I grew up watching films in movie theaters, and never enjoyed those private screenings for critics, or watching films along the usual festival crowds. I loved to sit in a dark theater and witness the reaction of ordinary movie goers to the films. I loved movies that entertained the audiences, but at the same time their bug was biting them. letting them carry the film outside the theater and live with it for a while or for the rest of their lives. That was the reason I fell in love with Hawks’ RED RIVER, Ford’s THE SEARCHERS, Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, Georges Franju’s HEAD AGAINST THE WALL, Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI, Kiarostami’s THE REPORT, Satyajit Ray’s PATHER PANCHALI, Asghar Farhadi’s A HERO, and many more….
Asghar Farhadi, one of my favorite filmmakers of our time, makes his films for the masses while capturing your soul by his magical storytelling. To me his films have the characteristics of one’s favorite childhood stories, that you desire to listen to them over and over. Farhadi involves you in his world and challenges your mind and before you know, you will become part of his stories. Dance in the Dust and the Beautiful City, two of his earliest films now released in the US, are no exceptions.
In DANCE IN THE DUST (2003) Nazar (Yousef Khodaparast) a young man is pressured into divorcing his wife (Baran Kosari) because of her mother’s bad reputation. This leads to money problems and, before long, Nazar is on the run, due to debts that he can’t pay. Hiding out in the desert, he meets an eccentric elderly man (Faramarz Gharibian) who makes a living by collecting venom from poisonous snakes. Nazar becomes his unlikely partner and gets an unexpected chance at redemption.
In BEAUTIFUL CITY (2004) Akbar (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh) who has killed his girlfriend at the age of sixteen, is being transferred to an adult prison when he reaches eighteen, where he must wait to be hanged. But the sentence could be changed to life imprisonment if the bereaved father, Rahmati (Faramarz Gharibian), forgives the young man for his horrific crime. With Rahmati unreceptive, Akbar’s friend (Babak Ansari) and sister (Taraneh Alidoosti) try to elicit sympathy by raising money for an operation needed by Rahmati’s adult stepdaughter.
Cinema Without Borders: The two main characters in “Dance in the Dust”, Nazar and Agha Heydar, with all differences in approach and behavior, have a lot in common. Heydar is a man of no words and Nazar says whatever comes to his mind. Haydar has been left with no motivation in life, while Nazar is fighting his way to get back his ex-wife, Reyhane, whom he loves more than anything else in this world. Could we say in a way Nazar is a young Heydar?
Asghar Farhadi: The common factor between the two characters is their different experiences dealing with love, one in the past and one in the present. The old man, Heydar, was in love with a woman, which turned into hatred when she left him and took another path. Meaning he could love her as long as she belonged to him; while the teenage character, Nazar, while has lost hope to continue his life with the girl he loved, and still loves, would do anything for her and sacrifice everything to get her back. These are two different approaches to love: those who can love only if they have a feeling of ownership over their loved one, so there is a sense of selfishness in this approach. On the other hand, there is a second group of people who, when in love, do not need to own the person (or the thing) they love in order to love them. This confirms the important notion about love in the book “Art of Loving” by Erich Fromm, which says “Love is the child of freedom, never that of domination” which means true love is when you don’t need to own anyone or anything, and it still exists.
CWB: “Dance in the Dust” deals with a social taboo, gossip and stories about single women that must survive hardships of life and how their kids are punished for what they might have done which is considered wrong by the society.
AF: The social aspect of “Dance in the Dust” comes exactly from this point of view. Challenging traditional perspectives towards this group of women who are forced into prostitution due to social and economic hardships, where there is always a completely one-sided moral judgment towards them, and therefore people close to them are harmed too because of this perspective. This is the social aspect of “Dance in the Dust” which I have also pointed out in “The Salesman”, where we have a characters who is a prostitute, but we never see her in the film.
CWB: Besides the beginning sequences there is no physical presence of any woman for most of the film, but their strong presence in the minds of the two men is much stronger than their physical presence.
AF: It’s the two men in the film that are challenging each other during the story. But their challenges are about women we never see but extremely affect their lives. Sometimes the absent characters have a stronger presence, and the audience can feel them more indirectly and sympathize with them. I have had similar experiences in my other films too. For example, in “The Salesman”, one of the characters is a prostitute woman, who we see how she affects everybody’s lives, but we never see her in person. Interesting thing is that in the first drafts of the screenplay, the woman was there in flesh, however, later, I decided it’s better not to see her but to feel her presence. “Dance in the Dust” seems to be a masculine film, but it is completely about women.
CWB: Heydar, this bitter lonely man, is like an old and tired Samurai, and is so obsessed with love for the woman who has left him and the pain of losing her that he is looking for death by hunting snakes. Against his cold appearance we see him getting drunk, crying, and losing control for some moments. Heydar has sentenced himself to live solitary in the desert.
AF: The old man is a strange character. He has consciously chosen to live this solitary life because he is hurt and defeated in the relationship he had with other people in the past. Now, he prefers to spend the rest of his life with snakes instead of being with people and tolerating more injuries. This teenager’s presence in his privacy makes him hesitate in this decision, and maybe this old man doubts this decision to live in isolation. Often, the point of this kind of relationship is that the old man influences the teenager; especially in the Eastern culture, it is the guru who affects the disciple and the student. On the contrary, here it is the teenager who seems to be more mature despite his young age, and the influence he has on the old man regarding the definition of love is greatly important. In the end, it seems that the old man returns to his solidarity, but it seems a father-child relationship has been built between the two.
CWB: Desert is portrayed like a living character in “Dance in the Dust” and it has its own interaction with Heydar who is so close to the desert with his harsh characteristics and with the gentle and changing mood of Nazar that cannot connect and live with the desert.
AF: In this film, the desert is like a large theatre stage with two actors, and it is helpful to characterize the taciturn old man. The presence of the old man in this harsh environment, which appears to be so calm, is a part of his character development-a part of the decision he has made for the rest of his life. Both this desert and the car he lives in, are a part of the character development for the old man who seems to be so rough but is so warm and sentimental in the inside.
CWB: The ending, since the audience are left to guess the future of the main characters, Heydar, Nazar and Reyhaneh, is what becomes a trademark of your filmmaking; challenging and involving the audience in the main themes of your films.
AF: This is what happens in my other films too and have eventually turned into this so called “open ending”. Although perhaps a better term should be found for it because the stories are not open-ended, but the destiny of the characters remain open, and the audience is left asking themselves what will become of these characters in the future. I imagine that if the character can bring the audience to empathize with them during the film, then the audience will be worried about the destiny of the characters at the end of the film, and they will think about their lives; so the story never ends, it will go on. I think the empathy created by the characters towards the audience is at the root of these endings.
CWB: For the most part, and especially in the first half of the film, has an unintentional neo-realistic touch as well as a shadow of Kurosawa type of storytelling. Filmmakers who directly refer to a specific genre or the type of storytelling used by other directors has never got my attention but when this point of view exists under the skin of the film, it’s delightful.
AF: Naturally, every filmmaker is influenced by the lasting and effective films he has watched throughout his life. If I have been influenced by the realist films of the golden age of Italian cinema, this influence has penetrated deep into my being and have their place in my subconscious, and later, when I started writing and making films, it showed itself as a part of my cinematic taste, and it has been completely indirect. Great filmmakers like Kurosawa have also had a great influence on me. I have always tried to get the influences from my surrounding world, whether from life or cinema, to go through this stage and transition from conscious mind to the subconscious mind and become a part of my taste, then it can be reflected in my work. Maybe this aspect of “Beautiful City” that you referred to is influenced by the subconscious mind and the taste that has been formed under the influence of my favorite films throughout my life.
CWB: The opening sequence in the “Beautiful City” is so shocking, where a fiesta ends in revealing a tragic reality. How realistic are the sections in the juvenile detention center?
AF: In some of my films, like “Beautiful City”, “About Eli”, and “Everybody Knows” a happy situation turns into a critical one, just by a ‘twist”.
The scenes you see in the film with the children and teenagers’ prison are filmed in a real location and prison. Real teenage prisoners have also appeared in supporting roles in some of the scenes. and all my efforts were to make this prison as close to reality as possible. In the period when we were having difficulties in getting permission to shoot in the real prison, getting to know the children in the prison had a great impact on me and also on “Beautiful City”.
CWB: I think switching the main character from Akbar to Ala and not showing Akbar after that is very clever and well thought, as it would have taken the attention away from the main subject. In the meantime, we still feel his presence.
AF: The film starts with Akbar, and people may expect that Akbar would be the main character of the movie, but after a few minutes, Ala appears to become the main character. The story is entirely centered around his efforts to rescue his friend from execution. Although we don’t see Akbar in the film, all the concerns and worries of the audience is to know whether Ala will succeed in his efforts to rescue Akbar or not. Akbar is an absent character, but he remains the main one. in most of my films, except for one or two, there are various main characters who have conflicts with each other, unlike classic movies of novels in which there is a fight between a hero and an anti-hero or a fight between good and evil. In this film, it is a fight between good and good, and we, as audiences, wonder to find out which group’s winning will make us happier. Either party’s win will lead to the defeat of the other party, and we still will not be satisfied. In the war between good and good, the winning of one side and the defeat of the other does not make us happy. In this film, both the character of the old man and the father of the girl who was murdered and those around him, as well as the character of Ala and those around him, are in a constant fight and conflict. But we are worried about the destiny of both sides and we, as audiences, are in doubt and facing the question of who should win so that we leave the theatre satisfied. The important point is that, in the end, we understand that the circumstances are what must be changed to satisfy us, as audiences, not the winning of either party or the fight itself; so the conditions that lead the characters to be under such social and moral pressures have to be changed.
CWB: The love between Ala and Firouzeh is delicately developed, and it becomes an important element in the film.
AF: The romantic relationship between Ala and Firouzeh in “Beautiful City” has different functions. We sympathize with the teenager whose execution is at the center of story, because it is a matter of life and death for him. This is such a bitterly critical issue. The love between Ala and Firouzeh is a hue of life in this crisis, which is the possibility death of a teenager. These two stories together made the film not so bitter to be unbearable. Besides, Ala would get more motivated to rescue his friend, who is about to be executed. Also, this romantic relationship, which remains unfulfilled, makes us realize the deeper dimensions of our characters’ lives. “Beautiful City” is one of my few films where we see a romantic relationship, although it’s not so easy to portray a romantic relationship in Iranian films due to censorship, and we must portray these types of relationships indirectly.
CWB: Touching and getting close to religious issues is always a risk and most filmmakers avoid it, it’s done so well in “Beautiful City”.
AF: Of course, it’s not so easy to deal with religious and belief issues, especially in a country where a religious and ideological government is in power. When I was writing the screenplay of “Beautiful City”, I got to know some NGOs that are run mostly by women. These are people who try hard to rescue those who have received capital punishment, and they have succeeded to help teenagers sentenced to death. Later, after the screening of “Beautiful City”, this film itself had a great impact and opened this debate again, and there were many talks in the media about execution. This is an important topic with so many films made about it and are still being made in Iran. Maybe the reason “Beautiful City” received the final screening permission, although we did not receive a shooting permit first, and I submitted two years later, after making my first film, was that I brought both sides of the crisis to talk, the family whose daughter is murdered as well as the murderer himself. I tried to show empathy for both sides. I tried not to make a one-sided film that only shows sympathy for one side, and this conversation and challenge that was created between the two sides in the film made the audience empathize with both families who are parties to the dispute. Maybe it was this version that enabled me to make the film; otherwise, I don’t think we would get a production permit for “Beautiful City”. Eventually this film became one of my films that had a great social impact, that’s why I am very happy to have been able to make this film because there are still many people who refer to this film, talking about execution of those who commit a crime when they are underage, and are executed after they have passed legal age. This film created many discussions in the press at the time it was made. It went beyond cinematic discussions and people paid more attention to its social aspect, which was very influential.
CWB: Like real life, where side stories invade your destiny and change it, here the family of the Akbar’s victim change the whole relationship and the future of Ala and Firouzeh.
AF: The love between Ala and Firouzeh is shaped by the attempt to rescue a man’s life, to help Akbar, and their love becomes more intense throughout the film. It is made clear at the end of the film, due to surrounding social conditions, this love is defeated when their mutual effort does not come to fruition. Viewers may feel that it is a subplot and the victim’s family’s characters that lead to the defeat of this love, but from a wider perspective, it is social dominating conditions that cause their separation and this ending, despite their pure love. The conditions that pass through the middle of their lives are like a heavy and noisy train and separates them.
CWB: The actors’ performances in the film are amazing. How did you develop the characters and how did you work with your actors?
AF: The actors I used in “Beautiful City” are a combination of professional and well-known actors, as well as new actors who were acting in front of a camera for the first time. This combination makes the film much more realistic and more like real life. This is a formula I have repeated in my next films, and I have gotten good results from it. “Beautiful City” could become a film to divide the characters into distinctive black-and-white categories. It could make us get closer to Ala and Firouzeh’s characters, and empathize with them, and feel distant from the character of the father, or Abolqasem, his wife, and his family. It was very important that the performances could keep this balance and break the black and white portraying of the characters. Therefore, I put a lot of effort into the development of the Abolqasem family characters. The father character was played by Faramarz Gharibian, who is a famous and popular actor in Iran. I had previously worked with this great actor in “Dance in the Dust”, and I have very nice memories of our collaboration in these two films. Starting from the outside to reach inside was the method I used on this character. That is, I started at the beginning, and in the first session before each practice, I dressed the actor in the clothes of this character, and we chose all the clothes. In the next step, we completed his makeup, and then we worked on how to walk with the shoes that were chosen for this character. We had him wear a traditional Iranian shoes that when you wear it, usually you fold their heels and that make you dragging your steps and bending your body while walking that gives the impression of an emotionally broken person. In his physical appearance, we decided that the hands should be bent from the elbows and held a little behind the body, and the pinkies should be separated from the other fingers. He should feel some pain in his wrists, and he must massage them constantly. All these make the audience feel that he is getting old and bent under the pressure of hardships.
The character of Abolqasem is quiet and introverted throughout the film, and maybe he says only a few sentences, but his acting is shaped by the way he walks, his gaze, and his silences. For this reason, most of the time and energy of this actor was spent on creating the external appearance of this character, which helped ensure that the characters of the film did not become black and white. We could feel empathy for this family and this character, which also helped to shape the war between good and good that I previously mentioned. The acts were so influential in this matter. The other excellent actress is Ahoo Kheradmand, who plays Abolqasem’s wife in the film. She is introverted too and speaks less, and all her concern for her disabled daughter can be felt in her eyes and her silence. She is a woman who has gotten prematurely old under the pressure of hardships. I sometimes think to myself that the characters exist in the world outside the film and still live somewhere in this world, even though I wrote and created them, and sometimes I’d love to know what happened to them. This rarely happens to me, but one of the instances that happened among all the acting in my films, where I don’t see the characters as “film characters” but see them as living beings that are live in a corner of this world was in this film, “Beautiful City”. I truly feel as if some characters, including Abolqasem and his wife, are no longer the characters of a film, but living people who are living in a forgotten corner of this world.
CWB: It feels like Abolqasem’s stubborn and tragic character in “Beautiful City” is a continuation of Agha Rahim in “Dance in the Dust” Both have lost a loved one and live in an isolated world.
AF: This has happened unintentionally; both characters have a lot in common. On top of the fact that both characters are played by the same actor, both are taciturn and introverted. It seems that there exists a deep world behind their eyes, and they have unsaid words and pains inside their hearts. They are characters whose pride does not allow them to speak about their pains. Working on extroverted characters who speak about their pains is easier because we can easily use dialogue as a tool to express them. On the other hand, we have fewer tools to introduce introverted characters. They often must describe themselves to the audience with their silence and minimal reaction to events. I don’t see these two characters as parallel, but in many ways, they are similar, such as the fact that there is a heavy burden on their shoulders from the past and that they are lonely. Interestingly, many main actors in my films have this trait, and it seems that maybe they have a common root in my subconscious. All these characters are different aspects or forms of a lonely man who exists in my subconscious mind. Because in my other films, we somehow see this lonely and proud introverted man too.
CWB: Is “Beautiful City” your first film with an open ending? This is a bit of a shock for the audience who usually are looking for a happy or tragic ending, while you choose an open ending. And that’s what makes this film memorable.
AF: That is true. I started this type of ending in my films with “Beautiful City”. Later, I tried to concentrate on this concept more and use this kind of ending more profoundly in my next films. The point that might be interesting to the reader of this interview is that after making “Beautiful City” and it was ready to be screened publicly, was first shown in a festival a few times. One night I came out of the cinema and was not satisfied with the ending, and I didn’t like the ending. A few days later, I called the producer, who was a great man and unfortunately passed away just last month. He was one of my best friends and producers, and I made an appointment and told him that I did not like the ending of the film. He was very surprised and said that the film was made and shown at a festival quite a few times. All the copies were made, and because it was filmed as a negative and the positives were all printed, he said that nothing more could be done and it was too late for any changes. I said OK, but I was very upset, and I wanted to have a different ending, which had recently thought of. When I got home that night, the producer called me and said, “I do not want you to be upset, and if you want to change the ending, we can get the crew back together and change the ending as you want”. I could not believe that the producer would do this, and I do not think any producer would be willing to do such a thing, but he did it. We got some of the crew together a few days later and reshot the ending, as you see today. The interesting point is that the location where I wanted to shoot the ending used to be Firouzeh’s house, but we were no longer allowed to work there, so for the final sequence, we had to recreate the decor of the room where Firouzeh was smoking behind a window. We filmed several shots, re-edited and changed the ending, recalled all the copies of the film, and changed and reprinted them. This ending you see was added to the new film after the festival screening, and the film was changed. I am very happy to have this new ending in the film. I want to end this interview with this memory of the very good producer who produced both my first and second films; he was very supportive and was my dear friend. I would like to say that there are some loving people in the film industry without whom the filmmakers would have a real hard time making the films they want to make.