A Separation (Jodaeye Nader az Simir) Ashgar Farhadi (Iran 2011)
Peyman Moaadi; Leila Hatami; Saret Bayat
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 5 July 2011; ticket £7.95
Filmed from within the machine
Opening shots in a film can work in many different ways: to establish a geography, to set a mood and sometimes as is the case with a Separation (aS) to anticipate something about the substantive theme of the movie. A pre-emptive distillation of the thought processes that have moulded the expressive devices set in play.
Ashgar Faradis (AF), writer director of aS opens his film with a shot from the interior glass surface of a photocopier. Identity documents are being copied prior to the divorce hearing of Nader and Simir. We watch from within the closed lid of the machine and see their ID papers brilliantly illuminated for a moment before being caste into darkness and the top opened and another document inserted to replace the one that has been copied. We are in close contact with the process of replication: an imperfect business. AF in choosing to open with this shot, indicates this interior type of space is where his film will work: very personal intimate, close, constrained and focused on process. aS is a film concerned with processes particularly those used by the social machine to replicate itself and how replication both breaks up and breaks down. aS is a film from within the machine. It is a film not about image but about being, not about facts but about states of mind.
The situation – the thesis or proposition – created by AF is that the couple Nader and Simir want to divorce. She has an opportunity to leave Iran (the movie is interestingly vague about this) and wants to take her daughter with her. Nader her husband doesn’t want to go abroad as he says he has to stay to look after his elderly father who has Alzheimer’s. He prefers his daughter to stay with him. Simir and Nader have no wish to divorce other than their incompatible view of the future. Played and grounded in the present the actual, the film is directed towards the future. It is a discourse about what might be: the possible and the putative.
The film’s story develops round a hired woman helper who is paid to look after Nader’s father whilst he is at work. The story, strong as it is, is simply the basis for allegorical laminations that AF lays over the surface of his material. The presenting domestic situation is richly layered with embedded readings that give the situation significance beyond the mechanics of the script. The layers of meaning suggested by AF develop into a satiric moral critique of the Iranian social system in the Islamic republic. The power of AF’s satiric critique lies in the fact that it is not simplistic. The story’s matrix with its religious, social moral, gender and class elements allows AF to portray the complexity of Iranian society and all its uncertainties. But centred on Nader’s old father with Alzheimer’s, the allegorical core of the movie remains solid. The Alzheimer sufferer is reduced to being a body without a brain. As we watch the film and see the mechanisms of power in this society, the thought occurs that this society is also a body without a brain, or a brain that has long ceased to function. As we watch the father in his terrible condition, it is he around whom life, both real and psychic, revolves. He is the centre of the family. There is an interchange between wife and husband:
“He doesn’t know you’re his son.”
“I know he is my father!”
In Iran, no matter how dysfunctional and inadequate the power system may be, no matter how unfit it may be for a technologically based society, the people are in thrall to a brain dead patriarchy that holds onto and controls the relations of power. It is incapable of relinquishing power or hearing seeing and understanding real change in social relations. Power, and its replicants repeat traditional catch phrases and shibboleths to justify and enforce its decisions and to maintain its hold on life. The men are obedience mechanisms in thrall to the belief systems of their fathers. What is significant in the AF’s film is that his moral critique is not one sidedly directed at the men. The women too are implicated in the sustenance of a failed ideology, they too are nervous of change in the public realms. Unable to change, to take responsibility for a different and non-submissive role for women they too become dead. Men and women are in this society together. A heavy dead hand lies over this land.
Gender relations are at central to the film’s concerns, but by no means its only focus. Class plays a pivotal part in the narrative, and AF understands that there are two classes in Iran: the educated predominantly urban strata, and the uneducated rural and urban proletariat. The former committed to change, the latter resistant in part because they believe the current power relations protect them from the middle classes. The implication is that if the forces for change are to prevail they must also understand that they have take responsibility for just relations between the classes.
Although it starts with a situation, a proposition, aS is a film about process. All through the film, in the person of the daughter, Termeh, there is the idea of potentiality. In her presence there is process. There is movement towards the idea the thought, the possibility, of a different relationship between men and women, a different relation between classes people and their society, other than that governed by the strictures of an authoritarian religious tradition. AF recognises the breadth of social relations and incorporates class religion and state institutions into the script, satirising them but also acknowledging that through the mediation of individuals that they can bring something unique and of value to Iranian society. AF’s does not use a one colour palette; he understands and honours complexity, even when working in an allegorical language. As the film develops and deepens in its allegorical play it becomes clear that the central protagonist is Termeh because it is she who will be called on by the future to make choices. In her is potential and through her aS becomes a statement of positive intent.
aS is shot in an explicit stylised manner which gives filmic context to its allegorical form. The camera work creates another lamination laid over the story through which the allegorical heart of the film is transposed onto the visual look of the film. The shots, all hand held, are composed so that a world is created where there is no perspective, no depth of field no field of vision. It is a world of intersecting focused and of out of focus planes. A world which is like a thought experiment in which there are only near sighted people: no one has long vision. Through AF’s camera the world is realised as series of flattened surfaces. A world inhabited and occupied by figures moving at speed through intense domestic or institutional situations against the flattened plane of their existence. aS communicates optically a world of insistent endless agitation in which the business of living life or answering to life squeezes the energy out of people. The camera, the editing indicates that there is no time to stop or to be: there is only time to react to whatever it is a situation demands. The scenes at the family home, the corridors of power the hospital and the court are all filmed as a chaos of movement. In seeing this you understand that just to survive in this city (Tehran) is achievement.
But in as much as the filmic quality creates this world of relentless demands, the structure also allows for the possibility of stopping. In the case of Simir it is clear that, bound up in the contradictions of the culture, that she has stopped and she wants to get out. But to get out is to abrogate responsibility The daughter, witness and observer of the madness of domestic situation also slows down and starts to ask the questions that relate to being not doing. As she questions her father about the madness of the events that have overwhelmed him, you know that something has happened to her. She has stopped and begun to think. She has moved outside the agitation machine become a completely different type of possibility. And the last scene where we wait with her parents for her decision, the film becomes a complete opening up of her potential. For otherwise what would be the point?
Central to aS as an allegorically contextualised satire is the nature and quality of the acting. The acting takes its cue from the situation (s) not from the emotionally charged imputed feelings of individuals in their situations. In aS the actors’ first duty is to their situation in the Brechtian understanding of the demands of drama. The work of the actor is not to indulge emotive charges but to work through process. The intensity of the processes set in play by AF requires a disciplined approach to the material by the actors for the issues in the film to retain their clarity and dignity. Within this paradigm the performances are finely tuned to this end, filled out with situational intensity but not bloated and distorted by emotive overloading of affect.
AF is I think a film maker who in the form and concerns of his work carries forward the particular powerful voice of Iranian film.