Friday, September 9, 2016

A Conversation with Tina Hassannia

Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema (The Critical Press, 2014) is the first English book about the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, a filmmaker often overrated by most people, underrated by some.

Written by critic Tina Hassannia, the book is a dialogue of sorts in which the Iranian Canadian author, by means of Farhadi’s films, engages with her own cultural roots. The approach of the book is quite simple, yet effective: summing up the current critical reading and reception of each film in the West (and to a certain extent in Iran), supplemented by a lengthy interview with the filmmaker.

The interview below was conducted via email, a prologue to a video interview, with slightly different questions, and lots of films clips, which was done later and can be viewed on Keyframe.

Tina Hassannia

- You were born in Tehran, right?

My family is from Tabriz but my immediate family lived in Tehran (where I was born) for many years. We left when I was a baby during the Iran-Iraq war. I grew up in Ottawa, Canada and for the last two years have lived in Toronto.

- How did you discover Iranian cinema for the first time? 

I didn't grow up watching movies and I was never as interested in my heritage as I could have been -- that changed pretty drastically a few years ago, on both fronts. I'd long held an interest in aesthetics and I'd studied both theatre and music. It was really film criticism that got me interested in watching films. I'd always liked reading cultural criticism and found writing on film really fascinating. It hit me so hard that I went back to school for cinema studies. Abbas Kiarostami was a household name for me ever since he won the Palme d'Or for Taste of Cherry, but I only knew who he was because he was Iranian. I'd never seen his films. Watching them for the first time, when I was in my mid-20s, was a huge turning point for me, both in deepening my appreciation for cinema and Iranian arts and culture.

- And how did you come across Farhadi's cinema?

The first Farhadi film I watched was A Separation, when it came out in 2011. It was also another stepping stone, for me, in understanding and appreciating all that Iranian cinema had to offer. I went on to devour more of his films -- About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday initially, because they were easier to find. What I find unique about Farhadi's cinema is that 1) he's a truly modern dramatist, in that he takes lessons from earlier screenwriters and playwrights of the 20th century, and turns them into fast-moving, naturalist stories that are coupled with a nuanced and complex understanding of morality; 2) he's able to make stories that are at once both culturally specific and universal, and I don't think any Iranian filmmaker has quite achieved this simultaneous balance, at least at his level; 3) he doesn't really have any bad characters. There have been a few smaller roles that haven't been as fleshed out (these are in his earlier work) but to understand why people do the things that they do, his films are very good at laying out their rationale, and they don't try to convince you that an action was right, but rather, bring you to the conclusion that those characters had their own good reasons at that particular time.

- What was the process of writing the book?

There's not a lot written about Farhadi in English. Most of the research I was able to pull up were reviews, but only of his last two films, and more numerously, there were interviews, but he's being asked the same questions in most of them. Many people want to understand Farhadi's work by what he says about them, and while I don't think that's a wrong approach, I don't think it should be the only approach to appreciating or analyzing cinema. I came up dry on his earlier work, so I asked an Iranian friend to help me find some Persian sources. My dad bought this huge DVD archive of Film Monthly Magazine while he was in Iran and mailed it to me, and I was able to pin down some more culturally specific thoughts on Farhadi's work that way.

I prefer thinking about films than their makers or the process that went into making them. This doesn't mean I don't ever think about it, and I have read such articles online. I didn't have a lot of time to do research -- I wrote 100 pages in five months -- so I came up with my own writing method, which, I'm sure, is nothing even remotely approaching original. The book begins with a long interview, and then there's a chapter devoted to each of his films, where I analyse both the film, and its reception and place in Farhadi's career trajectory.

- The book starts with an interview.

Yes, I interviewed Farhadi on Skype. He is a very thoughtful man. He's very intelligent, in fact it's initially intimidating, but he's also very relaxed and clearly enjoys talking about film aesthetics. He takes his time answering every question quite thoroughly. Perhaps this is why there are so many interviews with him -- he's such a compelling person to listen to. He has an answer for everything -- even if you don't agree with something in his film, he will very patiently take the time to explain his decision-making process to you. He's clearly thought out every possible detail and scenario for each of his projects, and I find that kind of dedication admirable.

- Farhadi is less liked by certain western critics who like filmmakers such as Kiarostami or even Makhmalbaf. Do you have any idea why is that?

Some critics have said that his films aren't very visually accomplished, and though this may be more true of his early films, I think with each film he has gotten better and better. The jump in quality between Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly is especially prominent. His visual grammar is especially stunning in the movies he's made with Mahmoud Kalari. But because his films are very fast-moving and heavily reliant on dialogue, story and melodrama, some high-falutin' critics see this as incongruous with arthouse cinema. To each their own, but personally I don't agree with that schema of arthouse and I think Farhadi belongs in that category as much as Tsai Ming-Iiang or Kiarostami.

- How would you describe Farhadi’s place in Iranian post-revolutionary cinema?

Farhadi has shown that it is possible to make movies about every-day events and not turn them into cheesy or lackluster films -- they can be beautiful, game-changing, and intellectually challenging. I think that's what he's done for Iranian cinema. He's also proven that you can make a movie that is rooted in Iranian life but with a genuine and universal language that can speak to everyone in the world.

- And finally, your favorite Farhadi film?

A Separation is his most accomplished film, without a doubt. It discusses some very contemporary social divisions in Iran, between the middle and lower classes, and it makes its critique of all types of characters. It builds a very complicated situation that is played out very beautifully and organically and within a narrative structure that has the viewer on the edge of their seats for the entire film. It speaks about different generations and it shows how people inadvertently teach their kids the wrong things. However, I don't want to give the impression that people should start or stop with that movie--especially since it's the one virtually everyone has seen--so I should also mention About Elly and Beautiful City as being at the top of my list. About Elly is a very subtle critique on Iran's upper middle class.

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