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A Separation

A Separation

You've got to keep them separated

dir: Asghar Farhadi

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) are seeking a separation, a divorce, in other words. They plead their respective cases to the judge. The judge, in this case, is the camera. For five minutes they argue at each other through the ‘judge’, who keeps admonishing them for whatever they are trying or not trying to do.

They make their plaintive statements, in Nader’s case fairly passive-aggressive statements, to us, pleading for us to understand which one is in the right. The thing is, though, they are trying to use the law to get what they want: Simin doesn’t really want a divorce, she wants the whole family to leave Iran, so she wants custody of their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), to make Nader come with them to places unknown, but far away from here.

The judge’s voice says, with hidden menace, “What’s wrong with living here?” The question is left unanswered, because this is the place where answering honestly can fuck up far more than just your day. Especially for Iranian women.

This is Iran, and I can’t imagine the scenario in which a court grants a woman anything there, including an uncontested divorce. Nader won’t let go of Termeh, because he knows his wife will never leave Iran as long as Termeh stays with him. And Simin might as well be talking to statues, regardless of her determination, regardless of how right or wrong she may be.

This all sounds like too much drama, but it’s pitched at just the right human level. It’s not melodramatic or over the top, it’s not Kramer Vs Kramer Persian style mixed with Nineteen-Eighty-Four: it’s people with real emotions dealing with the bizarre Iranian legal system to get what they think they deserve.

But that’s the problem: to hope for satisfaction from such a legal system, any legal system, but especially this one, is to hope in vain. It’s not just the vicissitudes of the legal system at fault, but the aspects of people’s personalities and their actions that render people both right and wrong at the best and worst of times.

It’s impossible for those of us not living in Iran, and not that conversant with all the various complexities therein, to watch a flick like this without seeing it as an indictment of the oppressive regime they live under. Every Iranian flick, every flick that mentions Iran is unavoidably seen through that lens. It’s also the kind of place that jails and beats its directors and their families, as director Jafar Panahi found out several months ago, the poor bastard.

I try to sarcastically derive all my knowledge of people, political systems and places from movies, so all I know of Iran comes from films like the ones made by Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and the graphic novels (and movie Persepolis) of Marjane Satrapi. It’s a limited perspective in some ways, because it means the sum and total of my impressions are derived from the views of upper-middle-class creative types with the skills and the contacts to dance the razor’s edge between creating art and pissing off the mullahs that would see them jailed and unemployed for the next twenty years.

In other words, if you don’t know from some source just how rich Iranian history is, and how fucked up Iranian society has been since the Revolution, you’re not listening hard enough, and elements of a film like A Separation will look like life on some alternate reality Earth.

It doesn’t seem anything like an exaggeration. In fact, for the vast majority of the film, I wasn’t even aware that I was watching a film. You don’t feel like you’re watching a constructed fiction: you feel like you’ve got a window into the lives of real people. The performances are so naturalistic and heartfelt that you can't feel any other way.

Of course it’s an illusion (ah, the magic of the movies), but none of it feels artificial, and that’s truly an achievement.

The great complication, or one of the many, is the fact that Nader’s father is a very old man suffering from Alzheimer’s. He loves his dad, everyone loves his dad, but he can’t be left on his own. Nader works (I think) in a bank, and Simin is a teacher or lecturer, and Termeh is in school. I can’t even guess as to what the live-in care or old folk’s home options are like in Iran.

Simin finds a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after the old man during the day when no-one’s home. That would seem to be a reasonable and non-controversial solution to the problem, wouldn’t you think?

But this is Iran. Razieh is in the home of another man who’s not her husband, and not her relation, without her husband’s knowledge or permission, which he would not grant if he knew, because of his honour. She has her little girl in tow, and they have to commute two hours each day to get there. The old man is incontinent, and she knows, or believes, that if she touches him in order to clean him up, that she could be committing a sin (by touching a man who is not her husband).

And, she’s pregnant, as if she doesn’t have enough to deal with. From this starting point (everything I’ve described is just the first bunch of minutes of the film), we get complications ensuing for everyone involved.

Shit happens, unfortunate but not intentional stuff, like it does anywhere, like it does to all of us, but watching it unfold here, and watching the ways that things go wrong and work out all at the same time is fascinating, and filled with tension as well. I felt the kind of tension you feel from very different kinds of flicks. For me the tension came from the desire to see no-one come out the worse for wear out of the situations that arise, but how often does that happen in your own life?

People mean well, they’re devotees of the “truth”, of what really happened at a given moment, that was done by a particular person, but the truth doesn’t set anyone free in a country with a legal system where the truth seems to be somewhat secondary.

These are, mostly, good people. Simin seems to be tough-loving her family into getting what she wants, but she’s motivated by the fact that she wants out of a country that is not going to be the best place for her daughter to grow up into womanhood. Nader is a good man, a man whose heart breaks at the thought of his daughter believing him to be either a liar or a dishonourable man, but he is dangerously stubborn, and would rather be declared to be in the ‘right’ no matter what the cost to his family or the people around him.

Razieh, the poor woman to whom the worst happens only when she’s trying to do the right thing for all concerned, who in a different film (in a different country) would be the story’s ‘victim’, is a devout woman to whom the thought of lying causes almost physical pain, no matter how justified she might be in doing so. She fervently believes that to sin (by saying something that might not be true) will bring harm upon her daughter.

We’re never told who she calls, but there are these religious / morality police hotlines she calls at moment’s notice whenever she is in a moral quandary. Again, in a different film, this would almost be a source of comedy, but here it’s just indicative of the complexities that beset the characters from all sides.

A lot of the plot revolves around the machinations of the courts and the legal system, as Nader, Razieh and her emotionally unstable husband Hojjat (Shahan Hosseini), as these three launch actions against each other, and all try to assert the truth to a judge who seems to regard them with the contempt you reserve for something you just noticed stuck to your shoe that you’re going to have to scrape off at some point.

Much of this is just so alien to watch. I don’t doubt its authenticity, but it’s just jaw-dropping to watch. It feels like at any time someone’s life can be thrown into utter destructive disarray whenever they come to the attention of the authorities. People are jailed, people have to find their own witnesses, collect their own evidence and convince court police and judges just by ranting at them about the facts as they see them. On top of that is the ability to negotiate blood money to pay to a family in order to make these legal problems, all managed without lawyers, go away.

It’s impossible to watch such a flick depicting aspects of the Iranian legal system operating like this and not see it as an indictment of that system. Which is why it surprises me that not only has this film been ridiculously successful critically, but that even the Iranian authorities are cool with it.

Maybe the mullahs and their cronies didn’t watch the flick the whole way through, and just thought it was great because it beat an Israeli film (called Footnotes) at the most recent Oscars for Best Foreign Film. I guess some nations have to get their pride from wherever they can, no matter how foolish it makes them look in the end.

All the characters here, and this is the crux of the film, are trying to do what they think is the right thing (later rather than sooner), and their pride and stubbornness means that it’s virtually impossible. Both Simin and Nader clearly love each other, and do and say all sorts of stuff in order to protect each other, and their family from harm, but those very steps they take to protect each other end up driving them further apart.

None of this should make the flick sound melodramatic. This isn’t a soap opera, and the closest the flick comes to having a villain is the mentally ill presence of Hojjat, who ultimately comes across as more worthy of our pity than our anger. He, too, thinks he’s doing the right thing, taking the honourable course, the high road, but he’s never going to get there with that much wounded pride.

This is a film that is very compelling, and strangely enjoyable to watch, all of which I don’t think comes through on paper. What it sounds like it is about is not interesting at all in theory; it’s only through watching it, through living all too briefly with these people, up close, that we get a true sense of their lives, and as such this flick is truly an achievement.

9 ways in which Iranian life is a source of constant perplexity out of 10

"What is wrong is wrong, no matter who said it or where it's written." - A Separation