Interview with Asghar Farhadi on About Elli
Is the Majority Always Right?
by Saeed Qotbizadeh
About Elli is Asghar Farhadi’s fourth feature following Dance in the Dust, Shahr-e Ziba, and Fireworks Wednesday. Soon turning forty, he has been active in stage plays and television before starting a film career. He is a graduate of theater and has married Parisa Bakhtavar (director of Tambourine) when they were still students. Critics maintain that Farhadi has been progressing in the past few years and he also believes it. About Elli was made without hue and cry. Although it cast prominent Iranian actors, no news about it got around. After the film was ready for screening, controversies surrounding appearance of its actress Golshifteh Farahani in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, increased sensitivities about it. Some maintained that the film would be banned due to those controversies. Farhadi, however, behaved reasonably and his film was screened in Fajr International Film Festival. It was admired by critics and won the best director prize. A few days after its successful debut in Fajr Festival, it won another best director prize from Berlin Festival. It is now on screens and has been received warmly by Iranians. Being admired by both critics and ordinary audience is an important characteristic of About Elli. The story is about three young couples (Sepideh and Amir, Peiman and Shohreh, Nazi and Manouchehr) who make a trip to north Iran, but their trip is disrupted due to sudden drowning of Elli. Then they knew that Elli had been engaged and her friend, Sepideh, knew about it. Farhadi believes in a cinema which can relate to wide audience, not to be merely interesting to a group of intellectuals. About Elli has been one of the best works of the Iranian cinema in recent years.
Film International: You have continuously put special emphasis on time and location in series and films that you have made. As if, when you think about a story, the first thing coming into your mind is location followed by time.
Asghar Farhadi: I stick to certain principles when telling a story. I like to provide a regular narration and this habit or whatever it is restricts me in some respects; they are self-imposed restrictions which lead to regularity. Storytelling is a technical task for me; it is like having skill in laying out mathematical equations or a crossword puzzle. You can design different puzzles. Those with only horizontal and vertical rows and columns which do not cross have two major characteristics: firstly, they are easily solved, and secondly, solving them is not really fun. Everybody can design such a puzzle. However, designing a crossword puzzle needs regularity and it also gives pleasure to those who solve it. Our discussion has nothing to do with creativity or artistic illumination. It is a primary principle that screenwriter should work within a set number of rules. One of them is time with the other one being location. Of course, they are more important in theatrical plays. I would like to know when my story begins and till when it should continue; where it takes place and what is it all about.
FI: Is that a characteristic or weakness that your films are limited in time and location?
AF: I don’t know why it is so. Looking back, I see your point. However, none of them were based on a predetermined plan. Perhaps it is rooted in my knowledge of stage and stage plays which I have read and loved. I don’t like to be bound to a single form of storytelling. However, many factors are not controlled by storyteller or writer, but are pure necessities. Classic films inspire my storytelling model. In classic films, we have attraction curves as well as turning points whose position in the story should be well-defined. I have not found a better model yet. The desire to break extraordinary ground is not so powerful in me to make me ignore principles of classic storytelling. Those principles and rules have been experienced in the world cinema for decades and their usefulness has been proven. For example, every chair has four legs; perhaps there are three-legged chairs, but I like those with four legs!
FI: In Fireworks Wednesday and Tambourine (whose screenplay was written by you) the story was based on surprising the audience. As if you enjoyed to play with what viewers thought about the story and positions of characters and to finally tell them in a firm tone that they had been mistaken about the whole thing. In About Elli, however, this is not the issue and making viewers believe in the story is a goal of the film. You can more easily judge about Morteza in Fireworks Wednesday or about Shirin in Tambourine than about numerous characters in About Elli. What surprises us is the death of a character. However, the director has warned viewers about it in the first place and, secondly, Elli’s death entangles all characters and, here, the director has no plan to take viewers by surprise or to play with their ideas.
AF: I have no doubt that About Elli is a better work compared to my past experiences. I am happy that every one of my films has been better than its predecessor. However, I do not agree with you that Fireworks Wednesday and Tambourine were based on the element of surprise. If in Tambourine, you did not found out that the main character was a common thief and I had cut out that scene, the story would not be harmed. Revelation of the character’s true incentive for being at that building conformed to attraction curve of the screenplay; that is, unraveling truth at the climax of the story to be more impressive. The story, however, was not solely found on the element of surprise.
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