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Iranian movies receive widespread critical acclaim and popularity in the global space for its creative richness, honesty and the striking blend with reality. These movies are regarded as some of the finest piece of artistic expressions that has come out from the global visual scape. The achievements and recognition can be attributed to the legendary filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi and the list goes on. Jean Luc Godard, French legendary director, says that “film begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami”. Even within the constraints that have been built around creative freedom of expression in Iran, this group of people used the visual art as an effective and constructive mechanism to convey their political statement and register their dissent.

Asghar Farhadi is one director who placed Iranian Cinema in a high altitude of excellence. Farhadi’s craft has no parallels and the unique approach brings out well structured and narrated movies. It is not often that we watch movies and feel the essence deep within ourselves. Farhadi in an interview said, “The time for cinema that gives answers is over. Today’s cinema is a cinema that would ask questions.”  In this world, where everyone is passive and silent about the ‘wrong’, Farhadi craves for the ‘right’ and his movies speaks volumes.

Many people who consume cinema, often asks this question, ‘the very purpose of a movie is to entertain the people who watch it, so how can you insist that films must give a social message or a film must be a political statement?’ The question itself is right and wrong. Right because for some people, may be the majority, the film is all about spending some time relaxed and see movies as a choice for relief. The question seems wrong because visual media, particularly cinema, as an art, is the most powerful and influential medium of communication in this world. If the visual art of cinema is that powerful and can reach a large group, then why can’t we use the medium to speak the truth and fight against the unjust system? Now more than ever movies are political, to put it another way, visual is political.

“We live in a visual age. Images interestingly mediate our engagement with the material, social and political world. Film, television, and photography influence how we deal with phenomena as diverse as war, terrorism, humanitarian crisis, and election campaigns” (Bleiker 2018). Visuals create an everlasting impact in our mindscapes and many times disturbs our thoughts in an unimaginable way. Sometimes we became speechless watching just a photo or graffiti. Visuals serve a political purpose. When we come across a word, for example, Palestine, suddenly an array of visuals occupies our mind. Before some decades, only we read or heard about such events. But now more than reading an article or hearing a speech, visuals of an event captures our attention.

Iran, a theocratic state, follows very strong censorship policies regarding cinema. The creative freedom comes in direct confrontation with the state and oppression will be replying to freedom of dissent. Iranian society is different from what the pro-West media projects and the myths propagated by these newsrooms are totally disingenuous and devious. In this article, by analyzing Asghar Farhadi’s movie, A Separation, released in 2011, the aim is to decipher the social class structure and the struggle that exists in the contemporary Iranian society. The film stands out in projecting the middle class and working class conflict emotionally, realistically and politically.

Martin Scorsese famously said – “Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our life time; we need to keep them alive” Asghar Farhadi’s masterpiece is a documentation of present day Iran and he takes us to the plains that are not known to the outside world about Iran.

  1. O Scott (2011) wrote in New York Times about Asghar Farhadi, “Mr. Farhadi has distinguished himself in his generation of Iranian filmmakers as an astute psychological realist and a fastidious storyteller.” ‘A Separation’ underlines Scott’s view and is magnum opus of Farhadi.

Nader and Simin, A Separation

‘A Separation’ is essentially about the ‘class struggle’ that exists between modern middle class and conservative working class in Iran. Farhadi placing two families on the screen and making us watch their interactions tries to unfold the tension among these ‘innocent’ people. The people watching the movie will never hate a character in the story and will always feel for them. When each scene unravels, we start to think, experience, talk and cry as a character. We dissolve into the real world inside a fictional art. Here, Nader, Simin, Termeh, Razieh, Hodjat and the small child, invites the viewer to engage with their word and their own problems.

Roger Ebert (2011) narrates the plot of ‘A Separation’ in his review:

“Nader and Simin, a happily married middle-class couple in Tehran, have a sweet 11-year-old daughter, Termeh; Nader’s senile father also lives with them. They have agreed in principle to move abroad, where they hope Termeh’s prospects might be better. Simin is ready to leave now. Nader wants to stay for his father’s sake.” But he doesn’t know you!” his wife says. “No, but I know him.” Both are correct. Here we have the universal dilemma of Alzheimer’s. At an impasse, Simin moves to her mother’s apartment, and as a necessity sues for divorce, although the two want to remain married. Nader hires a caregiver for his father. She is Razieh. She keeps the nature of her job a secret from her husband, Hodjat, who as a strict Muslim would never allow her to work in a man’s household without his wife present. Nader returns one day to find his father tied to the bed and Razieh absent. She has a good reason for this, but Nader doesn’t know it and neither do we. He fires her, and she accuses him of pushing her downstairs and causing a miscarriage. Hodjat sues Nader for manslaughter. One of the witnesses will be Miss Ghahraii, the daughter’s tutor, who is sincere but may not be as reliable as she thinks herself. That’s what you must know about the plot” (Ebert 2011).

The movie is essentially about two families who are at opposite realms when an event happens between them. “A Separation is a portrait of a fractured relationship and an examination of theocracy, domestic rule and the politics of the sex and class” (Bradshaw 2011). Farhadi depicts the deep divide or ‘a separation’ that exists between the modern middle class and conservative working class in Iran. The film also an account of rural-urban, traditionalist-modern and moral-utilitarian divides.

Social Class in Iran

Iranian society has a complex cultural and class hierarchy. The upper class is the elites and clerics who are in power to dictate others and are influential people serving the top officials. Iran is a theocratic state and hence, certain religious scholars and preachers are also included in the upper strata. The middle class people are modern, educated and are regular salaried employees. They live in the urban centers, own cars and costly apartments, and have access to almost all offices. In the film, Simin and Nader are the symbols of modern middle class of Iran. On the other side, the working class, similar to any structure, comes below the hierarchy as lower class. These people are conservative, marginalized from modernity, religious devotees, and importantly are the majority in Iran. Razieh and Hodjat, the couple from a conservative family are the ones who stand for the working class.

The divide between these two classes is widening and the class struggle is in a dangerous turn in Iran. The movie throughout depicts the tensions that arise among the two families and internal problems that exist within these families. Farhadi brilliantly narrates the ‘social class’ crisis in Iran by blending the lives of these two people with reality. A Separation is also dealing with the politics of gender by detailing the two women characters from two sections of society. The difference concerning the middle and working class are not conceived in the dimension of economic situations, but also in through the lens of gender and religion. “Iran and its complex cultural facets are inextricably intertwined with these characters” (Vacca 2016). The friction also touches on the deep-seated antagonism in contemporary Iranian class structure.

Simin is a modern Iranian woman who drives, works, smokes and is educated and independent. She has the courage to speak against her husband and is mobile enough to approach for a divorce. In a middle class space, gender equality seems natural. Razieh is exactly opposite and she is a conservative working class woman and deeply involved with the religion. Razieh, in one scene had to clean the old man (Nader’s father) when he wet his pants. The old man is an Alzheimer’s patient. Razieh, a strong devotee of Islam, dialed a religious counsel and asks, “Hello. I had a religious question. I am working in a house. There is an old man I am supposed to care for. I wanted to ask… Pardon me, but he has wet his pants. I wanted to know if I change him. Will it count as a sin?” She asks and continues, “No one is here. He’s 70 or 80 years old and he’s senile. The urgency is that the poor guy has been sitting like this for half an hour. I can..?” After she gets the permission to proceed, the girl child says, “I won’t tell Dad” This scene shows how religion win over the working class women.

In another scene when Nader accuses Razieh that she stole money, she says, “I’m swearing on our martyrs that I didn’t go there (that she didn’t step into that room)”. In another scene when Nader pushes her out of the room, she shouts, “Don’t touch me!” Any other men simply touching her is also a religious issue. Hodjat in one scene speaks to Razieh, “I should sue you for working for a single man we don’t even know”. She replies to the investigator, “I wanted to help with the bills. He hasn’t worked for months”. Razieh was ready to work in Nader’s house hiding about it from her husband, which itself is revolutionary. She wanted to bring the two ends meet and unemployment of her husband questions the very existence of their family itself.

Farhadi is not saying that middle class people do not believe in religion. But the intrusion of modernity made them sort of ‘liberal devotees’. Modernity creates a religious divide also which is expressed in one scene where the two men were exchanging heated arguments. Nader asks, “Do I have to swear to God?” and Hodjat replies, “Like you believe in God!” “No, God is for your type only!” was Nader’s immediate counter reply. The dialogues allude to the acuity each other possess regarding their belief and trust in religion. But “A Separation is a film in which every important character tries to live a good life within the boundaries of the same religion” (Ebert 2011)

Xueqin (2012) analyses another scene and writes, “While waiting for their parents, Termeh is pre-occupied studying for her final exams with the help of her grandmother, while Razieh’s 6 year old daughter looks on with sad bright eyes, having never been inside a classroom and knowing she’ll never get into one”. The visual of the small child’s gaze lasts in our mind and haunts us. The misfortunes of one generation are transferred to another and Razieh and Hodjat fail to give a better life to their children. When Termeh is studying about the glorious Persian empires of the past, people like Razieh’s daughter are living outside the present and are marginalized. Basic education is denied to those who can’t afford the fees. When this happens within the framework of class, it’s getting ghastlier.

The middle class-civil servant bonhomie is discriminatory towards the working class. The institutions are denying even the basic justice to the people in lower strata and in the movie Farhadi ask questions connecting to this blatant unfair deed. When there emerges a need for someone to vouch Hodjat the aforesaid crisis was visible in that carefully written scene. The excerpt is given below (the conversation between the investigator and Hodjat)

“Can someone vouch for you?”

“What do you mean?”

“A government employee or business owner to vouch for you”

“No one. Why vouch?”

“Because she’s been accused”

“Accused for what?”

“Accused to the complaint he filed…”

“Which he had no right…?”

………….

“For God’s sake, listen to us for a change. He is twisting everything. He beat my wife and she had a miscarriage. What could be clearer? Why are you being unjust? Listen to us for a change.”

In another instance Hodjat says, “Why be quiet? So they can trample my rights?” He went on to say, “I worked for ten years with a cobbler. They fired me and said get justice if you can. I sued and went back and forth for a year. In the end, nothing. They said go sit at home.” These two dialogues divulge the condition of the lower working class and their difficulty to cope up with the inequitable institutions which are supposed to behave impartially.

Hodjat raises his voice against the middle class family, and their teacher who asked his child, by showing a painting of the child herself, that whether his father beat his mum. “Why did you ask her if hit her mum and she lost the baby? You can pick on a 4 year old’s drawing and tell her, her dad hit her mum and she lost the baby? Why do you think we beat our wives and children like animals? I swear on this Quran, we’re humans, just like you”, Hodjat’s questions are against the acute indictments that are entitled to them. Each dialogue, cleverly written, breaks the myths about people like Hodjat and Razieh. In the final moments, it is exposed that Hodjat beat himself when his wife commits a mistake. Farhadi weaves events authentically and presents social class and the struggle within and among the class with utmost integrity.

White and Green

‘A Separation’ draws its thematic parallels from two important events in Iran’s history. The first event was the ‘White Revolution’ of 1963, a bloodless movement led by the rural working class people. The proclaimed aim was to regain power back to rural and working class. The Shah regime used the situation and introduced series of far-reaching reforms which deliberately neglected the middle class urban people. Shah was never the voice of the working class, but the intention behind the move was to make sure the support from the majority people of lower class to fight against the rebel forces. Though the reforms initially gained momentum, it took a reverse turn and the conservative groups utilized it to strengthen their side. Religion never fails to unite people behind a flag and it happened which culminated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The people who stood with conservative leaders ousted Shah and placed a religious cleric Ayatollah Khomeini in power.

The White Revolution episode and the subsequent Iranian revolution began the ‘class struggle’ in Iran. The pro-West Shah earlier introduced modernity and many people were exposed to the western products, culture and lifestyle. These people broke the traditions and became liberal in the western sense. But the people teamed with the Shia theocratic leaders, are conservative and oppose the western intervention in their culture or society.

Farhadi in the film make use of white color whenever Hodjat and Razieh is in the frame – their dress color, wall of the house, white scarf of daughter etc. The investigator who represents the state, even though belongs to middle class and biased to them, and his office from interior to waiting halls and his clothes, is white colored. Many times the white door closes between the people. The house of Razieh, especially shown in the last moments is white. The usage of white reflects the White Revolution. A study on the films even says that, “White Revolution earned its name due to its bloodless nature and likewise the acts of violence committed against Razieh causing her miscarriage are not shown on screen.”

Green Movement, the protests against the rigged elections, is the second event. The movement was led predominantly by the middle class in urban spaces. Green color is used in kitchen walls, where kitchen is a symbol of feminine oppression. It is from this kitchen major heated arguments take place between Nader and Simin, and ironic setting of liberation can be seen. The door of the apartment is also green painted. The door also stands between Nader and Razieh at the end of the fight. That fight too begins in the green painted kitchen. The patriarchal figures are questioned in the background of green and whenever the moment is set for a ‘call for change’ then Farhadi use green somewhere in the frame.

Green color is brilliantly incorporated in one scene where Nader insists on Termeh to ask her change. “Nader’s demand that Termeh stand up for herself when she is short-changed by a garage worker, echoes the Green movement’s question after the disputed Presidential question, “Where is my change (vote)?” (Golsovkhi 2011). Farhadi uses a color in background to speak about the political situation in Iran and discusses even the politics of color, which is again intertwined with the social class. Golsovkhi (2011), in his observations about this film states that, “A Separation can’t be divorced from Iranian politics.”

Movies are coming out in the middle of two ages and a movie has the responsibility to reflect the reality of the present, because films are documents that will be used in future to study the age we live. “The cinema must film, not the world, but belief in this world, our only link… restoring our belief in the world – this is the power of cinema” (Deleuze 1985). Farhadi seizes that belief which is lost in other works and it is the same that makes his films powerful.

Creative Dissent

Abbas Kiarostami, the renowned Iranian director, once affirmed, “I would say that no film is apolitical. There are politics in all films. Any film that is anchored in a society, any film that deals with humanity is necessarily political.” Farhadi’s movies are no different from this viewpoint. In Iran, many films which raised questions against the privileged and powerful met with bans and censor cuts. The state doesn’t promote the freedom of expression to level of criticizing the actions of the regime. Farhadi uses the power of visuals and dialogues to express his dissent creatively.

An object like Glass is used to effectively in many scenes when women are shown. The gender inequality and the role of institutions and other establishments in developing the divide between men and women, is shown with the ‘glass metaphor’. Women are often shown to be behind glass and mirrors, a window or a door. The ‘glass logic’ reflects the “overbearing and orthodox institutions around them and barrier between them and the male figures in their lives” (Vacca 2018). In the last scene, Simin is behind the glass when the couple decided to part away. When Nader pushes Razieh outside we see her behind the glass only. The crucial scene is the one where the crux of the film lies. The door color is green; we didn’t see Razieh falling (no violence symbolizing white) and the glass in between the two people from two sections of society.

The prime reason for the divorce is Simin’s contention on moving abroad. In the first scene the Judge asks Simin, “So the children living in this country don’t have a future?” Simin replies, “As a mother, I’d rather she didn’t grow up in these circumstances.” What circumstances? Farhadi has no interest wasting time to explain it; instead the conversation tells what is to be conveyed. The scene doesn’t evoke a thought that Iran is a dangerous place to live, but establishing the impact of fear generated by the state rule.

One critic wrote about Farhadi’s films that, “his films are carefully constructed tapestries of human behavior.” It is difficult to hate one character or love one more than the other in his films. All characters have their own reasons for their conduct. A Separation’s quintessence, like any other Farhadi films, is empathy and “understanding in the word that seeks as ever to tear us apart” (Vacca 2018). In an interview, Farhadi said, “I always feel that each person has their own reasons for the behavior they exhibit. We may not accept those reasons or affirm them, but we can grasp that the person has reasons for their conduct.”

Visual Politics

Iran is always considered a trouble maker in international politics. The western affiliated media reports tell the world that Iran is dangerous and are destroying the global peace. History will tell who is responsible for what and how the unrest is created in West Asia. The purpose here is not to defend the Ayatollah regime in Iran. But a country, once a cradle of civilizations and has a history of most powerful empires who made it the core of the world, is thrown into ashes. The past is smiling and the present is in tears. When a planned project is distorting the truth and spreading lies, art is a resistance.

Roger Ebert writing the review of ‘A Separation’ mentioned, “Some influenced American political rhetoric has portrayed it (Iran) as a rogue nation eager to start nuclear war” (Ebert 2011). These stories are released by the West to make sure their goals are achieved and are intentionally conceptualized to hide the reality. The visual politics behind Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ was to show the real side of Iran. The triumph tastes success in projecting the real as real on screen. If one movie can open infinite possibilities of discussing the political atmosphere of a nation, the gap between the two disciplines – International Relations and Film studies – must be bridged.

Reference

Bleiker, Roland (2018): “The Power of Images in Global Politics,” E International Relations, 8 March (https://www.e-ir.info/2018/03/08/the-power-of-images-in-global-politics/)

Bradshaw, Peter (2011): “A Separation-review,” The Guardian, 30 June (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/jun/30/a-separation-review)

Deleuze, Gilles (1985): Cinema 2-The Time Image, New Delhi: Bloomsbury

Ebert, Roger (2011): “A Separation,” 25 January (https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/a-separation-2012)

Golsorki, Masoud (2011): “A Separation can’t be divorced from Iranian Politics,” The Guardian, 5 July (https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2011/jul/05/a-separation-iranian-politics)

Scott, A.O (2011): “A House Divided by Exasperation,” The New York Times, 29 December (https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/30/movies/a-separation-directed-by-asghar-farhadi-review.html)

Vacca, Samantha (2016): “Exploring Man-Made Divide In Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation,” 20 May (https://theplaylist.net/explores-man-made-divide-asghar-farhadis-separation-20160520/)

Xueqin, Jiang (2012): “The Genius of A Separation,” The Diplomat, 27 January (https://thediplomat.com/2012/01/the-genius-of-a-separation/)

Gokul K.S isPost Graduate Student in International Relations and Politics at SIRP, Mahatma Gandhi University and also writes articles in www.lanthanbathery.wordpress.com)