From M. Sicinski’s “A Separation” review (Cinema Scope):
… [I]n order to be selected as Iran’s submission for the Oscars, A Separation had to garner a recommendation from the nine-member Farabi Cinema Foundation, a para-governmental arts-and-culture administration. Anyone concerned about the nefarious double-dealings of the MPAA should check out the language on the Farabi website which, remember, reflects the Islamist apparatchiks at their most benign. Farabi describes itself as having saved Iranian cinema from the “mystic cinema” of “the first decade of the 80s” [sic], when “the dominating aspects of the films produced by Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov” as well as “leftist revisionists” essentially crippled the glorious cinema of Iran. (Where Is the Friend’s Home? ; The Cyclist ; The Tenants ; Canary Yellow . I think we all remember those dark days!) “Such films,” say the Farabis, “repelled the spectators mainly choosing cinema to spend one to two hours having fun.”
It’s virtually a truism that censors are too stupid for words. That’s precisely what makes them dangerous. But this is also why they can be fleeced to such productive effect; ideologues may see enemies everywhere, but this is the paranoid inverse of their true psychological condition. They tend to see their own ideas reflected in every social institution, in the supposed “heart and soul” of the people they oppress under the guise of service. If Farhadi is somehow able to make films in Iran, distribute them, and even to have political organs like the Farabi Foundation actively promote them, then this is not the result of political capitulation on the filmmaker’s part, at least so far as the evidence onscreen may serve as testimony. It is entirely possible, I suppose, that the cine-mullahs of the Islamic Republic look at A Separation’s conflict between the dissolving middle-class couple of the original title, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), on the one hand, and smugly pious lower-class Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) on the other, and see a validation of humble values, an indictment of the exploitation of poor, unsophisticated Shia traditionalists by the decadent bourgeoisie. If so, Farhadi should make sure this exact panel of numbskulls assembles to approve all his subsequent work.
I make a similar argument about the open-ended nature of character motivations and moral beliefs in “A Separation” in my upcoming InRO review because I truly do believe that Sicinski is right here, that Iranian authorities may find redeemable qualities in Hodjat and Razieh which not only cancel out their faults but offer a “realistic” representation of religious Iranians that contrast with the equally-flawed, cosmopolitan, secular-by-comparison Iranians.
But I also caution against the act of speculation because institutions like Farabi offer negligible levels of transparency or consistency in their decisions. Their opinions are influenced by shifting tastes and interpretations of works previously approved by the government. A good example is Farabi’s current self-proclaimed distaste for domestic productions inspired by Tarkovskian mysticism.* According to Alberto Elena in “The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami,” the Iranian authorities once held the exact opposite position, back in the ’80s (pg. 54):
Popular entertainment films, a genre that was never questioned as long as it respected Islamic principles and values, thus commanded a significant audience share. Nevertheless, the Islamic authorities never hid their tastes and preferences, and during this same period, for example, they made considerable efforts to promote so-called ‘mystical cinema’, a local variation of the hermetic style and philosophical concerns of certain foreign directors who were respected by the regime (Tarkovski being at the top of the list).
I think the new-gen Farabis need to eat their cultural vegetables.
*Elena offers a fantastic meta-analysis of the Sufi and Persian poetry influences in “Where Is The Friend’s House?” (pgs. 72-78). He warns that the film should not be mistaken as some kind of religious project or that Kiarostami is interested in maintaining Islamic traditions and ideas. The influence is more Persian than Islamic. The concept of the journey as a form of learning, soul-seeking, and self-revelation is a leitmotif in Persian poetry that speaks to the culture’s progressive mentality. Similarly, “Friend’s House” is forward-thinking even if it is utterly depressing. Kiarostami gently points out the generational issues in Iranian society that (still) need changing.