x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Exiled Iranian actress moves into international spotlight

Forced into exile, the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani talks to Alex Ritman about making films banned in her country and how she is reinventing herself in France.

Golshifteh Farahani at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The exiled Iranian actress knows how dangerous it is to be an artist in Tehran.
Golshifteh Farahani at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The exiled Iranian actress knows how dangerous it is to be an artist in Tehran.

When the official lineup of films that would be competing for the foreign language Oscar at the next Academy Awards was announced earlier this month, there was one notable omission. Iran, whose official submission, Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, famously won the award in February, was not among the 71 countries, having pulled out in protest over the video The Innocence of Muslims.

But the list does contain one Iranian admission. Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actress living in exile from Iran for more than four years, stars as the lead in Afghanistan's entry, The Patience Stone, giving a moving and emotionally charged performance that should well see the film make it through to the final shortlist.

"If it happens, of course I will be an ambassador, I will be representing Iran," says Farahani, speaking at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and seemingly shocked at the news Iran will not be competing. "It's against Farhadi. It's against winning an Oscar."

Should The Patience Stone make it to Hollywood in February, it could spark further controversy for the 29-year-old who has becoming something of an icon for Iran's cultural exiles.

Already a prominent and widely-respected name in Iranian cinema, having started her career with Dariush Mehriui's The Pear Treeat 14 and going on to work with some of Iran's most celebrated filmmaking, Farahani's move into the international spotlight began in 2008.

Cast as a Jordanian nurse in Ridley Scott's spy thriller Body of Lies, she became the first Iranian to star in a Hollywood film since the 1979 revolution. While the film was not a huge success for Scott, it proved to be critical for Farahani.

Perhaps predictably, Body of Lies' CIA-focussed subject matter went down badly with the Iranian authorities, as did several scenes where she didn't wear hijab, and her passport was confiscated after filming wrapped up. She was, however, allowed to attend the film's New York premiere in October 2008, but sensing that a return to Iran would see her banned from acting and her passport taken again, she chose not to go back.

Since then, Farahani has called Paris home, somewhere she says "culturally embraces you", where she has watched her profile blossom. Last year she starred in Marjane Satrapi's Chicken With Plums, which picked up the Best Narrative Film at last year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and is awaiting the release of Just Like A Woman, the drama from Rachid Bouchareb in which she stars alongside Sienna Miller.

But being away from Iran has not reduced tensions between herself and her home country. In January this year, Farahani appeared in a short video with 30 other French hopefuls to promote the Césars, considered the French Oscars. She had been nominated for her role in If You Die, I'll Kill You as a Kurdish woman who comes to Paris, and the black-and-white promo for the awards had the young actors removing a piece of clothing to commit their body to their work. Farahani chose to reveal her right breast.

The response from Iran was explosive, with the Fars new agency saying that she "had betrayed her supporters" and the actress being told by the an official from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance not to return to Iran and that she "should offer your artistic services somewhere else". Her exile was underlined.

"This photo was something totally unpolitical, it was for the Césars," says Farahani. "I was between some other people in the video, but because I'm from the Middle East, whatever you do it becomes political. It is kind of provoking, but I didn't want to provoke."

Her incendiary appearance in the video was, she claims, simply a way of her underlining her current situation and the choice she has made for her life and career.

"I was just thinking, either I'm living in France, I'm working in France, or I'm not. There's no in between," she says. "When there's two boats and you have one leg in one and the other in the other, you're going to fall. So it's better to choose one of them. When I left Iran I knew I was going to put my head in one boat and move forward, because the middle isn't possible."

Another metaphorical boat almost appeared for Farahani that could have sent her in a different direction. After her appearance in Body of Lies, she was lined up to play a princess in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Mike Newell's video game adaptation. Unfortunately, she was trapped in Iran at the time without her passport, so could not attend the auditions. The role eventually went to British actress Gemma Arterton and the film, while commercially successful, fell foul of the critics.

"It's funny," says Farahani of her brush with mainstream and the more art-house roles that have followed since. "Life changed that path for me, to enter this field which is my field. I think it's easier to move from artistic cinema to the big production and the mainstream, than to make it from the big productions to the small cinema. So, I'm doing this and I'm quite happy."

Although a small production, The Patience Stone could well bring Farahani to more mainstream eyes as the Oscar talks hots up. Her engrossing performance sees her put on almost a one-woman show, playing a woman in a war-torn village caring for her husband, who lies in a coma.

"It was really the hardest part I've ever acted," she says. "I always leave the character on set, I'm not a method actor. But this time the feelings and the sensations were with me all the time. When I was coming back home I was crying for hours and I didn't know why."

Having already read the book, Farahani says she didn't just know that she could do it, but that "no-one else could do it". At first, Atiq Rahimi did not have her lined up for the role, but changed his mind after watching About Elly, Asghar Farhadi's award-winning drama before A Separation, and the last film Farahani filmed in Iran.

It was About Elly that last drew Farahani to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where it screened in 2009. And it is here where she is perhaps as close to her homeland as she has come in four years.

"Iran is just the other side of the Gulf," she says, pointing outside. "But that's life, that's what we have. Let's be happy with what we have rather than unhappy with what we don't."

Thankfully for Golshifteh Farahani, an actress with enough determination, bravery, talent and looks to ensure her career continues to bloom wherever she is based, her proximity to home does have some benefits.

"My family flew over to watch the movie with me."