A brave movie from the country where they put filmmakers in jail | The Velvet Café

separation“How well will my movie make in the box office? Will it be enough for them to trust me to make another film?”

I imagine thoughts like this pop up in the mind of a film maker every now and then. Or, for the ones who are more artsy than market oriented:

“Will I get approval by the critic NN? Will it make a success at the festival circuit? Will my peers respect me?”

But there are places in the world where the questions are about something completely different:

“Will I get away with this? Will they allow it at all? Could I end up in a prison? Or if not – did I compromise too much, censoring myself?”

Filmmakers in prison
I thought about this as I watched the recent movie A Separation, which is made by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.

I don’t know what worries he’s been up to making the film, but I would be surprised if the process has been pain free. After all he lives in a country where movies are rigorously examined by authorities and you need a special beforehand permission for every piece of music you want to use.

Some Iranian filmmakers have fled the country. Others have been arrested, such as Jafar Panahi, who now is serving a six year prison punishment for daring to make movies that challenge the regime. He is forbidden to make any more movies, give any further interviews or to leave Iran for the next 20 years.

I don’t know how Fahadi got his film through the system, but I wonder what the Iranian government now makes of his success. A Separation has been widely praised by critics and was awarded at the Berlin festival earlier this year.

Are they proud and see it as a chance to give Iran some positive press? Or are they worried because it draws the attention of the world audience to the oppression and the poor circumstances that many people – particularly women – live under in Iran? If I were in their position I would be worried.

A political movie
At first sight A Separation doesn’t carry any political message. It begins as a story about a middle class couple in Iran that is going through a divorce. Simin, the woman, wants to leave the country. Nader refuses to do so since he wants to take care of his senile father who lives with them. And in the middle is their daughter who has ties to both parents and would rather not have to choose between them.

Nader hires a woman, Razieh, to help him to look after his father while he’s at work. One day something happens and Nader finds himself accused of having pushed Razieh to fall in the stairs in such a way that she had a miscarriage. Soon enough they’re in court, and that’s what most of the movie is about. It’s a court drama, alternated with images from the growing conflict between the two families involved.

I guess the political dimension isn’t too obvious (far from all reviews I’ve seen of the movie has even mentioned it), and perhaps that’s why it also has slipped under the radar of the authorities in Iran.

You could argue that it’s a movie about personal choices about individuals handling ethical dilemmas, universal issues of right and wrong that aren’t tied to a certain confession or ideology.

But for me it was most of all a reminder about how harsh it must be to live in Iran if you’re a secularized intellectual with a modern perspective on life.

Several critics have mentioned how it brings an updated image of how the middleclass live their lives in Iran of today. In some ways their lifestyle resembles a lot to the lifestyle of middleclass people anywhere in the world. They too are trying to bring their life puzzle together. They too heat their dinner in a microwave oven.

But it also shows something more. It shows a view on women that we left behind us hundreds if not thousands of years ago that is still in action. It shows laws that don’t make a lot of sense and an arbitrary court system. It shows a land ruled by rigorous religious beliefs, where human rights are put aside in the name of God.

Divorcing a country
I must admit to begin with I couldn’t quite understand why Simin insisted on having this divorce, why she was so desperate to leave Iran that she was ready to sacrifice her marriage and perhaps even the relationship to her daughter for it. It seemed a bit coldhearted and unreasonable, even selfish. But as the movie went by I changed as I started to see Iran through her eyes. I understood why she had to go, even if it was a decision that would give her pain. She wanted more out of life than she could get if she stayed, like so many other non religious Iranians who have seen no alternative but to choose the exile. We’re not just watching the he separation between a man and a woman; we’re also watching the separation from a country.

A few days have passed since I watched A Separation, but it keeps lingering in my mind, especially in the light of the destiny of Jafar Panahi. I had never heard of him before, but I learned about his case as I was doing a little research for this post.

Of course I’ve not been unaware of that there are countries where the right to free speech isn’t respected. However it isn’t something I usually pay a lot of thoughts, busy as I am with my own life. Aren’t we all? But the story about the filmmaker put in jail managed to break through my natural defense system against “misery of the world news”. I get equally angry and sad when I think about it.

As for the movie my biggest concerns are with the teenage daughter of Nader and Simin. Will she ever get to live in a country where she’s allowed to let her hair fly freely in the air? Where she can make the movie she wants to and use any music she likes without asking for permission?

There is no answer. But I know what I hope for.

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Asghar Farhadi, IR, 2011) My rating: 4/5

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