Iranian Film Wins Oscar and Surprise: It’s not un-American
by DR. LAINA FARHAT-HOLZMAN
March 7, 2012
This Iranian film received an Oscar this year, and quite rightly. I have been watching Persian cinema for years now, and wonder at how these excellent film makers get around the religious government censors. In this particular movie, the only indication of deference to the censors was that all the female characters wore head scarves (upper class) or chadors (lower class) indoors. I have heard that the moment that women step indoors, they pull off the hated head coverings.
Although this film focused on the events surrounding a marital breakup, it was not just a social drama; it was about the despair and bitterness of people living under a smothering culture. I would have called the movie “Lies” instead of “The Separation,” because the lies were the main elements of the story.
Lies have a particularly painful history in Iran. Before Islam, the country's popular religion was Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic ancient faith that celebrated life in a round of monthly feasts honoring the foods of the earth. The human action most condemned by the Prophet Zoroaster was “the lie,” which he called obedience to the devil. Persian kings were taught to ride well, shoot straight, and tell the truth.
With the arrival of Islam, Zoroastrianism was persecuted and largely drummed out of the country. Islam provided a back door for lying (particularly the Shiite Sect): that one could lie and deny that they were Muslim (or Shiite) to save their lives. Unfortunately, lying took on more of a life of its own at that point, prompted by constant oppression. Women lie to their husbands, lower class men lie to those above them, and everybody lies to the authorities, all of them goaded by fear.
In this film, every single character was compelled to lie - even though they wished they did not have to do so. The unhappy wife, a modern middle class school teacher, had to lie to the divorce judge about why she wanted to leave the country with her husband and young daughter. The judge asked if she didn't think Iran was a good enough place to rear a daughter, and she quickly denied that this was her reason.
Her husband, who had legal control over her leaving or not, would have gone with her had his father not suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He felt obliged to care for his father himself. One member of Parliament in Iran complained that the film maker was using the old man as a metaphor for the country's old Ayatollahs, which the film maker had to deny. I think he was.
A lower class housekeeper was hired to care for the old man while the husband was at work. She had lied to her husband about taking the job, and she was constantly on the phone with her religious authority to find out if what she was doing would condemn her to hell. She only asked about having to change the old man's pants when he wet himself; she did not ask about lying to her husband.
The husband lied to the divorce judge that he did not realize that the house maid was pregnant after she sued him upon having a miscarriage. She lied to the judge and her husband about how the miscarriage occurred. Her lower class husband lied to the people in the courthouse when it looked as though he was about to beat his wife. He denied that he ever raised a hand to her, which nobody believed. He was a man with a very bad temper and bitter class resentment.
And saddest of all, the 11-year -old girl who was torn between the conflicting needs of her parents; she caught each of them in a lie, and was distressed by this. However, when she was compelled to testify to the judge that her father did not know that the maid was pregnant, she realized that if she told the truth, her father would go to prison. She lied.
This marvelous film can tell us a great deal about the life of ordinary Iranians living in perilous times.