Asghar Farhadi made his first film at age 13, shot with an 8-millimeter camera, about two boys who agree to share an abandoned radio every other day, but then throw it away because neither of them can get to their favorite late-night show. listen.
The film, which won him a new bicycle as a prize, tells the story of children who struggle with trivial challenges. But like all the stories Mr. Farhadi has written and directed, and who has been widely acclaimed as one of Iran’s foremost filmmakers, he used the everyday to convey the deep.
“It’s very valuable to me to always focus on ordinary people,” Mr Farhadi, who is a two-time Oscar winner at age 49, said in an interview from Los Angeles, where he was visiting from his home base in Tehran. “I don’t think my work will ever be about people who are special or famous for not being part of my emotional bank.”
For the characters in that emotional bank, largely drawn from his own childhood, the circumstance can turn a precious object into a useless annoyance. People struggle with meticulous decisions and complicated compromises, anticipating one outcome but confronted with an entirely different outcome. Individuals are nuanced, not easily categorized as saviors or villains.
His most recent film, ‘A Hero’, which won the second most prestigious prize at Cannes, integrates all these sub-themes. The ordinary characters are awash with chaos, suspense and thrill.
After all, Mr. Farhadi a child of a revolution that overthrew the monarchy, established an Islamic theocracy and turned America into a political enemy. By the time he was 10, Iran was at war with Iraq and children were practicing bunker drills in elementary school.
“Our childhood was at a time when we saw a bomb explode in our neighborhood,” he said. “This is something that will not fade from our memories, and it will affect us forever.”
If Mr. Farhadi were to call his personal hero, it would be his grandfather with whom he spent most of his childhood. He was not highly educated, but a gifted storyteller who brought the family together to tell feel-good stories.
Mr. Farhadi, his grandfather’s captive audience, wanted to be like him. So he made storytelling his profession.
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The main character in “A Hero” is a man imprisoned for financial debt and grappling with a moral dilemma that could guarantee his release. The coverage and buzz on social media makes him an overnight hero for a good deed. But the same forces quickly break him down when twists and half-truths emerge, casting doubt on his motive.
Mr Farhadi said the film explores why a society should make someone into a hero. He wanted to show the shortcomings of idolizing a person and expecting others to follow. Time and insight will eventually uncover a hero’s not-so-perfect sides and shatter the image, he said.
If his films are intended as social and political commentary, ‘A Hero’ delivers a bold suppression of the tendency among Iranians to revere religious and political figures as divine. Mr Farhadi said this outcome was inevitable “when you’re trying to tell a story as close to real life as possible.”
Iranians still name their children after ancient literary heroes. Shia Islam, Iran’s dominant religion, is entrenched in the imitation of religious clerics. The political structure of the country, from the Shahs to the current Supreme Leader, is based on a cult of personality.
“In a society steeped in slogans, this could happen,” Mr Farhadi said. “We constantly want to create idols and, shall we say, be like them. The gist of it is wrong.” He added: “When we have heroes in society, we are actually escaping our responsibilities.”
Mr Farhadi, who lives in Tehran with his wife and youngest daughter, says he is most creative working in his home country. But he is not indifferent to the suffering he witnesses. He said the anger brewing among the Iranians is palpable and no one is trying to address it.
But at the same time, the younger generation of Iranians gives him hope, he said, as they ask questions and demand accountability.
As a public figure with an international platform, Mr. Farhadi pressured to take sides. He is aware that navigating Iran’s political landscape requires a balancing act. If he remains silent, he is criticized as an instrument of government. If he speaks too loudly, he could be banished to exile, as other film directors have been.
Government supporters accuse him of making films that show a negative side of Iran. Others criticize what they consider to be overly bright portraits.
“For everything, not just for artists, for every aspect of Iranian life there is this polarization. It’s not very transparent, you say something and they interpret it in a different way,’ Mr Farhadi said. “The question is asked, where do we stand?”
Mr Farhadi prefers making statements through films, he said, because art is more enduring and more impactful than making comments. But sometimes he just can’t shut up.
In November, Mr Farhadi scolded the government in a lengthy Instagram post declaring, “Let me be clear, I despise you.”
He condemned factions that try to define him as a government-affiliated performer, saying that if that’s the perception, Iran should withdraw “A Hero” as its official entry to the Oscars. Iran did not. (The film made the first Oscar list, but was not nominated.)
In 2017, Mr Farhadi took a stand against former President Donald Trump’s travel ban affecting Iranians by boycotting the Academy Awards ceremony where he won his second Oscar.
Hamid Naficy, a Northwestern University professor emeritus and a scholar of Iranian cinema and culture, said that while Mr Farhadi is one of Iran’s most renowned filmmakers, he should not be expected to serve as a political ambassador.
The contribution of Mr. Farhadi, said Mr. Naficy, was “to create a complex and exciting and painful and joyful picture of a society that has existed for thousands of years.”
If Iranian filmmakers saw their work as ambassadors, he said, “it would be a kind of propaganda film for both sides — pro-regime or anti-regime.”
Mr. Farhadi was born in 1972 in Homayoun Shahr, a small town outside Isfahan, into a middle-class family who owned a grocery store. He spent his summers at a local print shop framing and cutting photos from customers’ camera rolls. As a teenager, he found a book about filmmaking and wrote his first screenplay, over the radio. He made the short film with the support of a cultural center sponsored by the local government.
He moved to Tehran to attend university, majoring in theater and earning a master’s degree in stage design. Mr Farhadi wrote screenplays for state television and radio before writing and directing his own films.
In 2009, his film “About Elly” won the prize for best director at the Berlin Film Festival and for best film at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the world of global cinema, he attracted attention.
He went on to win two Oscars in the Best International Feature Film category for “A Separation” in 2012 and “The Salesman” in 2018. Farhadi now belongs to an elite club of just a handful of iconic directors – Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman – who have won multiple Oscars in the foreign films category.
Despite all the accolades, Mr. Farhadi reminisces about the joy of seeing his first prize, a beautiful bike on the podium. He had attended the awards ceremony alone in Isfahan and was concerned about how he would ride his bike home. Night had fallen and it was raining. Mr Farhadi said he had cycled for two hours.
When his father opened the door and saw him soaked and exhausted but proudly flaunting his prize, he didn’t have the heart to scold him. He asked kindly, “Was it worth it?”
That question haunts Mr. Farhadi as he reflects on his career.
“I’m not saying I’m not happy with my path, but people who become successful in life make different sacrifices,” said Mr. Farhadi. “And sometimes you ask yourself, ‘Was it worth it?'”
If he could ask his 13-year-old self now, in hindsight a celebrated director, Mr Farhadi said, he would reply that “you didn’t have to work so hard, you didn’t have to start so early.”
Cinema, he said, ‘isn’t everything in life. I realized that a little late.”