In Iranian film ‘A Separation’ the personal is political

Iranian film A Separation, now playing in Seattle at the Egyptian, has been met with almost freakish levels of acclaim: Its scored 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, has been almost universally praised by critics, and is up for two Oscars.

If you’re groaning a little inside imagining a foreign film that everybody loved because they felt like they should, stop right there.

Alongside the 2009 French film A Prophetits probably the best foreign movie I’ve ever seen. But really, neither needs the qualifier; they’re two of the best films I’ve ever seen, period.

I wasn’t surprised to find out that A Separation writer/director Ashgar Farahdi has a background in theatre. His film is raw human interaction, stripped of showy scenery or soundtrack.

Early in the film, Simin (played by Iranian star Leila Hatami) appeals in front of a faceless bureaucrat for a divorce from her husband Nader. The stage is set for a heavy handed indictment of the Iranian theocracy. But when things begin to fall apart, the collapse isn’t so much driven by the inflexible, moralizing arm of the state, as it is by individual characters’ religious dogma, personal sense of justice, and pride.

At every point you might expect A Separation to devolve into the clichés, about domestic abuse, or religion, or political persecution, it takes a less expected turn, underscoring the message that human motivations are ultimately the same, and ultimately, in any setting, tragic.


The story could really take place anywhere so the fact that was shot in Tehran is just a bonus for voyeurs like me, desperate for whatever glimpse I can get into a nation that is all but blacked out due to our governments’ political rivalry.

We do get a surprising look into Iranian court system, with its intimate, immediate judgements, showing just how intertwined the personal and political are in Iran.

But there’s a lot for American’s to relate to here as well. At first I thought the movie was making some sort of Rick Santorum-esque point that all  suffering begins with the breakdown of the family structure. If Simin hadn’t asked for a divorce, none of this would have ever happened.

Iranians aren’t the only ones struggling with strict political and religious restrictions placed over their lives. Many Americans should be able to relate to this problem themselves. In fact, those themes are reminiscent of the documentary film I’m currently directing (and shamelessly plugging here — check out the kickstarter!) about a man accused of terrorism in the United States.

But the theme in A Separation that I kept returning to, whether it was intended or not, was a metaphor for Iranian-American relations. The male characters, through wounded pride or ideological inflexibility, propel themselves toward Armageddon, in fits of righteous indignation and religious tantrums.

If you’ve been following the escalation over Iran’s nuclear programs, US sanctions and the Iranian threat of an oil blockade, you’ll see the parallels I’m talking about. The possible terrifying outcome is that in our American pride and insistence that we are ever right, sensible and just, we will be unwilling to budge, and in doing so will bait our Iranian counterparts into a self-destructive act of vengeance.

Meanwhile, the rest of the members of the two feuding families in the film (read the Iranian and American people in my metaphor) would be perfectly capable of getting along–if given the chance–and all do their best to diffuse the conflict. Tragically, the intractability of our dispute may actually stem from the fact that our cultures and characters have so much in common. Its almost like we’re a dysfunctional family.

Go and see for your self and, whether or not you agree, you’ll probably fall down your own rabbit hole and read your own personal interests or issues into the film. The genius of A Separation is that it is a film that so perfectly captures the human condition you can read almost anything into it.

 

Alex is a cofounder and editor of The Seattle Globalist. He's a visual journalist whose work has been published by PBS, The Seattle Times, FRONTLINE/World and the Seattle Weekly.  Alex teaches journalism in the University of Washington's Department of Communication and recently directed the documentary film Barzan.

4 COMMENTS

  1. How right you are!
    As an Iranian living in Iran, I choose to fall down my own rabbit hole. To me ‘A Separation’ should be seen as an Iranian movie made under ‘Iranian circumstances’ as Simin would have put it. So the following hidden allegory makes my rabbit hole.

    In the opening scene, Nader says he does not want to leave Iran for many reasons and when challenged by Simin to name one, he mentions his father’s need for care and sympathy in the state he is in. To Simin this seems like an excuse. Nader, a man whose honesty and integrity is confirmed, should be seeking a better future for his family in the West, rather than stay behind, helping a father whose situation is hopeless because of Alzheimer’s. Then, as the argument builds up, we finally hear loud and clear the ‘Two World Views’ :
     
    Simin (Modern, pragmatic)- Does your father any longer know you are his son?
    Nader (Patriotic, principled)- But I know he is my father!
     
    The sick father, who no longer knows him but needs his love, his care and his protection so dearly and cannot be left behind in such a state, is of course IRAN! And of course, responsibility always falls on the side who knows.
    This interpretation is confirmed when Nader accuses Simin, in a later scene, that she has always been weak and tried to escape when conditions get tough, whereas one has to stand up and face the challenges ahead,………….economic sanctions or worse!

  2. How right you are!
    As an Iranian living in Iran, I choose to fall down my own rabbit hole. To me ‘A Separation’ should be seen as an Iranian movie made under ‘Iranian circumstances’ as Simin would have put it. So the following hidden allegory makes my rabbit hole.

    In the opening scene, Nader says he does not want to leave Iran for many reasons and when challenged by Simin to name one, he mentions his father’s need for care and sympathy in the state he is in. To Simin this seems like an excuse. Nader, a man whose honesty and integrity is confirmed, should be seeking a better future for his family in the West, rather than stay behind, helping a father whose situation is hopeless because of Alzheimer’s. Then, as the argument builds up, we finally hear loud and clear the ‘Two World Views’ :
     
    Simin (Modern, pragmatic)- Does your father any longer know you are his son?
    Nader (Patriotic, principled)- But I know he is my father!
     
    The sick father, who no longer knows him but needs his love, his care and his protection so dearly and cannot be left behind in such a state, is of course IRAN! And of course, responsibility always falls on the side who knows.
    This interpretation is confirmed when Nader accuses Simin, in a later scene, that she has always been weak and tried to escape when conditions get tough, whereas one has to stand up and face the challenges ahead,………….economic sanctions or worse!

  3. Saw the film last night. Still trying to get a handle on which character I most sympathize with. The genius of this film is that you sympathize with them all as they wrestle with their own needs and problems. No one is right, but they are all real. Where is the cardboard cut-out “bad guy?” Why won’t the film maker make this Santorum-simple for me? Even the judge is trying to do a good job within the framework of Iran’s versions of mandatory sentencing guidelines and 3 strikes-you’re-out. Before we bomb Iran, it would be good for the politicians to take this look into the lives of these people. Harder to think of them all as intractable Muslim terrorists living in caves.

  4. Saw the film last night. Still trying to get a handle on which character I most sympathize with. The genius of this film is that you sympathize with them all as they wrestle with their own needs and problems. No one is right, but they are all real. Where is the cardboard cut-out “bad guy?” Why won’t the film maker make this Santorum-simple for me? Even the judge is trying to do a good job within the framework of Iran’s versions of mandatory sentencing guidelines and 3 strikes-you’re-out. Before we bomb Iran, it would be good for the politicians to take this look into the lives of these people. Harder to think of them all as intractable Muslim terrorists living in caves.

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