Q&A by Roger Durling with Writer/Director Asghar Farhadi
Asghar Farhadi: I was expecting to attend quite a small screening and I had not in any way anticipated so many spectators to turn up on a weekend morning. This was a surprise to me. Here I am. Any questions you may have, I am at your disposal.
Roger Durling: How did this story come about?
Asghar Farhadi: I was working with Yasmina Reza on another screenplay in Paris. We had worked on that script for quite a long time and it was almost ready. One day, there we were sitting in a Paris café discussing the screenplay we were working on and I suddenly remembered a story that had to do with a friend of mine. I told Yasmina this story that my friend had told me of how he had to return to Canada after having been separated from his wife for a number of years to formalize their divorce. After I was done telling her the story, I paused and said, “Why don’t we stop what we’re doing and make this into a film?” And she couldn’t believe it because we had been working on the other thing for quite a while. But immediately I put that aside and I began to write this screenplay.
Durling: It’s a two-part question about Paris. The story had to be in Paris. It takes place in Paris, but we’ve never seen Paris this way. It’s not the typical Eiffel Tower, Seine River, and picturesque Paris.
Farhadi: When I first imagined making this film outside of Iran, I had the possibility of making it in a number of different cities. But what I said to myself was, “Because the film’s subject is the past, I need to make it in a city that has the scent of the past.” I wasn’t capable of making such a film in a city like, say, Hong Kong. But I was aware of the risk of perhaps a clichéd image of Paris once we entered Paris and began making a film there. When I decided to make the film, I went to Paris with my family and lived there for two years–and that’s when I saw the real Paris. Real Paris wasn’t the Eiffel Tower. You went twenty minutes further and the suburbs were a whole other Paris, which is why I decided that my main character’s home needed to be outside the tourist centers of Paris.
Durling: You must have written the script in your native language and then translated it into French.
Farhadi: I wrote the screenplay in Farsi but I did not have it translated by an individual. The way we worked on the translations was I had a team working with me. We took each sentence and over a very long period of time we translated it word by word. When I went to France, all I knew of the French language was that “hello” was “bonjour” and “goodbye” was “au revoir.” But over those two years, what I attempted to do was to familiarize myself with the melody and the music of that language. The people who were working on the translation would tell me the meaning of each sentence, of each word and the options of word choices in translation that one could select. For myself then, I had confidence that I knew what my characters were saying even though I might not understand the language. What I’m extremely happy about is that even with the film having screened in France to a million viewers, there hasn’t been a single objection to it as not being credible for the French.
Durling: How did that process go? Even just communicating among the three of us is quite an adventure. It is a challenge, but at the same time an enriching experience. You were directing actors through a translator and they were all speaking French?
Farhadi: There were several things that helped me a great deal. My actors knew my previous work very well and were familiar with what kind of acting I was after. They were quite careful not to act in ways that they were aware from my previous films I did not like. For three months prior to shooting, we rehearsed just like for a play. What we rehearsed was not scenes from the screenplay itself, but the back story of the characters. When you don’t understand an actor’s language, you actually end up focusing more closely on the feeling. And the contact between an actor and director transcends language and ends up being more through gaze and sentiment.
Durling: Speaking of that, Bérénice Bejo—I have never seen an actress convey a sense of constant ambiguity and doubt throughout a performance. She is the embodiment of doubt in her face. How did you work with her on developing that?
Farhadi: Actually, Bérénice’s face is one that is very certain and has no doubt in it. And what I had to do was introduce doubt both in her superficial appearance and in her acting. Not only with her but with the rest of my actors too, I had to introduce ambivalence so that they were constantly stuck at a crossroads. What I believe is that in life, too, all of the halts that we are forced to make are the result of our doubts and our ambivalence. Even when we enter a theater like this, we’re pausing and trying to decide, “Should I sit in this seat or another seat?” Our lives are full of doubt and ambivalence. My job was to place the actors in that place. I would not tell them anything with any certitude. Bérénice would ask me, “Am I in love with Samir?” And I would say, “Sometimes, yes.” And she would ask, “Well, then what’s my feeling about Ahmad?” And I would reply, “Well, sometimes you’re in love with him.” And in the rehearsals I kept attempting to maintain the relationship on both ends. The accumulation of the rehearsals produced this effect of ambivalence and doubt in all of the actors.
Durling: Speaking of ambivalence and being in this nebulous state, I admire the symbol of the wife in a coma state where we don’t know for certain if she’s alive or dead. How did that come about using that character as the symbol of past and future?
Farhadi: Without a doubt, the biggest uncertainty that exists in the film is about whether or not that woman is alive or dead. At the end of this film, what I had to do was take those accumulated doubts and turn them into a larger doubt. There are all kinds of certainties and tests that can be performed but the doctor says at the end, “We can do every kind of test; there will always be a doubt.” The physician we consulted with about the coma underscored over and over that a lot of times there can be someone in a coma and we can have a certain opinion, and fifty years later there can be a change.
Durling: One of the things that I greatly admire about you as a director and about this film in particular is visually you’re telling this story—I mean, for example, in the very first shot you show the vision and glass between Marie and her husband. All throughout the film, they’re shot in windows and corridors behind glass. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re trying to tell us?
Farhadi: My feeling is that the character of these individuals is not easily within reach. And I feel the same in real life, that we cannot find a direct route of access to anyone. We don’t even know ourselves. We have never seen ourselves directly. We’ve only seen ourselves through the medium of a mirror. We’ve not ever heard our voice; it’s others who hear our voice. So in order to convey this inaccessibility of a character when I’m shooting, I always use the medium of a window or something that’s not focused–something that can go in between. This conveys visually the wish to know the people that one cannot know. And then there are other places—such as at the beginning where you saw the two people come and begin to speak to each other, but they can’t hear each other. They can’t understand what the other is saying. Throughout the film, even though there’s so much talking, it’s as if they cannot understand each other. It’s as if there is glass between these individuals. Ultimately, the depth of knowledge each character has about the other at the beginning of the film is not that different from what they have at the end of the film.
Durling: The most visually and powerfully stunning scene for me is when Marie says, “I cannot look back anymore.” I’m paraphrasing your words. And she’s looking at us from the audience and she turns and walks away from us. Could you indulge me and talk about that scene?
Farhadi: I tried to observe this return to the past and the mise-en-scene as well. For instance, at the very opening when they put the car in reverse, immediately they have an accident. Hence, looking at the past is necessarily dangerous. Also towards the end of the film when she’s with Ahmad and she’s talking about the past, she steps in front of him so that he’s behind her and begins talking about the past, thus putting the past behind her. She moves closer to us and moves towards the window, as if we, together with the past, are put aside and she’s moving forward away from us all. There is a commonality that is present in all of my films and perhaps at first it was an unconscious move, but what I’m about to talk about is common to a lot of cultures. Men are always more attached to convention and tradition and stability and lack of movement. Women are more open to change and facing forward—facing the future. Because women are capable of giving birth, they are necessarily connected to the future. And an aspect of conflict between men and women is always this. In A Separation, the man is connected to his father and the past and the woman wants to make a change and leave and go somewhere new with her young daughter. And here too, Ahmad has returned to his country and turned to the past, whereas Marie is carrying a child and trying to move forward towards a different future.
Durling: This is the most thrilling conversation I’ve had with a director. Ever. Speaking of camera movement, in A Separation, you use a handheld camera. In this movie, I was struck by the fact that it is very elegant. It’s steady. Why did you make the transition?
Farhadi: There are two things in these two films that resemble each other. Both take place in court. In A Separation it’s in front of a judge when they’re getting their separation, and in this film it’s when they’re getting the formalized signature. Comparing these two scenes clarifies the similarities and differences between the two films. In A Separation, in that moment right before the judge, the man and wife are fighting even as they’re separated. The separation is about to happen in that moment. But in the film The Past, they actually separated four years prior and they’re here only to obtain a formal signature. This also has an effect on an image level because the excitement of the present moment is conveyed with a handheld camera. But in The Past, the event has happened and we’re only hearing about it so the camera does not need to be so excitable. It can be stable. I felt that when discussing the past my camera needed to be more composed and quiet and that the film itself needed to be more stable and quiet.
Durling: Children in your movies are essential. Adult characters lie. They hold that secret and children are so up front and innocent. Can you talk about working with children in your films?
Farhadi: The most difficult aspect of the days of shooting is working with the children. But the most pleasurable aspects of the film are where the children are in the image. And I cannot in any way conceive of ever making a film without children in it. It’s actually as if the older I get, the more I recall the days of my childhood. Children bring along two things: one is sincerity, and the other is an emotional atmosphere. Children don’t know how to lie, unless they’re forced to by adults. When that child in the Metro says, “Why don’t they take the instruments off of my mom so she can die?” he’s being very sincere. This is exactly what must be in the minds of the adults as well, but they would never utter it. Working with children is difficult because I never directly tell the children exactly what it is I want them to do. They too attend rehearsals for several months before shooting. But in rehearsal I try to turn the space and time into a game for them a little. I wanted Fouad to really feel that this was a home and family for him so I asked Ali and Bérénice and the other two children to go with him to a fun fair or amusement park all day and hang out with him, and they would do that for hours each day.
Durling: My last question is about the difference between working in Iran and working in France.
Farhadi: If a person were to have walked forty years on a path that’s difficult to walk and after forty years gets to a very smooth path, the way he has been walking won’t change. I worked in France exactly how I used to in Iran; because I didn’t believe that once I left my country I would become a different person. For me, nothing changed other than the fact that I had a lot more facilities. I had a lot more time in which to work. Everything was as I wanted and as I needed.
Durling: Unfortunately, we have to wrap it up so thank you, Asghar Farhadi. for an amazing film.