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Interview, Feature

"This is not a comedy in the classical sense. The tone is humorous, but nothing gets whitewashed."

ARAB BLUES – Interview with Golshifteh Farahani

Ms Farahani, what attracted you to play a therapist?
It wasn’t so much about the fact that she is a therapist, I was more interested in the story behind it and the tone in which it is told. I found the script funny and original. It made me laugh and, at the same time, it made me think a lot. The film is reflecting on the everyday problems of people in a very fine, humorous way, without getting too deep into political or social issues. And yet, nothing is simplified either. The people want to live, they want to find their place in life, but in a very funny way. However, this is not a comedy in the classical sense. The tone is humorous, but nothing gets whitewashed.

After years abroad in Paris, your character, Selma, returns to Tunis with the dream of opening up her own psychotherapy practice. Do you identify with her in that way? You are also living in France. Do you share that desire to return to your home country, Iran, at some point in your life?
I do have a desire to return, but I think there is a difference if you leave your home country as a child or, like in my case, at the age of twenty-four. At that age you don’t go back to find your identity. You know what you left behind and why. You just miss something, but you know that it’s not there. And the more time passes, the more you know that nothing will change. It’s like something that has been uprooted once, it can never be planted again. It might work when you are young. Like with a small tree, you can take it out and you plant it somewhere else. Maybe you won’t grow straight, but it’s possible. But old trees can’t be replanted, that’s the problem. What’s more, is that like Selma in the film, you don’t really belong anywhere. In France, she is considered Tunisian, and in Tunisia, she is considered French. She is screwed.

Do you also feel like that?
I feel even worse, because I don’t want to be put into any categories. I consider myself being anything specific, not in terms of my gender or my nationality. For me, these categories are all illusions, our idea about what is French or German, Iranian or Tunisian. At the end of the day I find myself at home always in the places where there are people from all over the world, where there are no borders. We all belong anywhere, we belong to each other, just like we belong to this table right now. We belong to where we are gathering together. And that’s why I am always travelling, I’m always going away, because even in France or in Iran, I feel like a stranger, and in a way always felt like a stranger. You can feel like a stranger wherever you are, even in your family, in your own home, if you think you don’t belong anywhere. But although it may sound sad, there is also some beauty to be found in this.

In what way?
If people do all you can do to hold on to something, be it their home, family, culture or gender, then you become what you believe to be. But then when you free yourself from any categories, when you realise that all this is bullshit, you have the opportunity to become the person you want to be in your heart. And the best thing is that no one can take it away from you. Your home is inside your heart, inside your tummy. And whenever I want to go home, I go inside and that’s it. In other words: I don’t need to go anywhere, I’m already there. My home is always with me, wherever I am. I create a home inside which is always with me.

There is a kind of freedom attached to it.
Yes, I think at the end of the day we are all here for that, to free ourselves from all this baggage of things that have been put on us as identities.

Do you still feel like Iranian sometimes as well though?
Absolutely. I am Iranian through and through, culturally, with the food, the dancing, the music. If I smell Persian food I could faint, I love it so much. But that is the thing, I am so Iranian. At the same time, I am free. It’s in my blood, no one can take that away from me. And these days, I think the more we cherish our culture and become what we are without attachments, the more we can be really free.

"What we need instead is an equilibrium, we need balance."

Why did you always feel like a stranger in Iran?
I was always unusual, I was an unusual kid. I always felt like a stranger. Even when I was very little, I asked myself: Where do I belong? And when I went to school it only got worse, because everything I did was unusual, because I wasn’t like the other kids. There are these unusual characters, people that just don’t fit in, and I was one of them.

What made you so different? What did you do, to be seen as the off one out?
For example, I was pretty loud. I always wanted to be a leader. So, I wasn’t a kid that was sitting quietly in the corner, like the other girls. I was very out there. I was an extrovert but at the same time, I was going more and more inside me. Whatever I did was considered a strange by the people around me, also later in the conservatorium. They were playing Mozart and Beethoven and I was playing Metallica and hardcore music and practiced headbanging. I was always coming to school with a neck holder, because I hurt my neck from all the headbanging. I was weird. When I turned sixteen, I shaved my head and was walking on the street like a boy, and as you can imagine, that was very dangerous in Iran. To be honest, I was a disaster, like a little wild animal really. My parents couldn’t do anything about it. They weren’t supportive of it, but they weren’t oppressing me either. They just let me do my thing. They couldn’t have stopped me anyway. And even my parents were outsiders, because they got married, although they both came from different religions. It was a huge problem and they were both disowned by their families. So, in a way, being different was in the DNA of our family. I was born like this.

How do you think that translated into your work and your career as an actress?
I think mainly in the way that I don’t want to be put in a box. I don’t want to be considered French or Iranian. I don’t want to be known for making independent cinema or blockbusters. No matter what the story is, I am open to everything. I don’t want to be framed in one type of movies. This was my biggest fear also when I left Iran, that when you go to America, all the parts they are offering you are the Middle Eastern parts – female terrorists, oppressed women, something like this. Twelve years ago, it was like that, there was a high risk that this would happen. Now things have changed slightly, but I also left America because I knew I wanted to escape that kind of stereotyped thinking. II had stayed, I would probably have become a good, typical Middle Eastern terrorist and would always be typecast as such. But I didn’t want that. I preferred the badly paid French independent cinema where you don’t have any money and everything is hard work, there is no comfort. But I prefer this a thousand times over.

How did the collaboration with Jim Jarmusch come about?
It was a little miracle. I couldn’t believe that Jim had even considered me for the role. But sometimes there is some cosmic chance in this job. It was amazing to work with Jim. He was my idol since I was twelve years old. And when I got the confirmation about the job, it was the only time I was running around the house screaming in joy. I’m usually not like that. For example, even Marvel didn’t excite me that much. But with Jim it was different. Even on set, I was pinching myself every day and asking myself, if this was real.

Coming back to the movie, it also deals with the subject of equality. Do you think it is possible to ever reach some sort of equality between men and women in Muslim countries in the future?
It’s weird actually, in Tunisia, women had a right to vote way before some countries in Europe.
They also have had the right to get divorced for some time. So, the women are very much respected in Tunisia. However, I don’t believe in the kind of equality that is talked about all over the world right now. There can’t be no real equality in that sense, it is unnatural. Because then we don’t consider the biological differences between men and women, like the fact that women get their period, or that they are the ones that are giving birth to children. I think the day we reach that equality that everyone is longing for, it will prove useless. When it’s there, we are not going to want it. What we need instead is an equilibrium, we need balance. If women and men really were two of the same kind, then we could have equality. But we don’t have the same biology. Therefore, I hope that the world will move towards balance and equilibrium and against ignorance and exclusion. And this is not a fight between men and women, but a fight by men and women against lack of knowledge and interest. It’s ignorance that is creating a big mess, and that’s also what come across in the film.

Was the ignorance you are talking about also the reason why you decided to leave your home country after working for Ridley Scott in BODY OF LIES and the problems you experienced in Iran because of this?
Yes. I had gone through seven months of nightmare after working for Ridley Scott in Body of Lies. They took my passport and I had to go through several confiscations and interrogations. When I left Iran eventually, I decided never to return. I knew that, for me, all bridges had been destroyed. I couldn’t even trust my family, my own father anymore. After this, everything I did as a woman was perceived to be “anti-Iranian”. Whatever I did became political. It was so unfair, and I was angry. I am not anymore. But I keep asking myself: What is this problem men have with women? Why the tortures, the violence against women? At the time, I thought the same would have happened to a man, that their problem was just that I was cooperating with Hollywood and their biggest public enemy, the Americans. But then I realised that I was wrong. If you show your hair or your body in Iran, you are dead.

Although I get the impression that in Iran today there is a lot of independent culture and independent people who are thinking liberal and are quite open.
That’s true. But it’s a fine line to balance on the tail of the government or to step your foot on it so that they take notice. Because if you do anything that provokes international attention, they don’t like it, because they want to keep the image of Iran as an Islamic country. An imagine which is not at all true, because Iran is not an Islamic country. Iran is a very free country inside. It’s just that nobody knows about it. Only if you make the effort to look more closely it’s visible, it’s there.

Interviewer: Pamela Jahn