Cultural diplomacy has often been ignored as a salient form of political diplomacy. Currently, we are seeing a change in the practice of Arabic cultural diplomacy as it expands to include media that is not state-affiliated and creative projects that are made independently of the government. One example is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose award-winning film, A Separation, has provided foreign audiences around the world with an accurate and credible portrayal of Iranian culture and identity.
Farhadi’s A Separation, which he describes as a “detective film told in the style of a documentary,” demonstrates the influence of film diplomacy as a medium for communicating messages, so often miscommunicated, to the global audience. A Separation is an incredibly powerful film about the difficulties of existing within two spheres at once—the traditions and precedents of old Arab culture and the struggles and demands of modern society. It gives American audiences an incredibly intimate and personal exploration of Iranian domestic life—a life divided by gender, age, religion and class.
The movie tells the story of an Iranian couple going through a separation (Nader and Simin) and the domestic worker Nader hires to help care for his ailing father (Razieh) as a result of Simin moving out. Razieh, who is pregnant finds the work incredibly difficult and eventually suffers a miscarriage. The movie revolves around the culpability of that miscarriage which could have been caused by Nader’s harsh treatment of her or her husband’s alleged domestic abuse. The film shows the audience intimate portraits of Nader and Simin’s life such as domestic quarrels, daily work, mental disease, their daughter’s schooling, Tehran traffic, frustrating government bureaucracy.
We read a lot this semester about the difficulty Iranian filmmakers have in expressing themselves outside the bounds of national censorship as well as the expectations of the Iranian filmgoer. It is rare that a film made within Iran can capture such an intimate and morally complex portrait of domestic life. It forces the audience to ask themselves complex and globally relevant questions of responsibility—the film focuses on the difficulty and ambiguity in telling the truth and the effects of inflexibility and pride within Iranian male culture.
This movie is interesting because though there are allusions to Iranian politics, it does not present itself as a political work. Instead, it gives us a snapshot of Iranian life, allowing its audience to pick up on the subtle similarities and differences between the Iranian and American domestic spheres. I think that often Middle Eastern films about social issues are regarded in a political context because daily life in the Arab World is completely dominated by political life. A Separation certainly brings about questions of morality and ethics but also refuses to be a political talking piece. There is family at the heart of this film. Yes, there are gender dynamics, class conflicts and an exploration of the religious and social systems that cause Razieh to find herself in such despair, but family is what is truly at the heart of this film. The politics of the family in this case supersedes the politics of the nation.