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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.
VALERY HACHE
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.

Iranian filmmaker grabs top prize in Berlin

Asghar Farhadi may not yet be a household name, but with a Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear award for best motion picture to his name, it's only a matter of time

There was only one movie that was universally acclaimed as a masterpiece at the Berlin Film Festival this year, and that was Nader and Simin, a Separation by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Critics fell over themselves to give the domestic Tehran-set drama top marks after it showed as part of the competition for the Golden Bear award for best motion picture, which he won on Saturday.

At the screening I attended, the only sound that could be heard at the end of the movie was crying. A Separation is a tear-jerker that revolves around the emotional demands put on an adolescent 11-year-old girl during a family crisis.

The action starts with a couple seated before a judge; a furious Simin demands that she be divorced from her husband Nader. Simin is upset because after spending 18 months obtaining visas to move abroad, Nader no longer wants to leave Iran, arguing that he has to stay in Tehran to look after his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

His wife is distressed because she knows that the couple have six weeks to leave the country or all the travel permissions will be revoked. Rather complacently, Nader simply tells the judge that if his wife wants to separate then he is unable to do anything other than acquiesce to her wishes.

When their 11-year-old daughter decides to stay with her father, at least for the time being, Simin moves into her mother's house, knowing full well that she cannot leave the country because she would be unable to leave her daughter behind. Without his wife at home, he hires a pregnant helper to look after his father, and this leads to a fracas after the helper leaves the sick man at home tied to a bed.

Farhadi's script cleverly shows how a little white lie can spiral out of control. He says of the story: "At first it seems like a divorce, but it is more than a divorce. The separation sees the couple move into different kind of lifestyles, and so it's a separation that sees them become two different kinds of people."

The film's screening in Berlin came at a pertinent time, given the unrest in parts of the Middle East in recent weeks, and the ongoing demonstrations in Iran. Many wonder if this will be the last film that will come out of Iran for a while, given that the Iranian Film Board has been stringent in its refusal to provide licenses allowing people to shoot in Iran since the disputed elections of 2009.

Censorship of films in Iran has been a big topic at a festival that has put support for the release of the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi high on the agenda. Panahi was jailed for six years and banned for making films for 20 years. A beacon of hope for fans of Iranian cinema can be gleaned from Farhadi's strength of character - the director argues that filmmakers in the region will find ways of getting around restrictions. "The main thing is that we are trying other ways. The censorship does not mean that we are making a compromise. The censorship means that we are always trying new ways to express ourselves freely."

Farhadi explains how careful planning was needed to ensure that A Separation did not fall foul of the Iranian censors. "The censorship of the film did not happen after the film was completed, but as I was writing the script the censor was always there in my mind. I had to consider it and what would be accepted."

The 38-year-old director of About Elly, Fireworks Wednesday, The Beautiful City has, over the past decade of making films, developed an understanding of what the Iranian censors will frown upon.

As with many of the great films of the Iranian New Wave in the 1990s, the key to the power of the movie is to both understand the allegory being made while also being able to tell a riveting story able to capture the attention of audiences who know nothing of Iran. A Separation does such a job brilliantly.

"On one side, it is about society, but the other is my own concern about the definitions of what people consider about society," says Farhadi. "I wanted to ask about it."

The director is careful about what he says. His astuteness carries over in his analysis of the recent movements in North Africa and the Middle East. He says: "To say this is actually the movement of the population to get freedom and democracy is too early to judge - we will have to wait and see what happens next."

Iran has become the focus of numerous internet campaigns that have united many from around the globe in the past few years, particularly in relation to the protests against the 2009 election results. Farhadi could not be drawn to reflect on these moments, stating: "There are some subjects that if you want to talk about them, you need more freedom."

Judges and the justice they hand out play a vital role in the drama and the difficult job judges face in determining the truth is central. As each character says their piece, the idea of objective truth is often obscured by nuance, viewpoint and fabrications. Farhadi, though, says that it's important to remember that objective truth does exist: "The point of view changes in the film, but the truth exists. What that truth is depends on your point of view and your relationship to the incident."

The critical acclaim that his new film has met, combined with the difficulties of working in Iran, have led to the question about whether Farhadi will join the many famous Iranian directors, such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who have decided to live and make films abroad.

Farhadi says: "I don't know whether it is OK for me to go to Hollywood to make films because the kind of filmmaking there is very different. In the Hollywood style you are confronted with questions that are answered in the film. But in my films there are questions that won't be answered and there are some questions that the audience will have to make their own reflections about. I think that when I get my chance to make a film in Hollywood, it won't be a film of mine but a film of the company."

It would be a shame were Farhadi ever to stop writing scripts, as he has an ability with dialogue and nuance that is starting to see him ranked as one of the best directors in the world. He says of screenwriting: "Writing is like driving. You know how to drive, you have all the regulations, but it all happens intuitively. I know the regulations of film and when I write I don't think specifically about where the characters will go, but instead write intuitively about how they will react in certain situations."

And when the results are as good as his latest film, it is clearly paying off for Farhadi to trust his own instincts.

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