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Burning Questions: What's Controversial About "A Separation"? 

Michael C. checking in with some of the aftermath of Oscar 2012. According to a report on Huffington Post, despite having previously trumpeted A Separation's Oscar win as a national triumph Iranian authorities have canceled an event to be hosted by leading Iranian film groups in honor of Asghar Farhadi's contribution to the country's cinema. Apparently, conservative hardliners and clerics, who had been celebrating Iran's first Oscar win, in particular its victory over the Israeli nominee, were displeased after being belatedly clued into the film’s content.  

So why the about-face at this late date? What subversive material somehow slipped the attention of the authorities only now to come to light? What is so controversial about A Separation?

Honestly, I was surprised Iran submitted A Separation for the Oscar at all. The image of modern day Iran in Farhadi’s film wasn’t as devastating as say, the corruption and violence ravaged country portrayed in Mexico’s submission, Miss Bala, but it is still a far cry from the picture one imagines controlling government officials would be eager to present to the world. [more after the jump]

Add to this that Farhadi is no darling of the Iranian government. At one point he was banned from making the film at all over a controversial speech he made that called for the return of politically exiled filmmakers. Throw in that production was only completed with an infusion of US dollars from the Motion Picture Association's APSA Academy Film Fund, and one would not have been surprised to see A Separation passed over for a more innocuous choice. 

That said, the sensible answer to "What’s controversial about A Separation?" is "Not a damn thing." It is controversial only so far as human imperfection is controversial. All the characters are trying to do what they believe to be the right thing regardless of their class, age or religion, right down to the judge who is tasked with making sense of the whole mess. To any rational person, it is no more a bruising indictment of Iran than Kramer vs. Kramer is a takedown of America.

Of course I’m not so naïve as to miss what it is that bothers the hard-line Iranian authorities. A Separation is blatant about the desire of many Iranians to leave the country, and looks unflinchingly at gender and class inequality, the cost of religious fundamentalism on every day life and the limitations of the Iranian legal system. It is a film full of shades of grey, and complexity has always been the enemy of the propagandist who prefers the world to be portrayed in black and white simplicity, good and bad, us vs. them.

What is ironic about this, apart from the fact that attempts to hide flaws in their society only serves to make them look weaker, is that in their narrow-minded effort to protect their national pride those officials miss the fact that A Separation represents a huge, positive step forward in the way the world views the Iranian people. At a time where it is increasingly easy to caricature all Iranians as hostile, violent religious zealots Farhadi gives us a humanist portrait that is more relatable than the vast majority of Hollywood films.

The cast of A Separation listening to Farhadi's acceptance speech

Farhadi emphasized this distinction between the Iranian people and the dire political climate in his memorable Oscar speech:

At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us, and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award, or a film, or a filmmaker, but because -- at a time of tug of war, intimidation and aggressions exchanged between politicians -- the name of their county, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.

What is even more ironic is that these authorities saw fit to trumpet the Oscar win as a show of Iranian pride in the first place considering that doing so places value one of the most prestigious of Western honors, and the fact that Hollywood was fair-minded enough to present the award to A Separation flatly contradicts stereotypes about Israel’s expansive influence over America. But then irony has never been the strong suit of censors and bureaucrats, has it?

If anyone else have an insight on the situation for filmmakers in Iran, or if you have finally had the chance to see this masterpiece and want to gush, please share in the comments. You can read Michael C's previous thoughts on A Separation here or follow him on Twitter at @SeriousFilm  

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Reader Comments (14)

A fantastic write up of an absolute gem of a film. Few films are as incisive of their societies as A Separation. If anything, its portrait of Iranian society and its legal system is reassuringly positive when compared to other theocracies.

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterredcommieapples

I don't think I've read such a level-headed and, frankly, flawless writing on this issue from anyone else.
The one small thing I think you're missing is that the Iranian government has two vastly different approaches to broadcasting. One is what they want foreigners to think of Iran and the other is what they tell Iranian people inside Iran. Of course Iran beat Israel to the Oscar and the world should know that we are better than everyone else, so good in fact that even the zionist Americans couldn't deny us their highest award blah blah blah BS BS and more BS.
On the other hand, when it actually comes down to supporting Farhadi so he can bring the country more of what they originally called "glory", they shit their pants because they're terrified of what other subtle masterpiece he might come up with that they don't like. (Of course, as you said, there's nothing really controversial about A Separation but they don't really care much about that part.)
Farhadi's actually really tied up with the pre-production of his new film in Europe so the fact they called him back for a ceremony in Iran was really fishy to begin with and I was scared they'd never let him out again.
Also, it's not like they hadn't watched the film before the Oscar win and they didn't know what it was about. They knew very well all along. As I said, different approaches to the issue. They wanted the film to keep winning awards outside Iran for publicity's sake but they don't really wanna praise Farhadi. It's the industry's award not Farhadi's, because now no matter how many people speak up about the censorship and imprisonments and bans and such, they have the upper hand. "See, it's not so bad. If it were, could anyone make films this good?"

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Sorry about the long response. Had to get that out.
It's like you wrote this post specifically for me :)

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Farhadi is clearly a brilliant filmmaker. It's funny to watch the tug of war with the government loving his wins and still lacking respect for his work. It would make for a great film, actually.

Here's hoping he gets to continue doing what he does without any conflict. A Separation was fantastic. That Original Screenplay nod was well deserved, and I wish he had won.

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I'm a zionist, through and through, and yet I also cheered when this beautiful film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, simply because it didn't matter to me that the Oscar went to a country that wants to destroy a country I call a home away from home, the film deserved it! It's a complex character study of different people trying to do what they think is right under the circumstances they are in, and the film knows how to push an audience's button as a relationship drama and a legal thriller. It's a shame that this category, given the international nature of it, often gets political (this might be the reason why they often shy away from more daring films, they want to avoid the controversy). I think it's actually very common for certain brilliant filmmakers not to be appreciated in their own country. Just look at Pedro Almódovar, Spain always seems to be less enthusiastic about his work and yet the rest of the world thinks he's one of the best filmmakers there are. I think the same thing will happen to Farhadi and I hope he keeps making movies like this one, movies we caan celebrate for being about people and not ideologies that try to be shoved down people's throats. I love the fact that the film ends with a tough decision that the audience doesn't know the outcome of (it leaves a powerful aftertaste to an already mesmerizing film). I also think it should have won Best Original Screenplay (it was clearly the strongest of the bunch), but Asghar Farhadi walked away with an Oscar either way, so I'm not too bummed about that...

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

The only real part of A Separation that I find slightly damning of Iran is that the mother wants to leave the country. Otherwise-- class conflict? Religiosity vs. secularism? If the film had been set in America, it could easily had the same conflicts at its core and not have seemed at all out-of-touch with modern American culture.

What I could never figure out was why people thought that the Academy's FL voters would not recognize this great film. They've overlooked genre pieces and violent films in the past, but this has neither of those traits. It's a family drama, right up their alley. I wasn't sure that it'd win, but mostly because the branch has poor taste, not in the least because I thought they'd find it too off-putting.

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Evan -- THANK YOU. That's what I keep saying. Everytime someone goes on an about this window into Iran I want to shout "uh... universal"... we have these same conflicts in America. We just have trouble seeing them for what they are.

March 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It is such a precise movie, I simply loved it. It feels real beyond word. The reason it may be controversial in Iran is because the political class was subtly reminded that the ones they want to please and rule over are real living human beings for whom things are not absolute as the political leaders make them to be.

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKD

Michael - (i'm an iranian and living in iran)
did you know fars news agency( which is a big fan of ahmadinejad,our truly hated president) have stated a separation will be shown in iran's national tv during no-roos(iran's traditional new year holidays) i read this nws about a week ago and i got so worried because if they want to show this they will censor the movie as much as you can't imagin but fortunately farhadi said this is a rumor (i don't need this tv and this tv doesn't need me)

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteramir

I agree with every word you said about this great film.it is not controversial at all.the story is universal.this film is like a thriller but without guns and murders.

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrace

Amir in Iran -

Wow. I did not know that. Thanks for sharing that and please come back and let us know when it show if it was censored as you feard it would be.

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

"All the characters are trying to do what they believe to be the right thing regardless of their class, age or religion, right down to the judge who is tasked with making sense of the whole mess."

I think that's why I loved it so much, but why I wasn't sure if I loved it right away. It didn't hand anything to me, it didn't tell me how to feel. It took me a while to realize just how well made it was. I get so frustrated watching and reading so much art where people are stupid just for the sake of story, or assholes, or capital-letters EVIL, or whatever. This film is what I had been looking for for so long that I couldn't even recognize it for what it was right away. It let me eventually figure it out on my own.

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Not only is A Separation a Great film, it is also an IMPORTANT film.

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

May it be the fact that farhadi refuses to leave Iran, wants to stay like Nader and try to bring about change that is infuriating the authorities.
The movie is about two possible roads to a better future, open to the better educated strata of Iranian society.
i) Seek a better life for your family in The West, where good social and living conditions have already been achieved, through the labor of their citizens.
 (Simin, modern, cosmopolitan and pragmatic  - Does your father any longer know you are his son(Does your country care about you)?)
ii) Stay in Iran, face the challenges, foreign as well as domestic, and create, through your own labor, better social and economic conditions for the cultural development of your family and your countrymen.  
(Nader, principled and patriotic - But I know he is my father(But I care about my country)!)
We have to be patient and see which way the next generation would decide to take. (Termeh, looking both ways, but more inclined to the father.  If she stays with her father, it would be with the hope of making Iran a better place for her mother to return to).
This is the simplest way one can interpret the main theme of this many-layered movie, a masterpiece by any yardstick.

March 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterQanuni
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