Guest Article by Filmmaker Rob Nilsson — Exceptions and the Rule: Thoughts on the 2011 Film A Separation

A Guest Article Written by Rob Nilsson

ConFluence-Film Blog has a very special guest article to share.  In my travels to San Francisco to shoot a new feature film, I recently had the supreme privilege of meeting and sharing a nice long chat with a filmmaking hero of mine, after having exchanged e-mail correspondence with him.  Bay Area independent film icon Rob Nilsson, winner of the Cannes Film Festival Camera d'Or for his debut feature Northern Lights (1979) and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Heat and Sunlight (1987), patented a brand of independent filmmaking known as Direct Action, an improvisational theater approach to filmmaking that takes a "just do it" approach to making movies, allowing creative storytelling about real people in real circumstances.  Nilsson has acquired a dedicated coterie of admirers, which includes none other than the late John Cassavetes himself, who called his Signal 7 (1985), "A seminal work."  Rob is helping us with our film as well, and gave my film The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour a lovely promotional quote this past year.  Mr. Nilsson penned a response to the 2009 Iranian film A Separation.  I am honored to be featuring it on the blog as a guest article.

Government is a four ring circus, each ring defined by a word beginning with P: Power, Protection, Pride and Profit.  Sad as this might sound we would never want to add Purity as the fifth P.  It’s the Pure I’m most afraid of.  Almost as much as the Sure.  Beware the “V word” too.  Virtue attends every inquisition, every bloody purge. Yes, we should advocate truthfulness, empathy, courage, honesty and other “virtues” but these are not ends in themselves.  How could they be?

Politicians are circus performers and we are the animals.  And in their four Rings our political figures perform many merry acts with and upon us, while regaling us with “truths” mostly lacking in empirical proof. When they are seeking election, they’ll say almost anything with the authority of worldly savants possessed of special understanding.  We listen to them pontificate and judge their obvious distortions, skeptical, but then, who else do we have? When they are elected they can’t act nearly as irresponsibly because now they are engaged in the actual work of governance.  And here, as greedy, petty, and venal as they may be, they need to be listened to.

Because it is through a process of intense debate with opposing peers that we get the best that can be gotten from the political process.  If we were to toss aside all the prevaricators and ask for the coming of the new Akhenaten who would toss out all uncertainty (and therefore all debate) in favor of sun worship, we would reap, eventually, the same as that all conquering poet.  Disaster.  His city deserted.  His tomb desecrated.  His memory besmirched.  Like Lenin.  Ghengis Khan.  Xerxes.  And as for Revolution as a means to achieve justice, which would you like to have lived through:  Russian, Chinese, Cambodian… ? Luckier the American or even the French.  But luck runs out and I don’t like the odds… or the body counts.

The only hedge we have against disaster is constant debate, constant struggle, constant warfare between competing notions, 1/4 of which will be too difficult for most to follow, 1/4 of which will be so self interested none of the opposition will support it, 1/4 of which will be criminally stupid, or insane, and 1/4 of which offers enough wiggle room for the kind of compromise which can actually benefit opposing sides.  This is a hard ball game in a stadium with owners prepared to give out the signal to kill, maim and destroy if this compromise cannot be reached.  Therefore, something as tenuous, mysterious, and poetic as truth, or virtue, or beauty can only be achieved outside the political realm, perhaps on the level of what we call Art, be that poetry, music, sport, dance, philosophy, literature, or whatever it is when we contemplate the wonders of the natural world.

I think it’s Eric Rohmer who said, “Life offers only exceptions.”  In spite of all our language, laws, beliefs and rational decisions, life almost always turns out different than we expect.  We write a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, and a whole host of laws.  You’d think we might be able to have a social structure with these helpful guidelines alone.  But we can’t.  Every day in every town, county, state, and city, there are hundreds and thousands of trials before magistrates, juries, and judges requiring fallible humans to interpret human experience on the basis of law, but a law never flexible enough to cover all the human contradictions, paradoxes and “exceptions” certain to crop up.

Everything written must be interpreted on the basis of what people actually do.  So this huge infrastructure of crime and punishment, of mercy and judgment, of sentences and acquittals, everyday grinds out decisions, some clear cut, some obfuscating, but all some sort of acknowledgement of compromises necessary because of the crazy prolixity of human need, desire, and belief.  When law and what people do seem to jibe, perhaps because of common customs and long standing traditions, everything seems more simple.

But rarely is.  In our democracy appeals can and do go on for years, leading us to understand that there are so many social, personal, religious, spiritual, ethical forces in play, that absolute certainty is impossible to attain.  Sure a person may be guilty, but was he insane?  Was he tortured, misled, confused, accused, molested, lost his capacity to reason?  And who is to blame for that?  And how much?  And, since the problem is difficult to resolve, can aggrieved and accused reach an agreement out of court?  Or plead diminished capacity?  Or… pay blood money for the whole thing to be dropped?

An extraordinary Iranian film A Separationdirected by Asghar Farhadi and winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, 2012 shows how the attempt to achieve justice can be extraordinarily painful and difficult when people come from different social classes and levels of education.  A labyrinth with no easy exits.  As an exercise I tried to write down its complex twists and turns.   After four pages, single spaced, I still could not re-construct everything.  And this is after watching the film twice.  But this should not stop anyone from going to see it.  The plot of A Separation is rare because its twists and turns are based on the human complexities mentioned above and creates a rambling blueprint for moral ambiguity and the interstices between truth and fiction where we spend most of our waking hours.

Most films with a lot of plot make few concessions to this kind of complexity.  They ramble on assuming people only want suspense, mystery, a thrill here and there, some plot “oohs and aahs” and a conclusion.  The tyros never tire of talking about stories needing a beginning, middle and end.  But nothing has a beginning, middle and end.  Everything in life is in flux, always changing, one form into another, a form into a color, into a contretemps of both, a Gaudi construct, a Chihuly flourish, a Mandelbrot mystery, commonplace, expected, unexpected.

Art which stops at “story” has stopped too soon.  There are no stories out in the world.  As adults we don’t live in stories.  We live in circumstances which change and evolve, and are ourselves, changing, changeable creatures, wanting one thing one day and another thing another.  When we were children stories were read to us.  But now the opportunity for a truly poetic immersion in the ebb and flow of things beckons us.  Unfortunately most of us don’t heed the call.

A Separation is that rare film where plot can’t be put on a graph and parsed out by acts.  It follows a precarious path of human need set against responsibility and social mores.  It’s a hard film to summarize and makes us feel like we’re watching everything else going on around us which we can’t quite figure out.  Two types of Iranian families create the conflict.  A modern family of some means, the husband, Nader (played by Peyman Moadi) works in a bank, the wife, Simin, (Leila Hatami), is a teacher, and both come into conflict with a traditional family when a caretaker for Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) a victim of Alzheimers, is needed. Razieh, a pregnant woman with a traditional Islamic background (Sareh Bayat) is hired and immediately a problem arises.  She can’t let her husband, Hadjat (Shahab Hosseini) an unemployed cobbler who is currently in legal trouble due to his inability to pay an onerous debt, know she is working in a home with no other women present (Simin has left Nader and gone to live with her mother.)

Complications ensue when the grandfather wanders away and Razieh is hit by a car while trying to rescue him.  She tells no one about the accident and later blames her employer, Nader, for a miscarriage, claiming he pushed her down some stairs.  Legal problems result and Nader will be charged with murder if it can be proved he pushed Razieh while knowing she was pregnant.  Hadjat feels obliged to avenge the death of his unborn child and is seen stalking Nader and Simin’s daughter, Termeh, (Sarina Farhadi). Blood money enters in.  If the modern school girl, Termeh, is in danger of Hadjat’s revenge, it seems that tradition allows for monetary compensation to substitute for the “eye for an eye” solution.

The plot is rich in uncertainy.  Razieh has told no one about her accident but is her failure to speak a “lie”?  Did she miscarry because of the accident or because she was pushed by Nader?  She says she isn’t sure.  Nader admits he pushed her, but not hard enough to make her fall down the stairs, and claims he never knew that Razieh was pregnant, but later admits to Termeh that he overheard it.   But to admit that in court would mean being tried for murder, with no one left to care for her or her grandfather.   Would Termeh want that to happen as a consequence of the “truth”?

Termeh’s tutor, who knew the woman was pregnant, swears on the Qur’an to a magistrate that, based on the position of people in the room when the pregnancy was discussed, the husband could not have known Razieh was pregnant.  But she later recants, possibly fearing for her own safety.  Now Termeh, who has great respect for the truth, is the only available protection for her father, Nader, and she tells a lie in court to protect him.

Her mother, Simin, fails to tell Nader of a visit she has with Razieh who tells her she doesn’t want Simin’s family to offer blood money because, since she is not sure how she lost the child, she could be committing a sin which could have negative consequences for her own daughter.  But Simin knows that if the blood money is not paid, Termeh will be in danger from Hadjat, and Nader will be required again, to prove his innocence in court.  Here’s a potential impasse which seems beyond solution.

However, a meeting does take place between the two families.  Nader is ready to make out a considerable check to the family of Razieh and Hadjat.  This solution would cross the divide between two ways of life and save Nader from formal prosecution, save Termeh from fear of a revenge killing, help Hadjat pay back his debt, and allow everyone to go back to their own lives.  It even appears that Razieh is ready to stay silent and to go along with this solution in spite of her fear of committing a sin.

However, Nader has not been told of Razieh’s reservations and of the meeting between her and Simin and, perhaps not realizing how precarious the situation is, commits the only error which could jeopardize the agreement.  Insisting on being assured that he is in the right, in spite of being willing to pay the price for being wrong, he asks Razieh to swear on the Qur’an that he, Nader, caused the miscarriage.  All he wants, as compensation for the money he feels he is being coerced to pay, is that Razieh, do the one thing she cannot do: swear on the Qur’an that something is true, which might not be.  The fear of the sin trumps all worldly considerations.

People try to wiggle out of things.  This is one of the conundrums the film explores.  Customs which require strict adherence to codes are always difficult to honor and here, it seems no one wants to be a martyr to the truth.  Razieh has caused a great deal of pain by not admitting she was hit by a car.  And, on principal, she is opposed to doing anything which might be considered sinful by her traditional religious code.  However, she has allowed the meeting to take place and so it seems that she will evade her moral dilemma by simply not saying anything.  But when Nader needs to know that he’s paying the money for a literal truth, (which is, quite likely, actually a lie) rather than compromising with social demands which can’t be controverted, he assures the failure of that compromise.

Hadjat is amazed and shattered that Razieh‘s fundamentalist fear of a sin makes a worldly agreement, agreeable to all, impossible. Now Hadjat will be unable to pay his debt and, facing debtor’s prison or worse, he rushes out.  The modern family walks to their car to find a rock thrown through the window, revenge on the man who was ready to write the check which would have solved all their problems.  In the end two fundamentalist positions, one Eastern, traditional and based on religion, and one Western, liberal and based on reason, make it impossible for a compromise to be made which would have benefited all concerned.

This is the great achievement of A Separation.  It never says so, but it illustrates, with great subtlety, that the only really humane decision must always be a compromise.  Absolute truth is absolute tyranny.  Ideals show desirable moral and ethical positions, but they must be interpreted, made flexible by circumstance and human feelings, proving out the one human truth we’ve never been able to circumvent: to be human is to disagree.  And disagreement must be kept short of the line which, once crossed, results in the mayhem and violence we see all around us, and which we are almost always powerless to prevent.

Life offers only exceptions.  And I would say that the “just exceptions” we seek are best obtained in a system where everyone accepts the proposition that absolute truth is impossible to achieve, and where everyone accepts mediation as the only way to avoid chaos.  And maybe we have that system in America where the burden of proof is on the state.  We’re innocent until found guilty.  Judges and juries make decisions.  Right and wrong ones.  Elections are won and lost. But time allows for new decisions, postponements, appeals and repeals.  Even if there is insufficient variety in our two party system, even if there is racism, class struggle, gender and sexual conflict, leadership can, and does change, laws are repealed and new ones created and even if the whole unruly process seems something of a freak show, we have the world of Art and Nature to repair to when politics, law and government get it wrong.

Except that here we find an “exception” with terrible consequences.  Today everything and anything is ART.  If enough so- called, and often self proclaimed, experts anoint and proclaim it so, however spuriously, it is SO. Which really means that nothing is Art. And so our real Masters are often ignored and their social power to instruct and delight is wasted. Jerome Witkin, for example is the greatest living American painter you’ve never heard of.  And his relative obscurity represents just one of many crimes committed today by the art establishment.  And nature is severely threatened by our expanding economies and wasteful use of resources.  Exceptions...which prove the rule.

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