty and life in the midst of the unbearable inevitability of being, Kiarostami is the first visual poet of his nation” (Dabashi, 75).

 

Contemporary Iranian Cinema: A Separation, 2011

Contemporary Iranian cinema expands on the changes of the late 1990’s. Filmmakers have continued to produce works of art that – within the confines of state censors – successfully make meaningful commentary on the nuances of life under the Islamic regime. For this time period, I decided to screen A Separation by Asghar Farhadi.

A Separation is a tragic tale that follows characters from a cross section of modern day Iranian society caught up with conflicting morals and values, yet who are all striving to act righteously. The main character, Nader, is a moderate Muslim who lives with his wife, Simin, and his 11 year old daughter Termeh. He takes care of his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s and is incapable of taking care of himself. When Simin challenges him to relocate abroad in for the sake of providing a better future for their daughter, Nader refuses, as he feels he has a responsibility to take care of his father. As a result, Simin sues Nader for a divorce. This is the first scenario of how both Nader and Simin believe they are doing the right thing within the societal and religious structures under which they live.

 

screenshot: A Separation (2011)

 

Simin then moves to her mother’s house. Unable to take care of his father on his own, Nader hires a houseworker, Razieh. Despite her pregnancy and her very conservative husband Hodjat, she commutes and hour and a half each direction on public transit to earn extra money for her impoverished household. She struggles in the secular reality of Nader’s household. At one point, Razieh is forced with the decision of whether or not to change the old man’s soiled underwear, she is torn between the confines of her religion and the necessity of taking care of an old man in need of help. This is representative of the many gray areas of religious law, and as example of how righteousness can be hard to define.

As the film progresses, bad situations turn worse. At one point, Razieh attempts to keep the elderly man from wandering and escaping from the apartment by tying him to his bed. When Nader returns to find his father tied to his bed, he lashes out at Razieh and forcefully throws her out of his house causing the pregnant Razieh to fall down the stairs. She later suffers a miscarriage, but it is unclear whether or not it was caused by Nader, her potentially abusive husband, or an injury she suffered earlier that day while chasing Nader’s father into the street. Eventually, Razieh’s doubts prevail and Nader is absolved of his murder charge. Upon the film’s end, the viewer is left equally as confused as the characters about whether justice had or had not been served.

 

screenshot: A Separation (2011)

 

The film expresses the confusing nature of attempting to search for justice under blurry circumstances. In addition, it critiques the bureaucratized Iranian religious court system itself, showcasing the impossibility of justice strictly under religious law. It also critiques the class differences between the elitist, wealthy, secular world of Nader and Simin and the marginalized, yet self-righteous religious world of Razieh and Hodjat. Commenting on the complexity of the film, Lee Marshall writes:

“Showing a control of investigative pacing that recalls classic Hitchcock and a feel for ethical nuance that is all his own, Farhadi has hit upon a story that is not only about men and women, children and parents, justice and religion in today’s Iran, but that raises complex and globally relevant questions of responsibility, of the subjectivity and contingency of “telling the truth”, and of how thin the line can be between inflexibility and pride – especially of the male variety – and selfishness and tyranny” (Marshall).

A Separation represents the culmination of the history of Iranian film. It is dark, dramatic, and filled with passion like the films of the 1960s and 1970s, yet it is self-aware and critical like the films of the 1990s post-revolution. It builds off the work of Masoud Kimiai and Abbas Kiarostami in their attempts to navigate the complicated nature of Iranian identity and reality and the struggle for morality and justice within the constraints of whatever regime people are living under. It is not overtly critical of the government, much in the spirit of all of its predecessors, yet it still makes important commentary on the nature of religious and class differences, state institutions, and gender. A Separation should be celebrated for what it is, a film that tackles questions of morality and ethics that have been around for centuries of Islamic discourse within a 21st century framework, and a film that has thrust Iranian film to the center stage at the current day, which is not at all disconnected with its rich literary and artistic tradition of the past.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Dabashi, Hamid. Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future. Verso. 2001. print.

Mehrabi, Massoud. “The History of Iranian Cinema, Part One.” http://www.massoudmehrabi.com/articles.asp?id=1414606616. web.

Parhami, Shahin. “Iranian Cinema: Before the Revolution.” Offscreen, vol 3, iss. 2. 1999. web

Tapper, Richard. The New Iranian Cinema, Politics, Representation, and Identity. IB Taurus Publishers. 2002. print.

Sadr, Hamid Reza. “Iranian Cinema, A Political History.” IB Tauris. 2006. print

Atwood, Blake. Reform Cinema in Iran, Film and Political Change in the Islamic Republic. Columbia University Press. 2016. print.

Parisa Hakim, “In Search of the Details of a Lost Time: The Case of Kiarostami’s The Report,” Offscreen: the Experience of Cinema, vol. 21 iss. 7, July 2017. web.

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Hamid Algar (trans.) Berkeley, Mizan Press. 1981. print.

Tabari, Keyvan. “The Rule of Law and the Politics of Reform in Post-Revolutionary Iran.” International Sociology 18, no I (March 2003): print.

Marshall, Lee. “Nader And Simin – A Separation.” Screendaily.com. February 2011. https://www.screendaily.com/reviews/latest-reviews/nader-and-simin-a-separation/5023837.article. web.

Mahallati, Jafar. Class Lectures. September – December 2017