Ash-e Reshteh (Persian Noodle Soup w/Meatballs)
So, I'm pushing back the Bogart double bill and bumping what was to be the mid-March post up because of A Separation's Oscar win on Sunday. The second Bogart film will appear in its place later this month.
As you know if you've been following this adventure, I typically don't do films currently in the theaters. But occasionally I find myself wanting to share something new I really like. (The last time was for the Vik Muniz documentary Waste Land.) Plus, in this case, it's an opportunity to make some Persian food. And it seemed perfect timing in that March 20th is Norouz, the Persian New Year.
I had heard about this film back in November and I was interested in it, but I thought, "Oh, a family drama. It could be kind of boring." But then I watched it in December and I was just so taken by it.
Certainly I found the story thoroughly engaging, but more than that, it was the opportunity to teleport myself into life in present day Iran which I think is one of the reasons it makes for such compelling viewing. I could try to formulate my own words for how this film makes me feel, but I think Iranian-American author Dr. Azar Nafisi (whom, I grant, comes with her own set of issues, but I think her point here is clearly valid and heartfelt) put it very well in this interview:
"A Separation is subversive on a much different level than a political, ideological film against the regime. In this film, there is the idea of free will....
A film like this is significant at a time when the only time we hear about Iran is about WMDs and Iran threatening to close the Gulf — everything we hear about Iran right now dehumanizes Iranian people. This film is like an amazing breath of fresh air to remind the American people that there are people who are against the Islamic regime. Once Americans connect to the Iranians as people, I think it will become a little bit more difficult to want to drop bombs on them.
I am not saying that this film will make us not go to war. But great works of art and culture are great ambassadors. We should focus on the resonances of this film rather the empty threats of Iran's leaders.
I always used to tell people when they ask what can we do about Iran, 'The most respect you show a people is to genuinely trying to know and understand them — you go to that country's history and culture.' If Americans did this, they would become the Iranian people's voice — they would want to support them against harm."
War should be the last resort, not the agenda. But unfortunately, we live in a time of terms such as "collateral damage," which seem to make the killing of innocent people abstract.
And while all the accolades this film has won has introduced this and other Iranian films to the world, we shouldn't forget the monumental courage it takes to be an artist under such a regime. A government or religion (or the difficult marriage of both in Iran) that fears its own culture and punishes its creative thinkers we can only hope will implode under the weight of its own idiocracy. But jailing artists and intellectuals is not restricted to such regimes. Our own American history is rife with such acts of repression. I had the opportunity many years ago to take a screenwriting class with Lester Cole, one of the Hollywood 10, and I saw first hand how our government can take a man's life without physically killing him.
Anyways, enough ranting. So, Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak! (Happy Persian New Year to you!)
"Hello... good day... excuse me I had a religious question. I am working at a house. There’s an old man here. I am here to care for him. I just saw that he has wet his pants. They didn’t tell me that he couldn’t control himself. I wanted to ask you what I should do. If I clean him and change him, will it be considered a sin?"
Like most future filmmakers, Asghar Farhadi fell in love with movies at an early age. "The first time, when I was a child, I went to the cinema with my cousin [and in those days] you could just walk in whenever you wanted. We arrived late and watched only the end of the movie," he recalled. "I loved the movie, but I had not seen the beginning. So I started creating the story in my head and imagined how the story was to the point where [I entered it]. And that's the moment I think I became a filmmaker, and I got interested in cinema."
He joined the Iranian Young Cinema Society and began making short Super-8mm films, eventually graduating from Tehran University in 1998 with a Master's in Film Directing. He went on to write plays and some episodic television which led to his first feature screenwriting gig, the award-winning Low Heights in 2001 (which co-starred Leila Hatami). His directing debut, 2003's Dancing in the Dust, picked up some international awards, as would his next three films, Beautiful City (2004), Fireworks Wednesday (2006), and About Elly (2009) (which co-starred Shahab Hosseini and Peyman Moadi).
Shortly after finishing About Elly, Farhadi was in Berlin working on another screenplay. "One evening, in my friend’s kitchen, I heard an Iranian tune playing next door," he said (PDF). "Suddenly, my mind was overtaken by memories and images linked to another story. I tried to get rid of them, to concentrate on the screenplay I was developing. To no avail, the ideas and images had taken root."
"I don’t remember when the idea first occurred to me," he continued elsewhere. "The connecting tissue became the story — for instance, the image of the man bathing his father who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. I’ve lived with this image for some time; it is part personal memory, part imagination." And so, he returned to Iran and began working on the screenplay which would become A Separation.
Much like the days of "unofficial" censorship during the Hayes Code era of Hollywood, Iranian filmmakers must submit their films for approval by those in power. "This is how it works in Iran,” explained the film's co-star Peyman Moadi, who has just premiered his first directorial effort, Snow on Pines at Tehran's Fajr Film Festival. “First, you give the Cinema Office of Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance a complete script and they tell you you have the official permission. It depends on how big and important the filmmaker is.”
“You have to know the red line, and how close you can get to it.... With a love scene, you have to be creative, weird, stylish. They cannot even touch each other. These are the lines we cannot even get close to," Moadi added. But even an "important filmmaker" in Iran often has to contend with forces beyond the religious and/or cultural. "There’s always something happening in Iran, or in other countries. We are on the news, and that may affect your movie. You have to be always worrying about something that is not in your control.”
The story of A Separation is of a middle-class married couple in Tehran who have reached an impasse. They had been planning on leaving the country, or at least Simin (Leila Hatami), the wife, had been pushing for it, but Nader (Peyman Moadi) now doesn't want to leave because he feels it's his duty to stay on and take care of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. So Simin tries to back Nader into a corner by asking for a divorce if he won't leave Iran with her. Their 11-year old daughter, Termeh, gets caught in the middle as they both want custody. Simin moves out and Nader is forced to hire a lower-class woman, Razieh, to take care of his father while he works during the day. When the woman, partially due to her religious superstitions, proves incapable of taking care of the old man, they have a confrontation and Nadir fires her. Without giving too much more away, when Razieh has a miscarriage, she and her husband blame Nader, and the situation spirals them all into the highly dysfunctional Iranian legal system.
You can view the story as a straight-forward drama or perhaps as a metaphor for the big questions confronting Iranians in general. Farhadi tends to be somewhat enigmatic when interviews go into this territory. Yet he offers up clues, and perhaps that's why he has described the film as "a detective film... except that there is no sign of a detective. It is the spectator who plays that role.... To the extent that we are dealing with a mystery film, we must not show everything [with the camera], otherwise we will give the game away. But everything is done so that the audience does not suspect that the camera is hiding anything from them."
"Of course I’m also careful not to make everything so enigmatic that the audience grows confused and detached," he continued elsewhere. "But consider the example of the missing money; the audience thinks about what happened to the money? Why wasn’t that clarified? Who stole the money? In fact, the explanation may be embedded in the movie but when the audience was watching the scene, the moment didn’t seem important and so they don’t remember. In the opening scene we see Simin give the money to the movers who are hauling the piano, but the action doesn’t seem noteworthy enough for us to remember. It is in fact such unremarkable details that add up to crises later, just like in real life where we take the events that eventually develop into crises as insignificant at the time they occur."
"On one hand," he said, the story can be seen as about "a mother who tries to take her daughter away from a situation which she finds not appropriate, and on the other hand, a man who thinks the right way is to stay and to try to make things better as much as he can." And then adding in another interview, "Any viewer can see whatever they want to see. If they take the side of the father, they automatically think I took the side of the father. I want to make sure I clarify this. I'm not saying I'm on the side of no one. I'm on the side of all of them."
"The main difference between the two characters," Farhadi explained, "is that Nader has some principles, and he has some ideas of how things should be and he will stick to them, he will follow through and remain steadfast on that course. Whereas Simin, things are not going the way she would like to. She’s willing to adapt and she’s willing to change. The difference is between someone who has principles and someone who is more realistic and who will step over certain principles because of the reality of what can be done."
And as can be seen by the reception the film around the world, it suggests the story and its themes are not limited solely to Iranian society. "The characters are ordinary modern people, not that much different than people in Tokyo, Paris or New York,” said co-star Moadi who plays Nader. “People at film festivals around the world were shocked. They told us, ‘We didn’t imagine a woman could drive in Iran, or address a judge!’ The differences of classes and gender in A Separation — it could happen in Mexico, though then it would have a Mexican flavor. This is why it’s successful, because it’s true.”
Farhadi has also noted he's found Nader and Simin's relationship problems "are not limited to a certain geographical area or situation. The experience of watching the film alongside audiences from all over the world has shown many human beings are concerned about these subjects, no matter where they live."
Taking it back to the more personal, Farhadi's own grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's which he drew upon. But even closer to home, he said the relationship between Nader and his daughter, Termeh, was also drawn from his own life. "I myself have a daughter, and similar to what happens in the film, oftentimes I’m trying to teach her something, using any opportunity, about life."
In fact, the role of Termeh was played by Farhadi's daughter, Sarinah. "As I was writing the screenplay, and I had already decided that my daughter would be playing the part, more and more of my relationship with my daughter became a part of the relationship between the two characters," he said. "But that doesn’t mean that my personality is part of Nader’s. Actually I would say some ways I’m more similar to Simin."
"The big difference between my daughter and the character Termeh," he continued, "is that Termeh, in the film, is asking herself these questions and dealing with these questions on her own. Whereas my daughter would be constantly asking me and actually voicing those questions."
As for Sarinah, she has said, "When [my father] works with the actors, he is very, very focused, and very serious.... And as I had already seen how my father works, I was quite conscious of the fact that he would not be dealing with me as my father during work. He would be different. He would be the director and I had no problem with that whatsoever."
Among the many awards A Separation has won - in addition to the Oscar - are the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear for directing and Silver Bears for best actors and actresses, the Independent Spirit, Golden Globe, and New York Film Critics awards for Best Foreign Film, awards at festivals in Riga, Sydney, Vancouver, Durban, Japan, Spain, Armenia, and several honors (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and the Audience Award) at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran.
But all this international attention comes at a price. For in some ways, Farhadi notes, his ability to make films within Iran would be easier without it.
But he's not necessarily speaking here just of governmental intrusion. As he explained, "When a film wins a prize, it travels the world. It is seen by a wider audience. It travels to all the festival and gets a lot of publicity and much advertisement. So for the film it is very useful. But for the filmmaker it is quite dangerous. If you get used to winning prizes, there is a risk of you repeating yourself when making [your] next film. You start a competition within yourself and that is a dangerous challenge for a filmmaker. It is best that when you win a prize, that on that night you remember it, and after that you put it on your bookshelf and don't think about it anymore and start a new project."
To sum it up, he has concluded: “Every success to me appears to have two sides like a coin. One side can strengthen you, but the other side is slippery like a banana peel.”
For his next film, he will be working for the first time outside Iran, in Paris, collaborating with French-Iranian dramatist and screenwriter Yasmina Reza.
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT:
Several filmmakers have been arrested in the last decade in Iran, with Jafar Panahi's case being the most recent. Panahi won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes film festival in 1995 for his debut feature, The White Balloon, and the Golden Lion at Venice for his 2000 drama, The Circle. Some, but not all, of his films are currently banned in Iran.
Panahi was arrested initially in 2009 and then again in 2010 for his support of the Iran's opposition Green Party. In October 2011, he lost an appeal of a six year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. But even that hasn't stopped him. Panahi secretly made a documentary about his time under house arrest in 2010. Ironically entitled This Is Not A Film, the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
Panahi's troubles almost led to A Separation not being completed. During production of A Separation in September 2010, Asghar Farhadi spoke at Iran's House of Cinema Festival and simply said he wished Panahi could be there amongst them. Filming of A Separation was then officially shut down. Some have said that Farhadi made an apology to the authorities; he said he didn't. "I never apologized to anybody," Farhadi stated. "I receive an award at a festival in Iran, and in the acceptance speech I mentioned filmmakers who cannot make films in Iran. Two days after I gave that speech, I got a message that I had to stop shooting 'A Separation.' Then many people in the cinema world, and the journalism world, expressed their opposition to that. So after a week they told me I could resume my work. This thing that happened to me, compared to other things that happened to other filmmakers, is not worth much mention."
And speaking of the House of Cinema, the official guild of Iranian filmmakers, it too was shut down in January. Apparently, it was spurred by a decision by the organization to invite actress Angelina Jolie to attend this year's festival. "The Iranian cinema under [House of Cinema] guidance is now worse than Hollywood when it comes to vice issues," said filmmaker/producer Farajolah Salahshoor. He went on to say it was "a fitting invitation to a whore actress from the House of Whores."
A new organization, the Iran Cinema Organization, has been launched in its place. In one of its first public pronouncements, the director of the ICO (and Iran's Deputy Culture Minister of Film), Javad Shamaqdari, has claimed that the Oscar for A Separation should be viewed as a defeat to Israel (who also had a film nominated for Best Foreign Film), and said, "The American judgment bowed before the Iranian culture and Oscar voters showed a different reaction to the Zionist lobby, which is escalating war." Sadly, the Iranian director doesn't understand that it was really about Hollywood striking a blow against our country's most hated and feared enemy - the Canadians.
As mentioned above, this being Persian New Year, Norouz, it is traditional to have this very satisfying soup to celebrate. Apparently, "Ash-e" is a generic term for a thick winter soup in Farsi and "reshteh" are a type of noodle, similar to angel hair pasta. However, it was "the only word for noodle known in the several 13th century Arabic cookery books and in the poems of the 14th century Persian rhymester Bushaq," and thus is considered a generic Persian word for noodles. The inclusion of the noodle is said to symbolize "the threads of life and family intertwined." I'll suggest that my use of extra wide noodles symbolizes the width to which family extends around us as well as the width of our lives. Okay, maybe that's a stretching it a bit. Wikipedia notes that noodles are served in Iran "for special occasion dishes in giving thanks and for journeys especially to Mecca."
Norouz (it has many English spellings), besides being the first day of the Iranian calendar, simultaneously celebrates the first day of spring. According to Wikipedia: "Originally being a Zoroastrian festival, and the holiest of them all, Nowruz is believed to have been invented by Zoroaster himself, although there is no clear date of origin.... The Jewish festival of Purim is probably adopted from the Persian New Year. It is also a holy day for Sufis, Ismailis, Alawites, Alevis, and adherents of the Bahá'í Faith."
Another traditional thing to eat for Norouz - and would be a lot easier to sneak into the movie theater than a thermos full of soup - is Bamieh, which is kind of a Persian Zeppole made with honey and rosewater. But think of it this way, go with some friends to the movie and then come home afterwards, have some soup and discuss the movie.
Now if you really want to get into the celebration of Norouz, you should find a safe place and start a bonfire.... then jump over it! "This ritual is supposed to clean the body of illness, bad feelings, or unhealthy things that might be in the body — getting rid of that and picking up the warmth, the glow, of the fire," notes Mahnaz Afkhami, director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies in Bethesda, Maryland.
A cursory Google search will show you there are thousands of variations on this soup. Like most home-cooked dishes, everyone's got their own spin on it. This is mine. Once again, let me wish you Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak! And as always... cook, watch eat & enjoy!
Ash-e Reshteh (Persian Noodle & Meatball Soup)
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2 cups yellow onion, thinly sliced (8 ounces)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces ground beef
1/3 cup yellow onion, diced fine
1/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
10 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup brown or red lentils
3 ounces spinach leaves
1/8 cup Italian parsley, chopped
6 ounces extra wide egg noodles
1 can black-eyed peas (not with pork!) (about 15 ounces)
1/2 tablespoon fresh mint, julienned
salt and pepper, to taste
plain yogurt, for topping - optional
In a medium skillet at medium heat, fry thinly sliced onions in olive oil until golden and crispy (be careful not to burn them). Remove with slotted spoon and allow to drain on paper towels. Clean skillet and repeat with olive oil and garlic - fry until golden and crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Combine ground beef, diced onion, cinnamon, salt and pepper together. Form into 8 small meatballs about the size of golf balls.
In a pot, add water, salt, lentils, spinach, parsley, and meatballs and bring to boil. When it reaches a boil, add the noodles, lower to simmer for 15 minutes. Add black-eyed peas, cook for another 30 minutes. Add mint, adjust seasonings. Remove from heat.
Serve topped with fried onions and garlic. Add a dollop of yogurt (optional).
Official A Separation site @ Sony Classics
A Separation - screenplay (PDF)
A Brief Critical History of Iranian Feature Films (1896-1975), by Reza Talachian
An Introduction to Iranian Cinema, by Stephen Nottingham
An Introduction to Iranian Documentary Filmmakers, by Atieh Attarzadeh
Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij