Thursday, January 20th, 2022
Asghar Farhadi on his new film ‘A Hero’
An Exploration of Class
Jan 20, 2022
By Kyle Mullin
It’s like a plot twist in one of his intricately written dramas. Asghar Farhadi is in the midst of a social media uproar, while promoting his new film about a man fending off even harsher online smears. The irony is not lost on the two-time Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, who first gained world renown a decade ago with A Separation through which he unflinchingly depicted class chasms and dysfunctional court systems, among other issues, in his homeland.
Similarly subtle, yet sharp, societal critiques abound in his new movie, A Hero. Its focus: one of the draconian debt prisons particular to Iran, where the charismatic, ceaselessly sheepish grinning Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is serving a sentence. When he seeks out the owner of lost gold coins found by his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust, ever devoted and heartfelt), rather than repay his Dickens-novel-worthy creditor (played by Mohsen Tanabandeh), the incarcerated and indebted Rahim becomes an instant social media celebrity. But because this is a Farhadi movie — where each character harbors moral multitudes, and even their slightest decision can reverberate into unspeakable tragedies — it doesn’t take long for the commenting mob to turn on Rahim, while the audience is tempted to do the same.
Farhadi’s social media snafu might have had lower personal stakes, but its ripple effect is even more telling than the nuanced class critique in his film. On Nov. 17 he dropped all subtly and, via Instagram, called for notoriously oppressive Iranian officials to withdraw A Hero from consideration for the Academy Awards for Best International Feature and Best Foreign Language Film after an anonymous critic called him “pro-government.” In his post Farhadi added (per a translation from Vulture): “If I have so far remained silent on the persecutions you have inflicted on me, it is only because I have wanted to concentrate on my work… If your introduction of my film for the Oscars has led you to the conclusion that I am in your debt, I am explicitly declaring now that I have no problem with you reversing this decision.”
During a Zoom interview with Under the Radar ahead of A Hero’s Jan 21 Amazon Prime streaming debut, Farhadi frankly answered questions about the Instagram controversy, filmmaking under the tyrannical Iranian regime, and the class commentary in A Hero. Although a translator was on hand to relay Farhadi’s answers from Persian to English, the reverse was not needed. Instead, he nodded and quickly replied to even the most sophisticated of queries. His eyes remained piercingly engaged from behind dark rimmed glasses that complimented his professorial salt and pepper beard, the latter creasing with a warmly eager grin as he considered the parallels between his new movie and one of cinema’s early classics, along with overlaps between Rahim and an equally embattled character from A Separation, and more.
Under the Radar (Kyle Mullin): One of A Hero’s best scenes occurs midway, when Rahim and his son seek out the owner of the once lost gold coins, almost as if they were gumshoe sleuths. Are you a fan of classic detective capers or early film noir? And if so, did any such works inform that scene?
Asghar Farhadi: I can’t say there was a detective film that directly influenced this work. But when I watched the film myself, it reminds me of The Bicycle Thief. In that film there is a son and father looking for the thieves of their bicycle. It feels like a detective story as well.
At one point in the movie Rahim says “They’re saying I lied. I didn’t.” And another character tells him: “But you didn’t tell the truth.” Please tell me about the significance of that dialogue, and any inspirations for it. This is a very strange point: sometimes people don’t say a lie, but they don’t say the whole truth either. And when you don’t say the whole truth, it feels like you’re lying. It seems the border between a lie and the truth is not that sharp and clear. It feels very fluid. A lot of the misunderstanding comes from those fluid, out-of-focus parts. Because in Rahim’s head, he hasn’t lied at all. Other people might agree, but still think he didn’t tell the whole truth. And from an ethical point of view, we don’t know if what Rahim did was right or not, by not telling the whole truth.
And how was star Amir Jadidi effective at showing those nuances as an actor?
It was a very hard role for him, because he had to act as a simple man in a complex situation. One thing I told him: maybe it’s as if his character wants to say and do a lot of things, but he doesn’t do them because of what others will say. So he has double personalities; Inside he is full of fire, but outside he appears very calm. We did a lot of rehearsal for this character. I think he was a talented actor who made this character come alive. He himself is very different from the character.
First of all, he has a very strong character. He’s active, not passive at all. He’s a professional tennis player and has a very fit body. And from being that person, he came down and got to the fragile, unfortunate character of Rahim.
You mentioned there was a lot of rehearsal for this character. Your rehearsal process is actually famous for being extensive, and allowing the casts of your films to develop backstories as they workshop. How is that process beneficial?
Because I come to cinema from the theatre, I am used to that kind of rehearsal, that ritual. So rehearsal doesn’t mean sitting down and reading the script. We put it to the side. And it depends on the actors, because we have to work differently with each of them. We want some of them to get close to the physicality of the character. And some of them, you have to work on their mentality. Then all of these things get together, and you can start to work on backstories. This process helps the directors more than the actors. It gives the director time to experiment with the ideas in his head, and see which is the best one.
Speaking of backstories: the character Hojjat from A Separation also had trouble with creditors and debt prison, albeit offscreen. It made me curious about what his difficulties were like. Did you see any interesting overlap between his character and Rahim?
These two characters are similar in some ways. They come from the same social class but they have a major difference: Hojjat doesn’t hide his anger. He doesn’t have a double face. He makes decisions very fast, actually. But Rahim hides his frustration behind a smile, though sometimes he shows his hidden face when he gets angry.
Another big difference between both movies is social media. It’s interesting how many movies show social media posts in graphics-heavy montages. You, however, only have the characters describe the posts.
One of the challenges, when social media became a big part of my story, was deciding how to show this. Because when you show social media in film, like a laptop screen in the cinematic frame, it gives me a bad feeling. Then I decided to just show the side effects of social media, rather than social media itself.
How did you feel about the reaction to your own recent social media post?
For anyone to understand what I wrote on Instagram, you have to be Iranian and really understand what’s going on in Iranian society. Therefore, this post was clear for Iranians, but for some people abroad it was confusing. But if I want to summarize it: I am a filmmaker and I am independent. I do not depend on any other place or institution.
What is it like to deal with that, when you are trying to focus on your art?
This is just part of my life now. Sometimes it takes energy from me, but I don’t want this to divert me from my path.
Does it offer you any special resilience or inspiration?
Sometimes it gives you motivation to do your work even better. But that doesn’t mean I want it to be like this. I really wish I could experience making movies and living life without it.