Asghar Farhadi, an Oscar winner for “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” is in Cannes with “A Hero,” the Iranian auteur’s fourth film to world premiere in the festival’s competition after “The Past,” “The Salesman” and Spanish-language “Everybody Knows.”
“A Hero,” which sees Farhadi returning to filmmaking in Iran, is about a man named Rahim who is in prison because of an unpaid debt. While on a two-day release, he and the woman he loves hatch a plan to try and convince the creditor to let him off the hook. But it spirals out of control due to social media, which plays an important part in this drama exposing the pitfalls of media manipulation in Iran’s repressive regime but also, by extension, the world. Farhadi spoke to Variety in Cannes about his concerns over social media and his certainty that the best antidote to the disconnect it can create is cinema. Edited excerpts.
How did ‘A Hero’ originate?
From time to time in the news in Iran you get stories about very average people who in their daily lives do something that is very altruistic. And that humane way of being makes them very noticeable in society for a few days, and then they are forgotten. The story of the rise and fall of these kinds of people was really what interested me.
Has social media manipulation been on your mind in recent years, especially as it pertains to Iran?
When I started working on the story I wasn’t so aware of social media. I developed that aspect when I realized that this is something so pervasive in every society around the world these days. It has become such a powerful tool of communication in every society and there are no borders. It’s the same in Iran and the rest of the world.
But I think that what’s specific in Iran is that because there are tensions in society between different groups, opinions, ideologies, it becomes a tool in the hands of [groups of] people to confront the others. That’s the reason why it plays such as major part in the development of this story.
In ‘A Hero’ media manipulation intersects with the Iranian justice system. Are you concerned about this manipulation when it comes to putting people in jail?
Well, it’s not even at the level of being a concern anymore. It’s a fact. It’s just the way we are living. I think it’s not even relevant to question this. It’s just the way we are. And the way we express things to each other. What I found interesting in the issues of this film is to see that all institutions and social groups use this tool. It’s a way of opening up to the other. But what I found paradoxical and interesting in this story is that instead of being a way of communicating and opening up to the other, it’s the exact opposite: a way of hiding and dissimulating things.
What’s also interesting is the speed [of social media] and its very few words: the very small space that you need and use to present a piece of news, a person, a story. It goes very quickly and very often the situation is more complex; the person is more complex. You need more space to actually present the nuances and the complexity of the situation. When you do it with so few words then of course it becomes the perfect space for misunderstanding.
‘The Salesman’ star Taraneh Alidoosti last year risked going to jail after she shared a video on Twitter of a member of Iran’s plainclothes ‘morality police’ insulting and attacking a woman on the street for not wearing the hijab headscarf. Tweeting can be dangerous.
This has to do with the fact that Iran is a repressive country in which you have no freedom to speak up and say what you think. When you have a medium like this which gives you the opportunity to express your feelings and what people have kept inside for years, of course they burst out. I think Iran must be on top of the list of countries in which the content of the conversation on social media is more about social and political issues. I’ve been researching this subject. Once when I was in Hong Kong I asked people: “What do you mainly talk about on social media?” They said: “It’s mainly personal or about cooking or more random everyday life issues.” Of course now with the troubles with China they also use social media for politics, but not as much as in Iran where I think people are really using it as an opportunity to finally speak up and connect on issues that they felt had been repressed.
In the U.S. one of the biggest social media manipulators in politics has been Donald Trump who basically prevented you from going to the U.S. to attend the Oscars. Do you think something will change with President Biden, especially when it comes to U.S. policy in Iran?
I think extremes are very similar, no matter what country or political systems. Of course having Joe Biden in place makes the whole world a better place. I have no doubt about that. But as for Iran and trying to predict whether it’s going to help things with Iran, well while Trump was having such extreme behavior and reaction towards Iran, there was the same kind of extremism in Iran. So, of course they were on the opposite side, but their way of behaving and reflecting was the same. And in Iran the same people are still in power. So there should be a change also on the Iranian side in order to make sure that there can be an improvement on both sides.
How do you think the social media disconnect is affecting cinema?
I had a discussion with a friend a few days ago and he was saying that this flow of information, images and sound that is pouring on all individuals nowadays is going to kill cinema, because it’s a competitor that cinema cannot catch up with. But I think that it’s quite the opposite because it’s really the reverse side of the use of images and sound with speed. Cinema is the medium that can take time to develop, to show different aspects, to show the complexities, the nuances. And to take this time. That’s exactly the reason why I think social media is in no way a threat to cinema. What you don’t have in social media is time for reflection and being able to see the different aspects and dimensions of a question. For that there is cinema.