By Danny Peary
About Elly fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. I’m delighted that this marvelous Iranian masterwork, a mix of mystery and societal issues, finally made its New York debut this Wednesday at the Film Forum (where you should see it before April 21) because it was made six years ago. In fact it was made two years before the next collaboration of director Asghar Farhadi and brilliant actor Payman Maadi/Peyman Moaadi), A Separation, and that extraordinary film played in New York, Hollywood, and around the world, capturing the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Back in 2009, I wrote:
“Not surprisingly, About Elly was selected the best narrative film at the Tribeca Film Festival. This stunningly-directed psychological thriller is not like any Iranian film you ever saw or (foolishly) deliberately missed. A group of former law school classmates reunite for a weekend by the Caspian Sea, settling into an empty house on the beach. They bring their kids and one woman, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), invites her beautiful single friend Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), hoping to set her up with the newly-divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). But on the second day, Elly disappears and everyone on the screen and in the audience begins asking questions.” During the festival I took part in the following roundtable with Farhadi and Maadi (whom I interviewed in October for this page about the sadly-neglected American political film, Camp X-Ray)–before the film won its major award. I note my questions.
Q: How did you come to be involved in this film?
Payman Maadi: I am a scriptwriter in my country and was about to make my first feature as a director. I had made a short and [Asghar] Farhadi came to see it. He liked it and after one or two months he called me and said he wanted me for his next project. I thought maybe it would be as a writer, but he said, “No. I choose you for the main character, for acting.” I was shocked. And I said, “Are you sure about it because I know that you are a very well known director in this country and whatever you want you can have. So why me?” And he said, “Because the part is very close to your character when I saw you at your screening. I’m sure you can do it.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “Don’t worry.” I said, “I’m not worrying because I trust you.” But I was a little bit scared before rehearsals.
Q: Did you rehearse a lot?
PM: Yes, because Mr. Farhadi came from the theater. For about two months we were on the stage rehearsing. We would play some scenes that were not in the script just so we could get close to the person we were playing. They were scenes before we came to the beach resort at the beginning of the movie. He had us play each other’s roles so that we could think, ‘If I were in his position, what would I do?” This made us closer to each other. After we were at the Caspian Sea we continued to rehearse scenes that are in the movie. We were getting some personal rehearsals for each other. After the rehearsals I thought it was possible to play it.
Danny Peary: What clicked?
PM: I was between seven or eight professional actors and actresses. All of them were very well-known in Iran and had played in films with each other. I was always in the back of the camera and I didn’t know how to leap in front of it. But Mr. Farhadi said, “They also have to rehearse and come to a point they are so far from now.” So all of us had the same distance to go. Their acting in this film wasn’t like anything they had done, so they had to work just as hard as me. Knowing that helped me.
Q: I’d like the director to talk about the gender politics in the film. Because the women have a quite clearly defined role and the central character, Sepideh is actually orchestrating everything that is going on around her.
Asghar Farhadi: The image of Iranian women in America and Europe that you see on the news is very much different than the reality. This film specifically targets the middle-class family. We have different ideas and images about the middle class. The middle class can be powerful in Iran and the women in the middle class family can be very powerful. In my own experience, when I used to go to the north border, the Caspians were my friends and they would take a boat out and it wouldn’t be only men making decisions. It would be a democracy.. Even though the laws of our country are not very much pro women, the women themselves are trying to make themselves stronger.
DP: But when the men try to save Elly’s reputation, isn’t that more backward than what you’re talking about? It seems that the men, who are enlightened in some way, fall back to tradition.
AF: I don’t see the difference between men and women. I treat everyone equally in my movies. I don’t see inequality between the characters. The subject of the film is not about men and women but human beings who react to a situation. You can’t point to one gender and says that’s the villain.
DP: I’m in total sympathy with Elly. I have no problem with her coming on this trip although she hasn’t broken off her engagement yet. But they seem to worry about a scandal involving her being engaged and there being an unmarried man present.
Farhadi’s Female Interpreter: Let me add this myself, if I may. Maybe it’s not such a big deal about her being engaged or not. But maybe in the Persian culture, in the Iranian culture, it is a big deal for some of these things. If someone is having an affair or something like that, it will become a whole big deal for everyone, even the children. It is more about Persian culture than anything.
DP: So is that what the movie wanted to express?
AF: The problem the whole movie is about the behavior of one particular woman and what she thinks. I could have switched it and it could have been the behavior of her husband and what he thinks.
Female Interpreter: I’d like to add something else here about what you said. They all come to understand that Elly is engaged, but they don’t have that serious a problem with that. They only worry about getting into the trouble if the fiancé comes and goes to the police. They even say to each other that they don’t have any problem with her being engaged. It was her decision to come for the weekend. But they worry about the fiancé because he is a very angry man and could get them into the trouble. And they are protecting the group by making decisions that’s best for it.
AF: I have done this in my previous films as well. It’s a new tragedy, “the modern tragedy.” It’s not about good and evil, and everyone might be saying the right thing, so you don’t know which character to believe. That’s the whole reason why the audience gets so involved with the characters and why people want to voice their opinion as well. “Why don’t you do this or that?”
Q: The film is set up like a mystery and everyone is wondering what happened to Elly. Because of the pressures she has, could viewers think she committed suicide?
AF: I watched the movie as if I were just a member of the audience. And I never got the idea that she might have committed suicide. But I’ve been hearing it a lot from different audiences. I don’t have any problem with audiences thinking she is capable of suicide or not. But the reason people think she might commit suicide is because so many Iranian films have portrayed a lot of sadness and depression and women having a lot of problems. They may think, “This is another suicide.” But Elly is not that depressed.
DP: But if you didn’t want people to consider she might have committed suicide, you could have easily shown that it wasn’t a suicide with one more minute of filming her. But you didn’t do this. So we can think along with the family and try to figure out all of the possibilities.
AF: I wanted to make a film that would cause people to watch in two different ways. You would enjoy the film and then go home and think about the political views in it. This is the most socially-conscious film I ever made and I hope people go deeper and deeper into it when they think about it at home and keep thinking about it. The characters vote, but democracy sometimes is wrong. Democracy will not work in a family or in government when no opinion is wrong.
DP: But it is only a couple of people that decide what to say to Elly’s fiancé after her disappearance, which I found as strange as Elly’s fiancé pretending to be her brother.
AF: Well, everyone seems to be lying to defend themselves. All the characters try to hide something to protect them.
PM: The reason that he says he is her brother not his fiancé is he’s trying to make a safer-like area to get truth from the family. If he said he was Elly’s fiancé then maybe they weren’t going to give him the right information. That’s why.
Q: What director has inspired you most?
DP: How about Alfred Hitchcock? In Psycho the lead character, played by star Janet Leigh, disappears halfway through . . .
AF: I admire Hitchcock very much. I knew it would be very hard for audiences to believe that Taraneh Alidoosti disappears so early in the movie. She is a big star in Iran so people will expect her to return.
DP: The direction is outstanding the entire movie, but, Payman, the scene everyone will remember is when the men try to save your character Peyman’s son in the rough sea. Did you do the swimming or did you need stand-ins?
PM: We did all our own swimming. It was very difficult because the water was very rough. It took us many days to shoot. We’d have to wait until the sea was the same as it was when we began filming the scene. By the rocks there were many broken shells and stones and it was difficult not to cut our feet. And the water was dirty and caused me to choke. The camera was everywhere, including in the water.
DP: Congratulations to both of you. This is the best film I’ve seen at the festival. I hope you win the narrative award.