Earlier this fall, Iran selected Asghar Farhadi’s The Past as its official submission for the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The decision marked a strong reversal in Iran’s attitude about the American awards ceremony, which it boycotted last year in protest against the U.S.-made anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. The change comes primarily due to the new moderate president Hassan Rouhani, who, since his inauguration, has made efforts to soften Iran’s cultural policy. It may not be difficult to see why the government picked The Past, considering Farhadi’s name recognition after his film A Separation won the foreign film award two years ago (a first for Iran). Yet some, including hardliner conservatives in the country, have commented on the lack of “Iranianness” in The Past. While a few scenes in the film feature Persian dialogue and several of the cast and crew members are Iranian, it’s more accurately a French production, given the source of its funding, shooting locale, and setting.
The aesthetic and cultural discussion about the film’s identity is broader and more multifarious than the technicalities of its production or exhibition context, however. In spite of its European elements, can a film by a diasporic Iranian filmmaker still be considered to some extent, Iranian?
In the past few years many acclaimed Iranian filmmakers have started working more regularly abroad. Last year saw the release of Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love (filmed and set in Japan), Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season (filmed in Turkey), and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Gardener (a documentary filmed in Israel). The Past is, then, part of a growing trend likely brought on by the increasing tensions and limitations posed by Iranian authorities on filmmakers, even those who have long established careers at home. (The hope now is that Rouhani’s election may lead these filmmakers to again make movies in Iran).
When films are made outside of a director’s country, questions pertaining to cultural identity naturally arise. When it comes to national identity, Iran has its own unique set of knots: While Iranians take pride in their country’s rich heritage that dates back millennia and which was strongly emphasized by the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979), today’s rulers draw from the more recent Shi’a Islamic culture. These two strands of Iranian identity have proven difficult to reconcile or assimilate together. Additionally, numerous marginalized ethnicities in Iran challenge the idea of a common cultural identity; though Kurds, Lurs, Gilaki people and other minor ethnic groups identify as “Iranian” nationally, this does little to address the regional prejudices held against them. Films like Bahram Bazai’s Bashu, The Little Stranger, Amir Naderi’s The Runnerand Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses deal specifically with these tensions.
For those Iranians living abroad, the fight for a unified identity remains just as fraught. In some places, like the popular independent media centers in Los Angeles (“Tehrangeles”), one can see a forged Iranian-American identity that has unified the secular, upper-middle-class Iranians who made a mass exodus from their homeland following the revolution. But otherwise, if one looks to the cinematic output as a source of confirmation, the Persian diaspora—based mostly in North America and Europe—suffers from a lack of cohesiveness. Although a handful of Iranian artists have established themselves outside of the country, to date, the creative output of arthouse filmmakers has not helped to forge a united voice or provide an alternative identity for diasporic Iranians. This is not to suggest that their role lies in pioneering such an identity. But their encompassing reach and personal experiences abroad, which many have internalized into their work, present them with opportunities and an audience to articulate the Persian diasporic experience that others don’t have.
To begin answering the question about the cultural identity of The Past, it’s helpful to consider Farhadi’s own goals in creating the film. The director spent two years abroad researching and working on the story. Though initially guided by the cultural differences between Iranians and Europeans in the beginning of his research, Farhadi became increasingly inspired by their similarities. The Past does not contribute to a collective voice for the Iranian community abroad—at least not directly. Though the film details the experience of an Iranian man who once lived in Europe, the story is not focused on his diasporic perspective like with other films in that vein, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Yet in a roundabout way, the film does seem to offer something unique and also entirely essential for the Persian diaspora: the normalization of an Iranian protagonist in a Western film.
Many representations of Iranian people in Western narratives have been racist, misaligned, or one-dimensional. These characters range from the evil husband “Moody” Mahmoody in Not Without My Daughter, to the patriarchal and stubborn Massoud Behrani in House of Sand and Fog. And while they’re not always written as villains, terrorists, or flawed characters, more often than not Iranian characters come off as types or ciphers (like Sahar in Argo), and rarely are they the main character. With The Past, the protagonist Ahmad has not only been written by an Iranian (Farhadi), the character is played by an Iranian actor, Ali Mosaffa. Thus the film illustrates an Iranian experience rarely seen in productions catering to a Western audience—that of an authentically created Iranian protagonist in a European diegesis.
Ahmad is an ex-ex-pat: having lived in Paris for several years while married to Marie (Berenice Bejo), he moved back to Tehran after the couple separated and, in the film, visits Paris to settle their divorce. It’s been years since the couple has seen each other, and even though the narrative quickly foreshadows their difficulty communicating with one another (meeting at the airport, the two gesture and talk despite a glass barrier in between), Ahmad and Marie fall into a natural rhythm like an old couple. Ahmad remains guarded about his presence in Marie’s home because she is now living with someone else (an Arab named Samir, played by Tahar Rahim), yet he also feels compelled to help her in countless ways, even helping her shift gears in the car when she’s busy checking her blind spot. One incident after another provokes Ahmad to become increasingly involved in Marie’s family. Samir’s kid Fouad spills paint causing a melodramatic fight with Marie, who has no time to clean it up before leaving for errands, so Ahmad once again offers his assistance. He has to be the parent in her absence, for Fouad’s first impulse is to leave the house. Without Marie there, Ahmad must physically intervene to prevent a stranger’s kid from leaving. It’s an uncomfortable situation, and the first of many to surface in the film.
Ahmad is presented as affable and earthy; though he makes mistakes, like blindly telling Marie’s daughter Lucie to be upfront about the horrible news she’s uncovered about her mother’s relationship with Samir, he is frequently the calm and mediating presence between mother and daughter (though he only expected to see Marie’s kids for a matter of hours or days during his visit, he inadvertently returns to the trusting patriarchal position he held previously with them, especially Lucie). Ahmad’s Iranian friend, Shahryar, who owns a restaurant in Paris, offers not only a home away from home for Ahmad, but for Lucie as well: when she runs away after being berated by her mother, she finds refuge in Shahryar’s house. In a sense, Ahmad’s character, influenced by his hospitable tendencies, seems to offer the troubled family some kind of stability where there was none. The fault at first seems to lie with the unstable and stressed-out, chain-smoking, and pregnant Marie. But as Farhadi’s intricate narrative unfolds, it becomes obvious that tensions at home are due to the morally dubious circumstances with which Marie and Samir got together. Thus, Samir, who, due to his Middle Eastern background, is supposed to act like a substitute for Ahmad, cannot offer the same kind of stability.
Ahmad is never represented like an outsider in the film, even though everything about his character—his long separation from Marie and her family, his intruding presence in her home—would suggest otherwise. Ahmad doesn’t want to stay at Marie’s house because of their separation (and her living with another man). When he reaches Paris, though, Marie hasn’t booked him a hotel room because she wasn’t sure if he would actually show up. So it is that Ahmad’s thrust into a sticky situation from which he cannot easily untangle himself. As his friend Shahryar says, the only way he can move on is to completely divorce himself from Marie. Not merely in the legal sense in the word, but the emotional as well.
Farhadi could never have based this particular story in Iran, for social mores would have prevented a long-separated couple on the verge of official divorce from spending this amount of time together privately. The undeniable influence of a broken family’s in-laws would have made it impossible: in Iran, family elders play such an important role in monitoring the activities of children—even when they are grownups—and would see it necessary to ensure a separated couple stays literally separate. It’s as if, unbound from his country’s cultural standards and perhaps denying his extant feelings for Marie, Ahmad is simultaneously freed from social constraints and yet emotionally compelled to help her.
Farhadi has succeeded in underscoring universal impulses of his characters, despite their cultural backgrounds, and in the process he’s also removed most of the socio-cultural context that characterized his previous films. We never find out why Ahmad moved to France in the first place or why he went back to Tehran after their relationship failed. Nor does Farhadi detail the difficulties Ahmad faced while assimilating into French culture. But instead of being a fault, perhaps this ambiguity is actually a virtue. Is there a reason we need to know these details? These factors have nothing to do with the story at hand. While every character in The Past could have come from any country—there’s no reason why Ahmad is Iranian, why Marie is French, or why the story is set in Paris—removing the importance of cultural differences between the main characters in turn nullifies the exoticizing of Ahmad or Samir’s cultural identity (we never even learn where Samir comes from, just that he’s Middle Eastern). Western viewers are asked to see Ahmad not as a product of his culture, but as someone making decisions understood to be universally acceptable. Even if his intentions are noble, the results are disastrous. The film doesn’t seem to be suggesting that Ahmad should never have gotten involved, but that rather, anyone in his unique position would have likely done the same.
Where the typical diasporic narrative involves alienated protagonists who must incorporate themselves into a new culture, Farhadi skips these conventions. His interests lie elsewhere, with relationships, boundaries, and morality—subjects that are not necessarily tied with immigration or cultural assimilation. Ahmad’s ethnicity is certainly felt in the film, but it serves only as a backdrop: the elaborate meal of Ghormeh Sabzi he prepares for the family; the innocuous tone the film takes when the kids ask him about Iran; the warm rapport he has with Shahryar; the Persian words he’s taught Marie’s children. These elements form only a small part of the texture and color in The Past, and by downplaying their relevance in the overall narrative scheme Farhadi is able to normalize a phenomenon that is regularly deemed The Other: a fully fleshed-out character who just so happens to be Middle-Eastern. Before the Iranian diaspora can better unify, perhaps it’s more pressing to address such issues of cinematic representation in Western cinema so that the international community, especially the parts of it that remain biased against the Middle East, can see Iranians not just as people, but as worldly denizens whose values are universal. This is an idea The Past explores, if on the sly, and it is wholly necessary before any kind of Persian diasporic identity can emerge. You could even call the film prescient.