On 26 February 2017, London’s great public site of protest and occasion will become an outdoor cinema. A few hours ahead of the 89th Academy Award ceremony, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman – one of five films nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film – will screen free of charge in Trafalgar Square.
The event has been instigated by members of the British filmmaking community in direct response to recent restrictions in the US on people travelling from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya. It is being supported by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, to emphasise that London is open to creative talent as well as to people from all countries and all communities.
The writer-director of The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi – whose film A Separation (2011) previously won the same Academy category in 2012 and was the first Iranian film to win an Oscar – is one of the world’s leading contemporary filmmakers. The US travel restrictions impact directly on Farhadi, as well as the film’s cast and creative team and their plans to attend the Oscar celebrations. Lead actress Taraneh Alidoosti immediately tweeted that she would not attend in protest. Farhadi was, until recently, determined to attend to use the platform it afforded him to speak out on the “unjust circumstances” the travel restrictions imposed. However he too has since decided not to attend, stating: “the possibility of this presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip”.
In the past eight years, Farhadi – who studied theatre and began his creative career writing radio plays and TV series – has written, directed and produced four highly distinctive films that have brought him increasing international acclaim (for his full filmography as writer-director, see the end of this article). While accolades are not the only measure of success, Farhadi’s give a sense of how rapidly, and how pervasively his films have made their mark on the global cinematic landscape, and how admired his work is by critics and international filmmaking peers.
Among the many awards and nominations are: best director at Berlin Film Festival for About Elly (2009); best film and both acting awards at Berlin, the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best foreign language film for A Separation (2011); a Golden Globe nomination and the best actress award for Bérénice Bejo at Cannes for The Past (2013); and the best actor award for Shahab Hosseini and best screenplay at Cannes for The Salesman (2016), which again received both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for best foreign language film.
Farhadi is a distinctive and consistently insightful filmmaker. In The Salesman – a film we are proud to have presented the UK premiere of at the BFI London Film Festival last year – there is a moment where one of the central characters is asked by his student: “Is it a true story?” Emad (Shahab Hosseini) replies: “Not really, but… the atmosphere and characters are very close to reality.” Therein lies the power, and something of the universality, of Farhadi’s own filmmaking. He creates suspense of Hitchcockian proportions in highly believable realities where everything hinges on how a character will balance impulse and social pressure with morals and aspirations.
Farhadi’s films pivot on everyday calamity. In The Salesman, Emad’s wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) suffers a brutal attack that in turn, tests their relationship; in The Past, a man returns from Iran to Paris to conclude his divorce and suspects something is awry in his estranged wife’s new relationship; in A Separation a couple separate prompting the man to employ a housekeeper, which leads to another crisis; and in About Elly, a friend inexplicably disappears after a child almost drowns on a group holiday.
Farhadi plots these domestic situations like a detective novel, often giving the audience more clues than his characters. A Separation opens with husband and wife alternately making their case for divorce in direct address to the camera, situating the audience as judge and jury. Farhadi confronts us with what it is to be human by making us invest in, and anticipate, how his characters will respond: will they lie, coerce, self-protect or react with courage, moral integrity, compassion?
The brilliantly conceived, escalating narratives are propelled – with the irreversible momentum of Shakespearean tragedy – by the character’s decisions and actions. Our own sense of how we judge the characters is rendered as acutely as our sense of how they judge themselves (a credit also to the superbly nuanced acting in all these films). The truth is always slippery; it is always an act of interpretation, and Farhadi’s films can be read in a multitude of ways.
It is a bitter irony then, that a filmmaker with such a finely tuned sense of ethics, and such an elaborate understanding of human motivations, now finds himself in such a compromised situation.
The Salesman is in great company in the foreign language film category at the Academy Awards, including other LFF alumni Land of Mine (LFF 2015), Tanna (LFF 2015) and Toni Erdmann (LFF 2016) as well as A Man Called Ove. Whatever the outcome at the Oscars on Sunday night, the people of London are the winners: not only do we get the chance to see this great film for free, our city has demonstrated its commitment to film, creativity and inclusivity. #LondonIsOpen
Asghar Farhadi feature films as writer-director
2016 The Salesman / Forushande
2013 The Past / Le Passé
2011 A Separation / Jodaeiye Nader az Simin
2009 About Elly / Darbareye Elly
2006 Fireworks Wednesday / Chahar Shanbe Souri (also written by Mani Haghighi)
2004 Beautiful City / Shahre Ziba
2003 Dancing in the Dust / Raghss Dar Ghobar (also written by Alireza Bazrafshan and Mohammad Reza Fazeli)