In many ways, the biggest impacts made by Iran and Saudi Arabia this year were not on the battlefield or at the diplomatic roundtable but in film. “The Past”, made by Asghar Farhadi, was Iran’s official selection for the 86th Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. I always have had problems with the designation “foreign” when it comes to film since it smacks of Hollywood corporate narcissism, more so in this instance since I nominated “The Past” for the N.Y. Film Critics Online best picture of 2013. Period. “Wadjda” was the first film ever directed by Haifaa al Mansour, who grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia and now lives in Bahrain. The film depicts the struggle of an 11-year-old Saudi girl to own a bicycle in violation of patriarchal religious norms. It is a tale reminiscent of “Offside”, the 2006 Iranian film about young women trying to sneak into a football stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying match. Ironically, despite all the bitter rivalries over whether Sunni or Shias represent Muslim orthodoxy, the two authoritarian states have much in common when it comes to women’s rights or the lack thereof.
Let me make a bold statement. On the basis of only two films, the 2011 “A Separation”, and “The Past” that opened at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, I would regard Asghar Farhadi as the finest film director today. “A Separation” won an Oscar for the best foreign film of the year in 2011, and like “The Past” was the best film period. Unlike another brilliant Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who directed “Offside” and was arrested for opposing the government in 2009, Farhadi’s films are much more personal and less likely to give offense to the authorities. That being said, he is still very much a political filmmaker even if his message is more subtle. “A Separation” dramatized the class and cultural differences between a middle-class, secular-minded family and the pious housekeeper they hire.
Set entirely in Paris, “The Past” is even less about Iranian society. While focused on domestic conflicts like “A Separation”, it is still a politically engaged film. This is one instance where I would not dream of giving away a surprise ending but suffice it to say that the film is very much about the experience of the “foreigner” in a racist society.
In the opening scene, Marie (Berenice Bejo) is picking up her estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport, where he has just arrived from Tehran. Separated from her for some time, he has come to Paris to sign some papers for their divorce and to appear in court with her to finalize matters.
Despite the obvious tension that still exists, she convinces him to stay at her house instead of a hotel. Upon arriving there, he is puzzled by the hostility of Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the 8-year-old son of Samir (Tahar Rahim), the man she plans to marry. Marie’s daughter Lea, who is the same age as Fouad, is happy to see her dad. Another daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a product of another marriage prior to the one with Ahmad, is in her late teens and just as troubled as Fouad in her own way. Marie alludes to the problems she is having with Lucie that become clearer as the film unfolds.
Within a half hour of Ahmad’s arrival, Fouad throws a violent temper tantrum and locks himself in his room. He cries out that he wants to go back to his dad’s apartment. (Samir has only partially moved in with Marie.) As is the case with “A Separation”, this is a family setting all sorts of records for dysfunctionality and a reminder of Tolstoy’s epigraph to “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Eventually we learn of the source of the disquiet. Samir’s wife lies in a coma, the victim of a failed suicide attempt after discovering that he has been having an affair with Marie. Like a late 19th century Gothic tale updated for the current epoch, “The Past” is a drama about the most evil spirits imaginable—those summoned up by our own psyche.
While this is a film that is remarkable on all accounts, it was a stroke of genius for Asghar Farhadi to make a highly melodramatic story about the lives of ordinary people. Marie is a pharmacist and Samir is a dry cleaner, just the sort of people you meet everyday when you are out shopping. As any smart writer understands ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the best tragedy comes out of the lives of ordinary people, not kings and queens. When Ali Mosaffa was asked in a press notes interview whether the film was a French or an Iranian story, his answer was very much on point: “I think the strength of the script is that it’s neither French nor Iranian. It’s a human story.”
Like “The Past”, “Wajda” is about ordinary people. Wajda is a 10-year-old girl who lives in the suburbs of Riyadh with her mother, who is trying to convince her husband not to take a second wife.
Wadjda is the quintessential “tomboy”, the sort of girl I went to elementary school with and found much more interesting than those preoccupied with Barbie dolls. Wadjda wears high-top sneakers that look like Converses and enjoys listening to pop music cassettes. All in all, she will remind you very much of Marjane Satrapi, the spunky Iranian girl who turned her battles with the clerics into the comic book “Persepolis”.
Wadjda wants more than anything to ride a bike. I know what it feels like for a 10-year-old to be determined to own a bike. When I was exactly that age, I threw such a tantrum that my parents drove through a hurricane to go to a Sears 25 miles from our home to pick me up a Huffy two-wheeler. In Wadjda’s case, the adversary is not a storm but the backward authorities that consider bikes for boys only. In essence, Wadjda’s lonely and stubborn battle is the same as women two and three times her age fighting for the right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia.
It is also, unsurprisingly, the same sort of challenge that the director faced as a woman making a movie in Saudi Arabia, where there is not a single movie theater because of Wahhabist backwardness.
Every step was difficult and it was quite an adventure. I occasionally had to run and hide in the production van in some of the more conservative areas where people would have disapproved of a woman director mixing professionally with all the men on set. Sometimes I tried to direct via walkie-talkie from the van, but I always got frustrated and came out to do it in person. We had a few instances of people voicing their displeasure with what we were doing, but nothing too disruptive. We had all of the proper permits and permissions so overall it went relatively smoothly.
“Wadjda” played at various theaters in the middle of 2013. Look for it soon on Netflix or Amazon streaming.