Such is the importance of language to Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi that he uses a translator when he conducts interviews in English. Not because he doesn’t speak or understand the language - indeed, he doesn’t use the translator for your questions - but because he wants his answers to be absolutely accurate for what he means to say, and he’s afraid his slightly-less-than fluent use of English could result in potentially damning imprecisions. It’s an exacting standard he maintains in his film making: Each of his six features runs as meticulously precise as a finely crafted Swiss watch.
His latest film, The Past, is another one of his delicate human mysteries, involving a man from Tehran returning to Paris in order to grant a divorce to his long-separated wife and her two children from a previous marriage, and the new relationship she has begun under difficult circumstances. True to form, Farhadi plays with our sympathies, giving each character his own understanding and justification for his actions. The result is complex and richly engrossing - amid a crowd of other excellent works, it was the single best thing I saw at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. In Toronto, Farhadi spoke with a small group of journalists and gently held forth, through his translator, on the subjects and experiences of his film making technique.
On making his new film in France, instead of Iran:
I didn’t make a decision to go; the story told me I had to go and make it there, because it’s about a man who travels a long distance from one place to another. Had I made this film in two towns in Iran, you could not have felt this distance. He had to travel a distance that could justify his being away for four years, but you could just as soon ask me why did I choose France rather than another country. When the subject of the story is about the past, obviously I had to find a city that smells of the past. Imagine if we had gone to Hong Kong to make this film? But Paris, like Rome, is a place where history is a living thing. The past is a living thing.
On the difference of making a film in Europe instead of Tehran:
I had much more facilities making a film in France. I had much more money and everything I wanted at my disposal, but when I came to France, I did not change as a filmmaker. I used the same methods as I did in Iran. I always use this as an example: For years and years, you’ve been walking on an unpaved road and once you go to a place that’s paved, you’re going to continue walking the same way. You’re not going to change the way you walk.
On his process working with actors:
What I try to do is to make them feel as if they are free to do whatever they want. In the rehearsals before the shooting starts, I give them this freedom to improvise. But when the filming starts, I do turn into a dictator, I have no other choice. Because the story is written in a very tight way, like chains connecting each other.
On the central mysteries in his films:
My films, in a way, are sort of a detective story, but you don’t see a detective in the film. Mostly, in a detective film, an event happens that the audience hasn’t seen, so the audience follows the detective to find out the mystery. So, for me, it’s the same thing: I show the mystery of the puzzle, but it’s the audience that is actually the detective, in order to find out what’s happening. [In The Past] there is not really a very big mystery, but we get different points of view of it, and that’s what makes it complex. Usually, we hear all this from the adults because they are trying to justify their responsibility in the situation, to make it less. But contrary to the children, and the teenager, what they are trying to justify adds to their responsibility for what has happened.
On writing realistic characters:
This is one of the most important things; I have faith in this, and I always try to maintain this kind of characterization. I don’t want to say that what everybody does is justified, and is right, but everybody has their own reasons for doing and acting the way they do. And in my films,I always give them a chance to justify their acts. In my older films, my characters think about [something] and then they act on that thought. But something I recently realized is that so many of the things we do, we just do it and then we think about it. And this makes the situation much more complex. Marie asks Ahmad to come to her house and not to go to a hotel, but she doesn’t even know why she’s asking this. It seems that she’s unaware of what she’s asking; it comes from her unconscious.
On the way that his films seem universal:
I think in different cultures, there are much more similarities than differences. One way to know our differences is to compare. When we compare, we only see the differences and that’s why they are always much more highlighted. Our lifestyles might be different but our emotional points are the same. Love everywhere is the same feeling. I can’t say someone falling in love in Japan is feeling any differently from someone experiencing it somewhere else. I base my stories on the similarities, not the differences.
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 02/28/2014
Print Headline: Director Farhadi translates The Past