Asghar Farhadi doesn’t use Twitter or Facebook. “It takes a lot of time, and from an emotional point of view, I’m not the kind of person that can absorb that much bad news,” he says. But the two-time Oscar-winning Iranian director has made a trenchant critique of the phenomenon of social media-anointed saints and villains with his new film, A Hero.
The Iran-set drama, which had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend after winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in June, follows Rahim (Ahmir Jahidi), a divorced father imprisoned for debt, whose decision to return a lost handbag full of gold coins earns some good publicity for the prison where he lives and turns him into a feel-good news story. As is ever the case, Rahim’s backstory is more complicated than the good-guy narrative that takes hold on social media, an idea Farhadi wanted to explore after noticing the precipitous rise and fall of some everyday heroes in the news.
“We don’t let people do wrong anymore,” Farhadi says, speaking with the help of a translator in an interview at Telluride. “What was interesting to me is that some ordinary people would do some humanitarian thing in their life at some moment, and people wanted that person to be that humanitarian guy all the time. They’re denied their past or their future. I’m not saying that people should do wrong things, but every person in order to be human has to have some wrongdoings.”
Though Farhadi’s movie is rooted in the specific culture and city of Shiraz, the paradox A Hero depicts is, he feels, universal. “When they call it cancel culture—like somebody goes up and then they’re trying to bring him back down—this happens everywhere in the world,” Farhadi says.
Farhadi’s previous two Iran-set films, 2011’s A Separation and 2016’s A Salesman, both won the foreign language Oscar, now known as the Academy Award for Best International Film, and A Separation was nominated for original screenplay. Amazon Studios, which will release A Hero theatrically on Jan. 7, 2022 and on streaming Jan. 21 after a year-end qualifying release, will campaign Farhadi not just in the International category but also in director and original screenplay.
When Farhadi was last nominated, he declined to attend the Oscar ceremony in protest of the just-passed Trump travel ban, which prohibited most visitors from Muslim countries, including Iran, from coming to the U.S. “Everything happened very fast at that time,” Farhadi says of the ban, which Donald Trump enacted in January of 2017, about four weeks before the Oscars (President Joe Biden revoked the ban on the day after his inauguration in January of this year). “We talked to the distributor here in the U.S. and the decision was to come over. But I saw the ban as a disrespect to the Iranian people and the other countries as well. The fact that I could go, but many other people couldn’t go would give me a bit of a bad feeling. I worked on a statement for one or two nights. It wasn’t just about the ban. It was about the people in my country, in the U.S., anywhere that divide people into groups. The politicians that do this. I thought that this is a general look at humanity.”
In early 2020, Farhadi was in the midst of location scouting for A Hero in Shiraz, he says, when “My production designer came to me and said, ‘There is this disease that is spreading in China, and it may come hit Iran as well and we have to be very careful.’ And a few days later, we heard that two people died in Iran as well and we decided to stop it. I thought, ‘It’s going to be over in one or two months.’” Though the preproduction pause lasted much longer — it was 10 months before he started shooting — Farhadi took advantage of the extra time to make a pivotal change to the script, adding a new, sympathetic motive for the man who had been a straightforward villain, Rahim’s creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh). “Bahram’s character in the first version of the script… we hate him, almost,” Farhadi says. “I thought to myself that this is not something that I have in my movies at all. And I started working on his character and his family … and I made a backstory for him that when the audience hears him, they feel like, ‘Oh, he’s right, too.’”
Iran is currently in the midst of a fifth wave of COVID-19 and more than 97,000 people there have died since the pandemic began, a death rate worsened by a government decision to prohibit U.S.- and U.K.-produced vaccines. “The people won’t forgive this ever,” Farhadi says. “It’s a very upsetting situation and people are very furious. People don’t see any hope that anything will change in the future. Everyday you just hear bad news, and it feels that the system doesn’t have any decision to change, to make people’s lives better.”
Farhadi’s next movie will be set outside Iran, he says, and though he is committed to continuing to work in his home country, restrictions there take their toll on him. “Many things would be different,” Farhadi says, of how his movies would look without government censorship. “We call these movies realism, but, for example, the scenes where the women are at their home and they’re wearing the hijab, the scarf, it’s not real. I can’t tell exactly what my movies would look like if I had the freedom, but I know that it would be different because my mind would be freer.”
The director, who is 49 and made his first feature film in 2003, explains the impact of a career spent stifling his expression. ”When for years you walk on a very bumpy road, the way that you walk becomes like that, bumpy,” Farhadi says. “And when you get on a straight road, it takes some time for you to walk normally. So I can’t tell you how I would walk on a straight road, but I know that it would be easier.”