Nowadays a great movie is considered a transformative event for the filmmaker. The assumption is that they will do something different, something with stars attached, something that is somehow bigger. Too often we're too busy soothsaying the next project to appreciate the previous film. But what if a director kept broadly making the same genre of film, what if one detailed incisive drama followed another? What would happen if those movies simply got better and better?
The answer to that question is Asghar Farhadi.
At the age of 41 the Iranian writer and director has become a leading filmmaker in the world cinema, with a career capable of encompassing wins at the major European festivals as well the Academy Awards. He has made five feature films to date, beginning with 2003's Dancing in the Dust and culminating in 2011's acclaimed A Separation, and seeing them grouped together for a forthcoming two week retrospective at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the overwhelming feeling is that they comprise a compelling and inclusive body of work.
Farhadi was born in the central Iranian province of Isfahan, and obtained university degrees in Dramatic Arts and Stage Directions from leading Iranian universities while also making 8mm and 16mm student films (as opposed to directing some music video clips). He worked in Iranian television and wrote features for more prominent filmmakers before he made Dancing in the Dust at the age of 30.
Farhadi's first film is the story of a young man who due to pressure from family and society has to divorce his wife because her mother is a prostitute. In a bid to earn enough money to pay for both his wedding and the subsequent restitution, he finds himself in the Iranian desert, making an unlikely living alongside an elderly colleague. The picture began several through lines that have continued throughout his career, most notably the complex and sometimes overwhelming weight that comes with the deep and intricate ties and expectations that permeate Iranian life.
On a simple level, Farhadi's fourth film, 2009's masterful About Elly, is about the trouble that stems from a minor social deception when a woman who is already engaged goes for an innocent weekend away to be introduced to another single man. From what some innocuously call a white lie every greater deception and grief spring, as Farhadi fractures the seemingly content life of a group of friends. Like several of his movies, it ends poised on a precipitous next step.
“You can make a film in a way that when the audience leaves the theater they leave with certain answers in their head,” Farhadi explained to ifc.com in 2011. “But when you leave them with answers you interrupt the process of thinking. If instead you raise questions about the themes and the story, this means that the audience is on its way to start thinking. I like that better.”
His films document, with visual acuity, the small clashes that play out against the backdrop of contemporary Iranian life. Husbands and wives argue, the middle class and the working class deal with each other across a chasm, family members make demands on one another. Farhadi's third movie, 2006's Fireworks Wednesday, moves through a Tehran apartment block, where the various protagonists circle each other as information – not revelations – surface over the course of a day.
As Farhadi told ifc.com: “We have the wrong impression of life. We think the very big incidents of our lives are consequences of huge dilemmas or major decisions. If we paid attention, we'd realise that the determining incidents in our lives are ordinary things. When I write or I shoot these details, I do so in a way that makes them seem very simple, like ordinary details of everyday life. I don't want the audience to think they're watching an 'important' scene and to try to remember it as a result. This whole game of making the audience go back and remember these simple little details makes them more engaged in the film.
While the concerns and interaction is universal, the setting is a very specific one. Farhadi doesn't address the politics of Iran directly, but it's readily apparent that women struggle to simply get a foothold, socially and emotionally, in his movies, while state institutions, whether the police or the courts, leave the characters unsatisfied and wary. In a country where the most famous filmmaker is one banned from making films (Jafar Panahi), every artist's position is tenuous. Shooting of A Separation was on hold for several days in 2010 after Farhadi made some public remarks in support of Panahi, and while Farhadi has played a straight bat in subsequent interviews, he's certainly not divorced from the contribution his intimate dramas can make on a national level.
“The important thing is to think and give the viewer the opportunity to think,” he told The Guardian. “In Iran, more than anything else at the moment we need the audience to think.”
Directed by Asghar Farhadi screens at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image from Tuesday 26 March to Friday 12 April. For further details visit www.acmi.net.au