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Iran in the Movies: The Politics of Ashgar Farhadi's "Nader and Simin: A Separation" (Golsorkhi)

Masoud Golsorkhi, writing for the Guardian of London, considers Nader and Simin: A Separation, the recently-released, award-winning film of Ashgar Farhadi:

It does art a disservice to say it must work as a metaphor. Yet much Iranian cinema functions as such, for it has had to negotiate with censorship throughout its existence and develop a rich culture that relies on symbolism. Saying one thing and meaning another is an old tradition in the Persian arts. So when the deservedly celebrated Iranian film A Separation is reviewed by predominently western critics, the symbolism at work in this drama will barely be glimpsed.

In Asghar Farhadi's film a middle-class family is being thrown into tumult. Nader and Simin are evidently still in love, but they argue bitterly about the state of their country and are torn between their loyalty to their daughter, Termah, and Nader's ageing father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's and must stay in Iran. Simin is prepared to divorce Nader. Anything to get Termah away from her home country. 

The personal has never been so politicised as in contemporary Iran. State interference in the daily lives of Iranians is noted and commented on by many artists, but Farhadi's commentary is particularly authentic and incisive. Simin and Nader represent the maternal feeling of flight and the paternal need to stay and fight for the cause: the Yin and Yang of the movement for reform. It's the same dilemma that has besieged and disabled generations of Iranians since the constitutional revolution almost 100 years ago: stay and suffocate or leave and be irrelevant.

The couple are young, professional and ambitious. What measure of meritocracy remains in Iran's version of crony capitalism favours them. They have the sophistication and the hustle you need to survive the rigours of Iranian society today. And their fictional struggle echoes the political struggle that we see in Iran today. Nader's demand that Termah stand up for herself when she is short-changed by a garage worker, echoes the Green Movement's question after the disputed presidential election: "Where is my change (vote)?"

On the other side of the class divide are Razieh (a woman Nader hires to help care for his father) and her husband. They are the Iranian "wretched of the Earth" – the bottom of the heap. They provided the targets for the Shah's army and the cannon fodder that put a halt to Saddam's invasion. It's them that support Khamenei, and they are part of the bloc who voted for Ahmadinejad. Their life choices are limited to say the least. Their opportunity for flight is nil. In their world, democracy is a suspect, unaffordable luxury item. 

For them the investment in the revolution is an investment against the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism. This is the couple that "has little to lose and [is] therefore able to gamble all", as the husband cries out in one scene. They are the couple whose agency for change is and will always be the critical weight in Iranian politics, whether in the ballot box or in the fight on the streets.

In the real world the Green Movement is stalling because it brought too many from Farhadi's couple A and not enough from couple B on to its side. Not simply because there are way more Bs than As, but because couple A have stuff to fall back on (potential for emigration, material wealth to cash in moment of crisis) and couple B have only faith and an apparently endless ability for suffering. 

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad both overestimate the reliability of this power base. This couple and this class are also capable of unravelling under pressure. The husband's propensity for violence is self-defeating. The religious devotion of the wife is a knife that will cut both ways. Each couple is made of two tendencies within each archetype and political tendency: fight or flee and religious devotion v. class antagonism. But in the end fruits of ill-gotten gain are inedible for the devout. 

The milestone around everyone's neck is Iran. That beloved country ennobled and imprisoned by history, exactly like Nader's suffering father. The state power, represented by the judicial examiner who oversees Nader and Simin's divorce case, presides over an opera of lies. He's unconcerned about the truth of the matter, but is hypersensitive when his credentials are called into question. The state apparatus is the fig leaf of efficiency, rationality and even, modernity in a system that is an ideological construct of the most absurd kind.

Farhadi is a great world film-maker and a giant of Iranian cinema. The age of esoteric films like those of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (whose beautiful, enigmatic films win festival prizes abroad but remain unwatched at home) is ending. The time of dialectic Iranian cinema is beginning. Farhadi talks to arthouse critics abroad and large audiences at home. This work's role in contributing to the wider public dialogue that is determining the future of Iran should not be underestimated.

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