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December 19, 2013

Q&A: Asghar Farhadi, Director of THE PAST

by Opal H. Bennett

Le passé  (The Past) is the follow-up film by celebrated Iranian director Asghar Farhadi to his 2011 Foreign Language Oscar-winning movie A Separation. Le Passe stars Bérénice  Bejo (The Artist, 2011), Tahar Rahim (A Prophet, 2009), and Ali Mosaffa (The Last Step, 2012). It tells the story of Ahmad (Mosaffa), who’s returning to Paris from Tehran at the request of his estranged wife, Marie (Bejo), in order to finalize their divorce. When he arrives, he finds that Marie is living with her new boyfriend (Rahim) and the relationship has caused a rift with her teenage daughter, Lucie. Ahmad finds himself thrown into the middle of their dysfunction and his efforts to improve things soon reveal a string of secrets.

Set in France with French dialogue, Le passé marks a departure for Farhadi, whose five previous films take place in Iran. Despite this change in location, the film retains Fardhadi’s trademark style for making dramas that feel lived-in and wholly authentic. It is a powerfully provocative film that doesn’t provide easy answers to the complex issues presented by the characters.

I had the recent opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview with Farhadi to discuss the making of Le passé.

Why did you choose to do this movie in France?

Before deciding to make a film in France, it was the story that dictated to me to make it in France. It was the story of a man who was traveling to another country. Being far and being on a trip was part of the story. I chose France because I have had the most trips to France and I was most familiar with it.

How did you come up with the idea for the story?

A few years before, a friend of mine had told a personal memory to me and this sparked something in my mind. My friend had told me that he was on his way to another country to make his divorce from his wife finalized on paper. This memory stayed with me for years, and after a few years I thought it was a good time to make a movie about it.

Can you talk a bit about your casting process? 

In the trips that I had to the US to promote A Separation, Bérénice was in the US promoting The Artist, and we kept running into each other at hotels and events. One of the benefits of these trips is that you get to meet new people; but then the rest of it is boring! I got to know Tahar through A Prophet and I really liked his acting. The first person I got to know was Tahar; we became good friends, and even before work we were friends. And the person who plays the role of Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa) is an actor in Iran and he’s a director and this was the first time we were working with each other. The children actors who play Léa and Fouad, it was their first time acting.

How did you meet Tahar?

When I first saw him in A Prophet, I realized that he has a certain intelligence—perhaps it’s an unconscious intelligence—that makes him separate himself from the cliché role that he could be playing. He didn’t play that cliché role; instead, he offered us a new kind of acting. And when I got to know him better, I saw something in his look and in his behavior that was very suitable for this role—that was a certain doubt that’s always in his look.

Opportunities have expanded for you with your Oscar win, and your previous film had a political message; your first film after the Oscar is in France and has no political message. Since Iran’s new president is a moderate, is there any chance your next film will be shot in Iran with a political message?

I have two explanations. One is that it’s still very new and very early to judge what the political situation is. The new government has only been in office for a few months, but in the few months that they have been working we can already see that tensions have been relaxed. But the second explanation I have is that I didn’t leave Iran in order to escape the difficulties. I made films before in Iran under difficulties and this time I let the story take me to where it was believable to have been made.

What were you able to do in France that you couldn’t do in Iran? Were there any differences because of the censorship?

Again, two explanations. When you are walking an uneven path for years and all of a sudden you are put on an even path, the way you are walking is still the same; it’s been formed [by the way you've been walking]. But what I would like to stress is I believe censorship is present all over the world. In some countries, censorship comes from the government and state, and in other countries it comes from the capital [film financing]. I have a friend in France who made a film 15 years ago and it’s a very good film [but a film considered controversial by some] and he released it, but he cannot make another film because no one is willing to finance his films.

How long did it take you to write the script, and did you have any specific actors in mind as you wrote it?

The process of writing a script begins way before one starts the actual writing. It’s the random thoughts and emotions that are going on in your head. But from the minute that I started putting my pen on paper and the actual writing, it took eight months to finish. The first draft took eight months and it took another two or three months after to finalize it.

[Regarding casting], this is a little difficult, but I try not to think of a specific actor as I write, unless I am sure I will chose that actor. For instance, in A Separation—because I was sure that my own daughter was going to play in it—I wrote that role for her. But in other instances, I have avoided thinking of a specific actor.

You have said that you can take criticism well from your actors, and in the process you tell them that you listen to them, but in the end you do as you wish and make the actors do what you want. Was it easier to work with Iranian than French actors because they might have more cultural respect for you?

Perhaps I was joking when I said I don’t take criticism well. That was a class and I meant that I actually listen to all suggestions. I don’t take suggestions easily but if I believe in them, I accept them. I don’t divide the world into French or Iranian; I don’t look at actors as either French actors or Iranian actors. I never thought that Iranian actors or French actors are better or worse. I never thought one is more comfortable than the other. I had the same experience with both. I was as comfortable with both. I thought both were excellent and I don’t remember any moment feeling that I was under pressure.

Did you find a difference working in Iran versus in France? 

Of course there could be differences, but perhaps this is not the question for me because I worked the same way [in France] as I work in Iran. I chose the same method in France as in Iran and the outcome was the same. But for a French director it could be different.

But wasn’t it difficult to make a movie in a language you don’t understand?

Of course filmmaking, in itself, is a difficult job. Don’t expect any filmmaker to tell you they were comfortable or [that it's] easy. And it’s good that it’s difficult, otherwise 99% of people would be making films right now! Not knowing the language at first seemed like an obstacle, but later on turned into a merit and I learned from it. I learned that communicating with people is not only through language; it could be through gestures. It could be through the looks from the mimic of your face, [and] many other ways. Even language, itself, has many different layers to it. One layer is the information that we exchange; another layer is the history and the culture that’s behind the language. So in the two years that I spent in France, I decided to get to know the rhythm and the music of this language and the way this music brings us closer to each other—and the relationship that’s there between language and the culture and the history.

Have you moved from Iran to France?

First of all, I have returned to Iran, and secondly, I am sure I will die in Iran. Anything that happens in Iran is related to me; I consider Iran my home. Anything that occurs there I can’t be far from it.

Did you return to Iran after making this film? And what was the government’s reaction?

Yes, I spent two years there [in France] and then I returned to Iran. When I returned to Iran, the government was changing; the new government was coming into office. In Iran, the governments are not unanimous; there are different layers in one government. We have radical people and more moderate people and there are always different reactions.

Did you have a specific vision for how you wanted audiences to interact with this piece, and do you feel like you achieved it?

Where?

Everywhere … audiences in general.

The expectation I had, and I am happy has occurred, is that I wanted audiences to leave the theater with a lot of questions, and when I screen the film with audiences I see that this is happening. I didn’t want the film to end in their mind as it ended in the theater.

You’re giving a very honest image of French society because it is a family of people from many origins. As a foreigner, how did you capture such an accurate portrait?

I’m very happy to hear this because a lot of people in Iran thought that this was not a picture of France and that everything in France is like Paris and is very chic. When the film ended, [screenwriter] Jean-Claude Carrière had seen the film and he also told me what you said. He told me that it was a very honest image of this city. Sometimes when we live in a city for a long time, we get used to elements of it and that makes us miss other parts of the city. Perhaps I was in the position to see newer things because I had a newer eye. I had a team of French people around me and I double-checked everything to make sure whether or not they believed this.

Le passé  opens in limited release tomorrow, December 20th.

posted by: Opal Bennett
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