The very simple — and, in hindsight, stupid — reason I didn’t think about handshake etiquette was I had never met, nor did I ever expect to meet, an Iranian citizen. I simply assumed they were all too busy being oppressed.
It’s easy to see where I got that idea, at least cinematically speaking. Before “A Separation,” which ranked among my favorites of 2011, I think the last movie I saw that took place in Iran was 1991’s “Not Without My Daughter,” where Sally Field’s Iranian husband forces her and her daughter to stay in Iran against their will. After the scene in which Field is shouted at by religious police for letting too much hair show under her hijab, I assumed that Iran was a “Handmaid’s Tale”-style place where I did not want to visit and I most certainly did not want to live. I never quite figured out why her formerly egalitarian husband turned into an oppressive, abusive jerk; the film all but implies something in the Persian air did it.
I was thinking about my interview with Farhadi as I watched “About Elly,” his 2009 film that is now getting a U.S. release (you can — and should — see it at the E Street Cinema). In it, a group of friends go on a trip. The group includes a divorced man and a single woman whom another character is trying to set up. Things go wrong, but not in a “Not Without My Daughter” way. Or an “Argo” way, which is the only other film I can think of offhand that’s set in Iran. They go wrong in a way that could have happened anywhere, including here.
The friends hang out. They eat. They play charades. There are cultural differences, of course: The matchmaker claims to outsiders that the two people she’s setting up are already married to cover up the fact the group is traveling with a single man and a single woman. But, really, the only difference between their planned trip and one I’d take with my friends is my trip would have fewer headscarves and a lot more alcohol.
Farhadi’s films are not about Iran, a country with a number of problematic (to put it politely) policies, both within its boundaries and internationally. Farhadi’s films are about Iranians, who — not to get too kumbayah-y — are just people. His films show that the enemy I’ve been taught about turns out to look and act a lot like I do. That, right there, is some real movie magic.
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