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Iran, Politics, and Film: "Argo" or "A Separation"?

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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H4 10/13/12

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I'm not sure of the world views of Chris Terrio, who is making his feature film writing debut here. But in his script, Affleck's character points out to a roomful of CIA agents that in winter there is snow in Iran -- thus shaming them for their ignorance of basic facts about the country. (Ignorance some of our media still have to this day.) Albert Einstein said that "Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act." I think this filmmaking team does know. Why should their smart and entertaining film have more of a conscience than others in Hollywood have? Because they are an extremely intelligent, perceptive, and talented bunch, and for those to whom much is given, of them much is required.

A Separation

Anyone who sees Argo should make sure they wash it down with an antidote: an Iranian film which came out on DVD this fall and which counteracts all the negative influences of Argo. To say that Asghar Farhadi's film A Separation is highly acclaimed is an understatement. The movie won the the 2011 Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear International Jury prize; the Oscar, Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, Critics Choice, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), Online Film Critics Society, Chicago Film Critics, London Critics Circle (ALFS), and France's Cesar awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Its direction was lauded at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran, the International Film Festival of India, the Asian Film Awards, and the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film; its screenplay garnered an Oscar nomination and took home trophies from the NSFC, ALFS, L.A. Film Critics, the Durban Film Festival and the Fajr; and its cast received prizes from Fajr, Berlin, and London. And so forth.

Still of Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi in "A Separation"

Like Affleck's film, A Separation has conflicts between people spiraling out of control. But Argo wraps things up in a bow, since the Americans all got home to read bedtime stories to their kids -- we're not to consider that the next eight years turned into a devastating war between Iraq and Iran, covertly fueled by the U.S. (in violation of U.N. Security Resolution 522). There is no closure in A Separation, however; no right solution.

Farhadi's screenplay shows how separations develop between people -- and while Argo just accepts them, A Separation laments them. The title refers to the first, and central separation, the physical one between Nader and Simin, a husband and wife (beautifully played by Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami). If the film had focused only on that it still would have had a Kramer vs. Kramer -like pathos, since it is clear that 11-year old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) loves both of her parents, even when she is mad at her mother. But it also deals with the separation between the genders, one that is exacerbated by religious doctrines and traditions: Razieh, a housekeeper/caregiver, is hired to watch over Nader's elderly father, and she frets a great deal that it is improper for her to be alone with a man. The film also deals with the separation between the classes, and how lack of money means lack of options, fueling a family's sense of desperation and mistreatment. And there is the rift of distrust that grows between the two couples, the employers and their employee -- suspicions of elder abuse and theft on one side; accusations of physical assault leading to miscarriage on the other. Finally, there are gulfs between the couples based on religious and cultural differences: Simin and Nader follow the laws but they have no enthusiasm for it. Simin is a more liberated kind of Iranian woman, she is studying to be a teacher, she tries to get her daughter out of Iran, she instigates the separation from Nader, and though she has to wear the head-scarf by law, she is one of many Iranian women who dresses to express personal freedom as much as she can. By contrast, Razieh (in a deeply felt performance by Sareh Bayat) wears the plain, long, black chador, is careful to consult religious strictures at every turn, worries a lot, and is deferential to her husband. The lower-income couple even questions the more affluent couple's belief in God, since they are clearly not as pious.

Though both have a suspense thriller feel, the biggest difference between Affleck's film and Farhadi's is that A Separation does not unfold the way we might expect. The plotting is so expertly carried out that it keeps us guessing all the way through -- the mystery expands with emotional and philosophical revelations that continually surprise and move, and we are amazed at how differently we have come to see the characters. Ultimately, instead of uncovering murderers, A Separation uncovers human nature. Though we think we've discovered domestic abuse by one of the husbands, it turns out there are no villains.

Each family is chiefly concerned with the welfare of their daughter -- it's clearly a patriarchal society, but the film has a great deal of empathy towards women and girls. It elevates the tender or feminine side of men, too: Nader is close with Termeh, they race each other up the stairs and work on her homework together. He is also a sweet caregiver to his glassy-eyed father, who is stricken with Alzheimer's. In fact, it is his loyalty to his father, who cannot be moved from their apartment, that makes him unwilling to leave Iran -- and it is that refusal which causes his wife to file for separation. A Separation is a wise and subtle tragedy full of impossible choices.

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One of the themes seems to be how easy it is for people to harm each other, even without malevolent intent. The housekeeper's young daughter is left unsupervised with the old man, and she plays with the dial on his oxygen pump (she's too young to realize what she's doing). Like many Iranian films, A Separation stems from a simple story and ordinary situations, yet leads to intense strum und drang. The takeaway of the film, perhaps, is how unnecessary it all is. Even in the midst of the feud, pre-pubescent Termeh naturally starts playing with Razieh's small child out in the yard. The children would be friends if only the two families weren't pressing charges against each other.

Political Vaudeville (or is it Hallowe'en?)

It is election season, and a recent election event shows how important it really is for films to avoid the trends of political misinformation. Though Arkin and Goodman are a great comedic duo in Argo, they've got nothing on the vaudeville act of Berman and Sherman.

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Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman

Because of redistricting and the new "top-two" primary rule in California's elections, Berman and Sherman, currently both Democratic members of Congress, are now competing in the general election to represent the 30th district, a seat currently held by Rep. Brad Sherman -- up until now, Rep. Howard Berman's seat had been in the 28th district. During a debate at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley on Oct. 11th, the duo spent most of an increasingly heated hour calling each other liars and other epithets. It all came to an explosive climax when they stood almost nose-to-nose and seemed about to wrestle. Sherman aggressively gripped Berman's shoulder and challenged him "You want to get into this?", causing pandemonium to break out in the packed hall and an intervention from the Sheriff. 

And yet, despite their bitter animosity and repeated attempts to show how different they were from each other, they were in total lockstep on one thing: Iran.

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)

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Thanks for this timely piece.    Am... by Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich on Saturday, Oct 13, 2012 at 7:21:20 PM
Thanks for bringing up pertinent research. Can you... by Jennifer Epps on Sunday, Oct 14, 2012 at 10:15:55 PM
I applaud the author for her in-depth analysi... by Ari on Sunday, Oct 14, 2012 at 5:35:01 AM
is  good movie  but not very original- I... by Mark Sashine on Sunday, Oct 14, 2012 at 9:40:58 AM
"A Separation", like quite a few other films from ... by Jennifer Epps on Sunday, Oct 14, 2012 at 10:38:59 PM