Fest Traveler: Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Without a doubt, this is helmer-scribe Asghar Farhadi’s year. In February, his fifth feature “A Separation,” became the first Iranian film to nab Berlin’s Golden Bear.

A clear favorite of the Berlinale jury, the pic also claimed acting kudos for the male and female ensemble cast, which included Farhadi’s teen daughter Sarina. Meanwhile, back in Tehran, the drama collected a record seven prizes at the Fajr Film Festival.

Although the Iranian titles acclaimed at foreign fests have not always been popular in the domestic market or in arthouse distribution offshore, “Separation” bucks the trend. Since spring, the film has gone from strength to strength, approaching a million admissions in France and turning into a major hit at home, selling distribution rights in every territory and accumulating prestigious honors. Forthcoming Stateside via Sony Classics, it is the Islamic Republic’s candidate for the foreign-language film Oscar.

Farhadi, who is to receive Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year award at Abu Dhabi, is the perfect choice, says Variety international director Alberto Lopez. ” ‘A Separation’ is a shining testament to transcending borders and the power of cinema. Asghar Farhadi has created a universal and unforgettable story that lingers long in the memory.”

In telling the story of a secular middle-class family in the midst of upheaval that winds up in conflict with a poor religious family, the 39-year-old Farhadi shines a light on the complexities and contradictions of contempo Iranian society while incorporating issues of gender, class, justice, personal honor and wounded pride. Like Alfred Hitchcock, he takes advantage of situational suspense to ratchet up tension from scene to scene as new details emerge that change the tale’s moral perspective and shift viewers’ sympathies.

More importantly, in anatomizing his faceoff between modern beliefs and traditional practices Farhadi never passes judgment on any of his characters; instead, he allows the intricate twists and turns of the plot to call their positions into question.

He notes, “If you give an answer to your viewers, your film will simply finish in the movie theater. But when you pose questions, your film actually begins after people watch it … it continues inside the viewer.”

Farhadi also played with ambiguity instead of imposing answers in his earlier works, particularly in “About Elly” (2009). Those familiar with his previous films will also recognize how their themes are cleverly combined and reworked in “Separation”: the look at Islamic justice and forgiveness from “Beautiful City” (2004), the fraught middle-class marriage from “Fireworks Wednesday” (2006) and the difference in social mores across the class divide from “About Elly.”

Farhadi is one of the rare filmmakers able to realistically depict the urban middle and lower classes and elicit dramatic tension from their discordances. He relies on in-depth character development, precise casting, extensive rehearsals and perceptive thesping to achieve credible characters whose actions are always comprehensible and whose scripted dialogue comes across as real-speak.

Since his feature debut “Dancing in the Dust” (2003), Farhadi has gradually gathered a strong team of technicians around him, but “A Separation” marks his first collaboration with lenser Mahmud Kalari, Iran’s finest cinematographer. Together, they make the film as rich formally as it is on every other level. The use of interior space is particularly remarkable, with the central visual motif of open and closed doors integral to the plot. Sound, too, becomes crucial as Farhadi plays throughout with what is heard and not seen.

Farhadi’s psychologically complex and dramatically engrossing films are far more accessible than the highly symbolic works of some of his compatriots. They are also more meaningful than the sentimental, children-on-a-quest tales from Iran that found Western arthouse favor in the late 1990s.At a time in which harsh censorship has derailed the careers of so many Iranian artists, one can only hope that Farhadi’s clear-eyed look at his own culture will continue to be treasured at home as well as abroad.

He’s cognizant of the fine line he treads. After his Berlin win, he was asked to speak about the situation in Iran. His reply: “I can either say what you want me to say and the result would be that I get into trouble and can’t make films anymore. Or I can say as much as I’m allowed to and continue making films. I prefer making films. I’m not a hero, I’m a filmmaker.”

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