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A Separation Film Essay

In Asghar Farhadi’s film, ‘A Separation’, Razieh and Nader’s dispute is the consequence of a string of actions and set of assumptions that have arisen because of different expectations and aspirations.

When hiring Razieh, Nader bestowed the duty of care of his father upon Razieh. It was implied that Razieh would devote her full attention towards his father when performing her duties. Contrastingly, although Razieh understood that her job required her to be the caretaker, she thought Nader would be more sympathetic and understand the reasons for her absence.

Differences cause tension

Subsequently, because both Nader and Razieh have different interests and expectations and pressures, there is a clash in priorities, interests and values.

Assumptions and expectations: we see things as we are

  • There are many sides to conflict – people tend to see it from their perspective, especially when there is a lot at stake. Often there is just one’s ego and pride; other times, there is a lot of money at stake.
  • Two families, each with one daughter, suffer a string of unfortunate events that harm every one of them.
  • Each individual must make unenviable/undesirable and difficult choices
  • Nader assumes that Razieh knows what he expects from her and the job; Hojjat says that Nader should have the sense not to hire a pregnant woman; assuming that Nader knows Razieh is pregnant; Razieh assumes that Nader would understand her situation and show more sympathy
  • There is conflict between Simin and Nader regarding the welfare of Termeh and how to deal with the accusation of murder;
  • Disagreement arises because of the circumstances: Razieh and Nader differ as to how he hit her and his treatment of her; they differ about Razieh’s negligence during the care of his father; Hojjat and Nader about Razieh’s situation; Simin and Razieh about the blood money Simin is offering; Hojjat and Razier about the fact that she is suspicious of whether Nader is responsible and refuses to swear on the Koran.

There is more than one side to conflict

Often we expect others to understand our motives; but they are often selective and self-interested. We assume that our intentions and reasons are clearly understood by those around us and when things are misinterpreted, it leads to disagreement and conflict. Ghandi once said, “What may appear as the truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person.” Although we may think that our perspective is clear and obvious, to another individual it may not be – in fact, their understanding may be completely different.

The choices one makes: Dilemmas, choices, priorities and expectations

  • The choices one makes under pressure and the way one handles dilemmas shows us who we are.
  • Conflict often ensues where there is a great deal of mistrust and suspicion swirling between people.
  • The accusations, the lies, the charges, the statements and comments hurled at each other inflame the tension.
  • The personalities also influence and shape the string of events that lead to impossible dilemmas.
  • The words people use and the stories they tell often inflame the conflict: there is often a lack of communication for dishonest purposes; many of them conceal facts in order to protect themselves of protect each other which ends up inflaming the conflict. This also increases the suspicion swirling between them.
  • They are all under a great deal of personal stress, whether it be financial or emotional, or personal.
  • Choosing to care for one person or favour one relationship jeopardises another.
  • Nader dutifully tends to his father, and he does not take options, that Simin believe will benefit Termeh

The separation: daughters find themselves in an impossible situation

Each of the daughters appears to be emotionally harmed. Termeh is particularly withdrawn and Somayeh’s pain is evident in her drawings.

Each one becomes embroiled in the difficult relationship between the parents and often conceal details to protect the parents or to try to influence a more favourable outcome.

Termeh at times inflames the situation with her accusations. She tells her mother that if she hadn’t left, Nader would not be in jail. The mother explains that he hit a pregnant woman because he was upset. She constantly asks Termeh to “tell the truth”, but the “truth” is often becoming blurred through emotional circumstances and dubious, self-interested motives. She asks Termeh whether she told Nader that she was not leaving. (She saw her “stuff” in the car”.). She is desperate for her parents to repair their relationship.

Simin knows that Termeh is suffering as an adolescent and is saying things to prevent the divorce.

It also becomes a source of pride for Nader and he knows that he will lose face/dignity; he will lose Termeh’s trust. She knows that whilst Nader insists on his innocence, Simin says that he must have k known as he was not surprised when she ended up in hospital. Nader protests that the mother wants to “turn you against me”. Termeh urges Nader to approach Simin and find ways to conciliate but he refuses.

When Termeh finds out that her father lied about the knowledge of the carer’s pregnancy, she feels disappointed, even disillusioned.

Lies/deceit: The young girl Someyeh says, “I won’t tell dad” when Razieh enquires about changing the old man. Also, her drawings depict quarrelling parents. She is also looking for attention and becomes the victim of her own parents’ misfortunes.
At the end of the film, Someyeh looks at Termeh suggesting that she will endure similar problems. She, too, may be caught up in a separation because of the impossible problems of the parents.

Tension between parents

There is tension between the parents; Simin believes Termeh will have a better future in a western country. She wants to immigrate for the chance of a better life.

The Father wants to fulfil his duty of looking after his ailing father (dementia)

The parents do live separate lives, and Nader takes on a carer to look after the father but this becomes impossible when the carer proves to be unreliable. She has family issues of her own, including an unpredictable, volatile husband whose life is disintegrating.

Simin is often weeping; she is annoyed that after 14 years of marriage he does not show any emotion towards her. She is personally aggrieved that he does not ask her to look after Termeh when he is forced to spend a night in jail. He does not acknowledge or ask her for assistance with regards to bail etc. She admits that she “cannot handle the stress” caused by the murder charge and worries for Termeh’s safety.

Nader is so stressed that he tells the magistrate, that if he is charged, then “my life will be ruined”. He has a lot at stake.

Razieh and Hojjat

They have a dishonest relationship because Hojjat is so “hot-tempered”. Razieh is trying to help him out and pay their debts, but Hojjat also has a strong sense of pride and honour as the male and becomes very angry when Razieh makes decisions without his authority.

Deceit: Razieh: “don’t tell my husband”; she implores Nader not to tell her husband that “I came for the job”; she wants her husband to apply for the job without knowing about her employment. She asks Nader to say that she got the job out of the paper. “I don’t want him to know that I had the job”. She protests that she cannot do the “heavy work”. She does not mention her pregnancy, but one assumes that this would be the reason.

Lies/deceit: Razieh states that her husband did not come for work because the creditors had taken him away.
Nader and Razieh

Deceit: Razieh: “don’t tell my husband”; asks Nader that he does not tell her husband that “I came for the job”; she wants her husband to apply for the job without knowing about her employment; rather she got the job out of the paper. “I don’t want him to know that I had the job”. She protests that she cannot do the “heavy work”.

When Hojjat sees Nader at the hospital he wonders why he didn’t previously tell him about his wife’s employment, when he came for the job at the bank. Hot-tempered and volatile, he starts hitting Nader. He was very angry that he wasn’t told either by his sister.

Throughout, it is clear that Razieh lies to protect her husband but also fears his wrath. She does not anticipate the extent of her treachery and the fact that it exacerbates her situation, but she is clearly caught in an impossible situation.

Personalities shape the conflict; determine the outcome and the course; also inflame the tension

Hojjat is hot-tempered and for this reason, Razieh constantly fears his anger; there is always the suspicion that he struck her, thus causing the miscarriage.

Hojjat almost beats her when she refuses to swear on the Quoran. Also, Sam features quarrelling parents in her drawings.

Motives: Hojjat is incensed. He believes Nader did not just find out in the hospital; he came there because of his guilt. Nader says he came out of courtesy and respect. Hojjat is also angry that Nader wants to protect the involvement of the school to protect his child but he has just killed the unborn child. He feels that he is being treated like “an animal”.

Fabrication: Hojjat accuses Nader of fabrication; of manipulating the witnesses because he is clever and articulate. He believes because he is “hot-tempered” and unable to express himself he is at a disadvantage. Unemployed, he has no voice. He says that Nader is “twisting everything” to suit himself and in the process he is trampling on his own civil rights. “I can’t talk like this guy.” He lacks the powers of persuasion because “I am hot tempered”. Razieh also notes that her husband is often “stressed out” because of his debts and the creditors who are pursuing him. He is depressed and will easily tip.

Leading up to the fall: the “push”

Cover up: After Nader finds the father almost dead on the floor, Razieh tells Nader that she was “just gone briefly”. The grandfather “naps at this time”. Nader becomes very angry at her attempts to minimise her negligence. He becomes infuriated that Razieh had the audacity/boldness to leave his father unattended. Razieh justifies it on the grounds that Nader used to do it. But he said he didn’t tie the father to the bed.

Although she fell down the stairs, she refuses to acknowledge at first that the stairs were slippery because of the garbage.
Nader and Razieh quibble over the term “push”. Nader downplays the violence and brutality and says that he was ‘a bit rough”. Razieh disputes the push and says that he was very rough; he “threw” me. (“I didn’t throw you.”).

Knowledge of pregnancy: there is a lot at stake

Roughly, Nader pushes her out of the door and “flings” her down the stairs.

Did he know she was pregnant? This is critical to the sequence of events and the simmering conflict. There is a lot at stake.

Whilst Nader’s wife, Simin believes he must have known, Razieh’s husband believes that Nader is lying to the magistrate to save himself.

This knowledge becomes a source of tension and will determine whether Nader is imprisoned for 2-3 years for murder.
Nader knows that he must insist on innocence: he claims he would not have forced her out of the house had he known. He says that the chador hides the pregnancy. He says he would not have hired her if he knew of the pregnancy.

Razieh claims that she spoke of the pregnancy in front of the daughter and the tutor the tutor becomes embroiled.

It also becomes a source of pride for Nader and he knows that he will lose face/dignity; he will lose Termeh’s trust. She knows that whilst Nader insists on his innocence, Simin says that he must have k known as he was not surprised when she ended up in hospital. Nader protests that the mother wants to “turn you against me”.

Motives: Hojjat is incensed. He believes Nader did not just find out in the hospital; he came there because of his guilt. Nader says he came out of courtesy and respect. Hojjat is also angry that Nader wants to protect the involvement of the school to protect his child but he has just killed the unborn child. He feels that he is being treated like “an animal”.

Witnesses: It is difficult to both believe and disbelieve them. She appears credible but Hojjat is unconvinced. Mrs Lavasni’s testimony supports Nader’s. She says she knew of the pregnancy from the drawing and did not speak about it in front of Nader. At first she says that Razieh told her, and then that she asked after she saw the drawing. She said one couldn’t tell from her appearance. Hojjat accuses her of “fixing” the story. He pursues her at the school in order to intimidate her and accuses her of lying, shamefully. She protests that she is speaking the “truth” and is prepared to swear on the Koran.

Witnesses: Mrs Kalani: the landlord. Nader states that he must warn her to “beware of” the questions, but Termeh wonders why she needs to “beware” of anything. Is he influencing her? If she is telling the “truth” she does not need to be careful. Hojjat suspects Mrs Kal of lying to protect Nader and believes that they are all acting against him.

The accusation of theft: the mistrust and the language

Nader accuses Razieh of theft. She is personally very affronted/offended that he thought she was capable of taking his money. He also protests, “I didn’t say she stole”, but he was angry when he realised that the missing funds were the same figure as her pay.
She protests her innocence, “I didn’t steal”. He is not satisfied and she insists. She constantly returns to this accusation and believes it is more painful than the loss of her child. Anger simmers. She also claims that if she didn’t make a fuss, he would have thought that she stole it.

Suspicions increase: Nader then accuses Razieh of stealing the money, which increases her anger. “ I didn’t take the money” and she refuses to leave.

If Nader complains about the treatment of the father, then Razieh could be charged.

Does Nader know about the money? Is he using this as a foil for his anger about his father? Is he aware of his unjust accusation?

The Blood money: no easy solutions

Solution: Simin negotiates the 15 million settlement (instead of 40 million). Nader accuses her of interference, but Simin believes that he accuses her of meddling only when it suits. Previously, he took the bail.

Simin urges Nader to “put yourself in their place” and imagine their pain and resentment. She admits that she cannot deal with the stress of the problem and is worried about Termeh’s safety, especially because of Hojjat’s unpredictable obsessions. “I can’t handle the stress”.
Problems: Razieh confesses to Simin that Hojjat “will kill me” if he knew that she had divulged her fears and doubts about the miscarriage to her. She thinks the baby was already dead; it had stopped moving. She pleads with Simin not to pursue the matter.

Swear on the Koran

Razieh faces impossible choices, brought about by her religion and her duty to her own child and husband.
Nader asks her to swear an oath on the Koran that he caused the miscarriage. She is unable to do this; she fears that if she tells a lie, her daughter may suffer harm.

She is not sure whether the fall caused the pregnancy; she says she was hit by a car when searching for the grandfather on the previous day. There is also the innuendo that “hot-tempered” Hojjat may have hit her.

Desperate for the money, Hojjat pleads with her and is prepared to shoulder the blame. After Hojjat leaves in disgust, Razieh accuses Nader and Simin: “How will I live in this house”. I “told you not to come”. Sam looks at Termeh suggesting that she will endure similar problems. She, too, may be caught up in a separation because of the impossible problems of the parents.

Return to Summary Page: Conflict /

When it comes to writing a good story, many feel the process to be a mysterious expedition into the unknown. Lacking greater insight into why some stories work better than others, these very same people take the time-tested, yet often failed approach of “We’ll know it when we see it.”

Problem is, by the time they do manage to see the light the crushing weight of the freight train marked “Deadline” overruns them and dashes any hopes of getting the story right. Wouldn’t it be great to have the foresight ahead of time to know what path to take and what important points to explore?

Diving Into One of the Greats

Recently, I had the pleasure of conducting an analysis of the Iranian masterpiece, A Separation (2011). In addition to the superb acting and deft directing, the film exudes a confident, subtle and well-balanced narrative—clues that the film contains a solid storyform.

A storyform—as defined by the Dramatica (narrative science) theory of story—identifies the central thematic elements of a complete narrative. Listing close to seventy-five key story points, this structural imprint holds within it the meaning or “message” of a story. Analyzing a film by looking for these key story points allows writers to better understand how to apply the predictive nature of the storyform to their own work.

The First Go-Round

I originally completed my first analysis of this spectacular film last September. The storyform I settled on at that time was—for the most part—accurate, but there were a few areas where it didn’t feel quite right to me. A proper storyform sings out—like an orchestra playing together in harmonious brilliance—and this one didn’t quite ring true to me. A few sour notes that left me feeling a bit off.

So when it came time to take another crack at it in one of my Story classes at the California Institute of the Arts, I jumped at the chance to find the right tune.

While 75% of this second attempt ended up matching my initial assessment, I did make one slight adjustment. I say slight because its an easy thing to do within the software application, but theoretically, it’s actually a pretty major shift. Instead of seeing Nader’s problems as a matter of his obstinate attitude—which he clearly has—we looked at him from the perspective of his manipulations. Every problem he has, everything that defines who he is, comes as a result of his constant drive to change the way people think and how they think about him. More importantly though, this way of thinking causes problems for him. Shifting the context of his personal Throughline to something more psychological in nature—while a simple click of the mouse—in reality, opened up a whole new perspective on his personal troubles.

Drilling down into Dramatica’s structural model beneath this psychological “umbrella” we eventually struck narrative gold:

This quad of elements sang out for a couple of reasons. The first was the word Cause—namely because that was the precise Main Character Problem I had identified in my initial analysis. Dramatica defines Cause as:

the specific circumstances that lead to an effect. The character containing the Cause characteristic is concerned with what is behind a situation or its circumstances.

Nader’s problems stem from his overwhelming desire to establish blame and from his desire to avoid taking any blame for anything. His wife leaving him, Razieh’s “accident”, why Razieh was even there in the first place: all of these exemplify a character driven and blinded by Cause.

More importantly, however, this quad stood out because the elements within sang together in a harmonious reflection of Nader. Like the entire storyform itself—albeit at a finer resolution—these elements grouped together holistically painted a picture of Nader’s flawed character I’m sure the Author intended.

A Holistic Model of Intent

In short, the storyform defines what it is the Author is trying to say with his or her work. Strong powerful films exist as strong powerful films because they have something they’re trying to say, something they’re trying to argue. More than a sequence template to follow, the storyform outlines the key points needed to make a solid argument. Solid argument, solid story, no plot holes, happy Audience.

Now some films, or stories for that matter, have no real purpose beyond simple entertainment (Fletch, Battle: Los Angeles, or 2012 to name a few) and that’s OK—Dramatica can’t really help with those kinds of films. But when it comes to films that really matter, the ones that strive to be something even greater than the sum total of their parts, concepts like the storyform help explain why the greatness.

The Magic of Dramatica

By selecting Cause as Nader’s Main Character Problem, Dramatica took the initiative and calculated the rest of the thematic material needed to tell a compelling story. Yes, thats right. The power of Dramatica, and its unique ability over any other paradigm of story, lies in its ability to take the parts of your story you know and provide with the bits you haven’t even thought of yet. By analyzing your initial intent, the program can predict what you need in the other Throughlines in order to balance out your story and make it feel complete.

All that was left now was to take a look at what Dramatica predicted the Overall Story Throughline of A Separation to be and see if that matched up with the actual film:

Amazing! If there was one thing clear about the Overall Story of this film—the part of the story that affects everyone—it was the broken system of justice within Iran. Proving one’s innocence within the judge’s small cramped office, waiting amongst the hoarded outside to even get in—all of these perfectly illustrated an Overall Story Problem of Process:

the mechanism through which a cause leads to an effect. A Process is a series of interactions that create results. syn. chain of interactions, manner of procedure, cause/effect relation, progression, ongoing pull or tendency

This was yet another key point I had selected in my original analysis. You may wonder then, if the Overall Story Problem and the Main Character Problem matched the first attempt, what exactly changed? Remember that “slight” shift in perspective I made earlier? By doing this, the other two items in both quads switched from Proven and Un-proven to Accurate and Non-Accurate.

In my original analysis I had felt the former pair (Proven and Un-Proven) correctly identified what a majority of the story was about. While the individual Problems of the Throughlines drive a story forward, it is the other pair within the quad that occupies most of the story’s attention. The characters in A Separation certainly spend a fair amount of time trying to prove the unproven.

But when one takes a closer look at Accurate and Non-Accurate and sees them more as Appropriate Behavior and Inappropriate Behavior (synonyms respectively) one begins to gain a greater sense of what the film was really exploring thematically. Nader calling out the hot-headed husband Hodjat for insulting him, Hodjat yelling at his Razieh for working for a single man, or Razieh calling up her religious order to determine whether or not helping an ailing old man to clean himself (who just wet himself from Alzheimer’s ) was an appropriate action for her to take—all of these describe characters balancing the demands of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. As with Nader’s quad of elements these four perfectly encircled the dramatic energy present within this great film.

In the second part of this series, we’ll explore what all of this means and how understanding the storyform can help Authors craft films as equally as powerful as this one.

For years, the crafting of a solid story required little more than the ability to guess. Writing. Rewriting. Repeat ad nauseam until the work found its voice. The challenge always seemed to be finding the necessary pieces to tell a complete story.

Until now.

Instead of leaving purpose to chance, the Dramatica storyform (a pillar of narrative science theory) grants clues to this process of “unearthing the bones”. No longer a case of crossing fingers and biting lips, writing a story that satisfies and fulfills now comes with an enlightening roadmap.

As discussed in the first article in this series, A Separation: Blueprint of a Masterpiece, the storyform paints a holistic footprint of a story’s thematic make-up. Choosing to focus one part of a story on a certain point-of-view demands that complimentary and opposing points-of-view come into play as well. As we saw with the juxtaposition of appropriate and inappropriate behavior both in Nader’s storyline and in the larger storyline of modern life in Iran, alternate points-of-view help define the Author’s “message” and give purpose to stor.

Revelation Upon Revelation

Further examination of the storyform Dramatica predicted for A Separation proved just as exhilarating as the first revelation. Take for instance the concept of the Overall Story Catalyst and the Overall Story Inhibitor. As defined by the theory, these two claim responsibility for increasing or decreasing conflict within a story.

As you can see Dramatica singled out Confidence as the Catalyst and Knowledge as the Inhibitor. Perfect! Every time a character proceeds with confidence—Nader’s strong sense of innocence, Hodjat’s defense of his wife in court—conflict in the story builds. Likewise, any time Knowledge comes into play—as when Razieh reveals knowledge of her accident the night before—the story slows to a halt.

What other understanding of story can even come close to this kind of narrative thematic prestidigitation?!

Without going into too much more detail, these amazing predictions continue on through out the entire storyform. Confident as we had finally found “the one”, we concluded class that night resolved with a better understanding of why this film worked so well. More importantly, the process of analysis granted each of us greater insight towards how to apply the same successful thematic exploration in our own work.

When Instinct Fails

And so there it was.

Without actually sitting down and watching A Separation, Dramatica was able to confidently predict how the rest of the story should play out—just by knowing Nader’s character.

Why is this so important for writers (and for those struggling to bring a story together)?

If you know your Main Character as well as Asghar Farhadi, the writer of A Separation clearly did, but you aren’t sure where to take the Overall Story or any of the other characters, Dramatica can predict for you the necessary story points you need to complete the narrative. Not sure how to increase conflict in the Overall Story? Apply a hint of the Overall Story Catalyst as described above and you’re good to go. Not sure how to develop that key Relationship Throughline? Look to the Relationship Story Signposts and craft your work accordingly. Regardless of what story point you need help with or are blind to see yourself, the Dramatica theory of story can help make your story solid and meaningful.

Magic in the Real World

Experiences like this help solidify the uniqueness of Dramatica’s approach to story. By inputting the qualities of a single character the theory predicts and nails what should be happening within the other Throughlines. But wonder like this means nothing without some greater purpose behind it.

Take a look at that last element in Nader’s quad, the one we have yet to discuss—Effect. If Nader’s problem is Cause then his Solution to that problem is Effect.

But he never gets there—and I believe that’s key to what this film is all about.

Nader is a Steadfast character which means that his point-of-view, his perspective towards things, remains consistent. His pride and his confidence in his own innocence so overwhelms him that he never takes time out to see the effects his behavior has on those around him—especially his daughter.

Thus, the central tragedy of the film actually finds itself encoded into the structural meaning of the story: Nader’s steadfast prideful manipulations drive his daughter to a point where she abandons her original point-of-view and chooses one parent over the other. Up until that final scene his daughter went with the flow—engaging in the process of separation without really dealing with any of the residual fallout. She didn’t want to have to make a choice and risk hurting the other parent. Unfortunately her father brought her to a point where she had no other choice but to live with the repercussions of divorce.

The Story Outcome of Failure and the Story Judgment of Bad categorize this change as Tragic. A Separation succeeds on so many levels because it depicts the results of divorce—both personally among individuals, interpersonally between parents and children, and globally amongst the citizens of a progressing nation dealing with a separation from the old ways and old bonds towards a new and uncertain future.

See how the storyform labels the Story Consequence as Progress? The Consequence occurs when the efforts to reach the Story Goal fail, and fail they do in this film. The tragic consequences of progress in Iran—that’s the deeper meaning of this film and the true purpose of the narrative. Modern Iran, with its children having to choose one “parent” over the other, finds progress a tragic process—a no-win situation regardless of which path they choose—the fallout of which results in a fractured society, alone and separated, with losers on both sides.

Structure and Proof

Dramatica did more than predict story points, it gave us a blueprint of the Author’s original intent—his purpose in writing this powerful and moving story.

A Separation scores 99% on Rotten Tomatoes because it tells a solid and purpose-driven story. The filmmaker had something very meaningful to say and he did it both competently and artfully. Dramatica and its concept of the storyform helps explain the former. Talent takes care of the latter. That powerful message—made possible only through this combination of ability and thematic enlightenment—is what audiences and critics respond to and what many an Author aspires to.

The signal flare of greatness beckons; step forward without trepidation, taking comfort in the well lit path before you.

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