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Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time

“I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people in my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the us and our enemies categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression” (qtd. in Dove). Through this globally received speech in February 2017, the 89th Academy Awards ceremony historicized the controversial absence of the Iranian Academy Award winner director, Asghar Farhadi, after the United States President’s Executive Order that barred citizens of seven countries, including Iran, from entering America for at least ninety days. Two Iranian-American space experts, Anousheh Ansari and Firouz Naderi, accepted Farhadi’s second Best Foreign Language Film Award for The Salesman on his behalf. Ansari delivered Farhadi’s politically charged message, addressing the U.S government and broadcast to the world. Ansari and Naderi, the first female space ambassador and the former director of Solar Systems Exploration at NASA who represented the Iranian film director in his physical absence, also symbolized the border-crossing notion of the world view embodied in his speech, as minds familiar with space cannot be confined to, or reconciled with, terrestrial borders. Farhadi’s critical stance in that moment not only enhanced the global impacts of his own cinema in particular, and Iranian cinema in general, but also voiced the anxiety of nations targeted by a discriminatory act that barred millions of people from entering the land of liberty and equal rights and stigmatized them because of their nationalities as potentially terrorist associates.

The idea, or ideal, of freedom and equality perpetuated by America, fluctuating between reality and dream through its history, was once more challenged as the world found itself confronting the promises of new borders and walls right in the middle of a so-called global village accustomed to cultural convergence. There is no surprise that Donald Trump’s Executive Order provoked a range of opposing political and ideological voices that had long been engaged in drawing, erasing, and revising borders between the west and the east, us and the other, Muslims and non-Muslims. The occasion this time was an Iranian film that was already in dialogue with an American play’s critical view of the American dream: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). In view of the ideological and political disconnections between Iran and the U.S. since 1979, the transcultural reverberations of Farhadi’s adaptation of Miller’s play and the dialogic role it undertook provide a remarkable example of a cross-cultural adaptation’s abilities to enact as an ambassador between adapted and adapting cultures, languages, and nations in a time of political miscommunication. Perhaps such a border-crossing and globalizing potential exists within the core of every cross-cultural adaptation if, like The Salesman, it is exposed to the historical circumstances that release its potential power as “every text, and every adaptation, points in many directions, back, forward, and sideways”  (Stam 27). This essay sketches a body of dialogic relations within and outside The Salesman that engage Miller’s play, the film’s  screenplay, Trump’s Executive Order, Farhadi’s Oscar speech, local and international media reactions, and Iranian citizens’ social media interactions. In their ongoing dialogue over border-crossing, border-blocking, and border-making instances, these intertextual and metatextual forces defy and define each other affecting and affected by past and the future.

As a cross-cultural adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), The Salesman (2016) does not embody many immediately recognizable signs of text-to-screen adaptations except for the play rehearsed within the film. The film presents itself as another Farhadi work rather than an adaptation. Like other Farhadi films, The Salesman narrates middle-class people’s tragedies as they desperately struggle to find the truth through deceitful human interactions in unmerciful urban settings. It tells the story of a young middle-class couple, two financially troubled amateur artists residing in Tehran, who are forced to move to a new apartment when they suddenly learn that their flat is in danger of collapsing because of reckless construction work in the next building.1 Rana and Emad, who are busy rehearsing as Linda and Willy in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, accept a fellow artist’s offer to move to his rental apartment. Shortly after moving in, they learn that the flat was previously rented by an alleged prostitute who had been forced by neighbors to move out: “a single mother, who—in the delicate terminology of their neighbors […] lived a wild life with a regular procession of male visitors” (Douglas 47). After the opening night of the play, Rana, who has returned home alone, opens the door to a stranger, assuming that Emad is at the door, just before taking a shower and is brutally beaten and sexually assaulted in the bathroom. Emad arrives home to encounter bloodstains on the stairs that lead to the empty flat. He learns from the neighbors that they have taken the unconscious body of Rana to the hospital after hearing screams from the apartment followed by footsteps running down the stairs. One of the neighbors speculates that the stranger has been a client of the former tenant, who has mistaken Rana for her. Rana is bruised, broken, and shocked. She refrains from revealing the details of what has happened in the bathroom. Neither Emad nor the audience can tell whether she does not remember the details or is unwilling to speak out. In a conversation with Emad, she refers to having felt a stranger’s hands through her hair under the shower, screaming, hitting her head on the glass, and blacking out. However, she refuses to report the incident to the police, even after learning that the intruder has left his truck and keys at their place and run away barefoot, wounded by broken glass.

From this night on, the couple find themselves dealing with a trauma in both personal and professional spheres, at home and on the stage. Emad, who works by day as a literature teacher, goes through mental instabilities in both his daytime and evening jobs, finding Rana tormented by her unspoken pain and memories with symptoms of monophobia. He hallucinates thoughts and interactions with others, imagining that every single man he encounters could potentially be the unknown intruder. The audience identifies with his suspicion and suspense. Tracking down several clues, including the pickup truck’s plate number, he eventually discovers that the intruder is not a young man, as he imagined him to be, but a middle-aged, lower-class salesman who loves his family but had secretly been visiting the former tenant of the apartment for pleasure. On the night in question, after entering the apartment and finding Rana, who is the same age as his to-be-bride daughter, in the shower, he could not control the temptation anymore. The salesman, ashamed, broken, and imprisoned by Emad in their former apartment, suffers two heart attacks before and after his family’s arrival at the scene. His unconscious body is carried out from the apartment as his wife mourns him. Rana and Emad return to the stage burdened by their offstage involvement in the death of a salesman.

The incorporation of Miller’s play into Farhadi’s plot, rehearsed and performed by characters involved in a parallel offstage trauma, establishes an intertextual correspondence between The Salesman and Death of a Salesman. This correspondence unfolds into an unaccustomed zone in its twenty-first century Middle Eastern setting and stretches beyond neatly positioned one-on-one relations between the two texts. Miller’s play is not only performed by Farhadi’s characters within the film but reimagined and reenacted in the socio-cultural context of contemporary Iran. Farhadi has not been looking back at Miller’s play, written in 1940s America, in order to adapt it for Iranian cinema. He has been looking instead at his own society, in a country far past its revolutionary dream-era, as if planting the conceptual seeds of Miller’s play on a domestic soil to collect what grows out of it without pre-expectations. Farhadi captures Tehran, from his own window, while re-mediating the life and death of a salesman not fully represented by any single character, somewhere between the city’s construction sites, back-to-back buildings, crowded streets, rushing taxis, amateur artists, and collapsing moralities.

The Salesman is deeply integrated with the Iranian middle-class population’s desires, frustrations, and hopes in their everyday lives and their anxious interactions with their fellow citizens. At first glance, the only scenes that create a Brechtian distance between Iranian audiences and the realism of the film are the ones directly staging Miller’s play. Otherwise, contemporary Iranians are so close to the film’s narrative frames that they easily identify with Rana, Emad, or the salesman without necessarily knowing much about Willy, Linda, or the American Dream. Nevertheless, Miller’s play works beneath the skin of Farhadi’s dramatic screenplay to help achieve its sense of realism through the carefully crafted theatricality of the mise-en-scene. In an interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Farhadi declares his awareness of theatre’s influence on his films. In both his cinema and “in theatre, there tends to be a central situation. Characters resolve around that situation, and unpack it from various angles” he asserts (“A Conversation”). He explains that before working on The Salesman’s treatment, he “always wanted to return to [theatre] and stage something but [he] never got a chance to work in theatre again so [he] thought about getting close to it through film” and decided to write his main characters as actors staging a play. Then he asked himself “what play they were staging” and arrived at the answer after reviewing the works of Ibsen, Sartre, and Pinter, when he revisited Death of a Salesman and saw its many similarities with the characters of his story (“A Conversation”).

Farhadi’s critical approach toward the surrounding world and the domino effects of contemporary social subtexts on domestic spheres typical of his films echo Miller’s lifelong concerns about his own American society. In “Arthur Miller: Guardian of the Dream of America,” Steven R. Centola asserts that “the central point of intersection in Miller’s plays [is] between private tensions and public issues which in Death of a Salesman is evident everywhere, from the characterization, action, form, language, scenery, and dramatic strategy to […] its highly innovative style of representation” (40). The screenwriter of The Salesman and the playwright of Death of a Salesman both target inhuman prices imposed by the society to be paid by individual human beings in order to achieve and protect what one might eventually call home. Willy Loman has been working on the road for a lifetime to pay off the house’s loan without ever being able to protect his family. The last installment is paid after his death, when they are finally “free and clear” (Miller 139). The main tensions of Farhadi’s film are also built around the unsteady definition of home in a society that invades a young couple’s private sphere twice: once through construction work that threatens the material structure of their house by causing cracks in the walls, ceilings, and windows, and then through a stranger’s much more devastating threat to the conceptual meaning of home as he enters the apartment and assaults the woman in the shower. Although three interior spaces in the film, two apartments and a theatre stage designed for the show, represent or recall home, none of them ultimately functions successfully as one because the characters’ rights of protection and dignity are violated within and around all three. Miller’s dramatic stage is fragmented by and multiplied through Farhadi’s de-centralizing mirror; the invading forces that rise from socio-political subtexts in both Miller and Farhadi gradually penetrate the most naked moments of family life, looming over human interactions like a creeping shadow. The cracks in the walls and ceilings of the apartment at the opening scene of The Salesman both foreshadow the impending emotional and mental cracks that will divide everything into before and after and symbolize the cracks in the infrastructures of an urban society whose uncertain morals can so easily violate a citizen’s basic human rights.

If Miller’s play targets the shakiness of the American Dream and its shattered financial promises in its post-war and post-Depression historical context, Farhadi’s adaptation depicts a modern society struggling with challenges, frustrations, and political reforms almost four decades after a radical revolution that promised  moral, spiritual and financial improvements . Both writers use a single family’s problems to focus their portrayal of decaying societies that have betrayed these ideological promises. Although Willy, Linda, Emad, and Rana are individually memorable, every one of them is intimidated by collective agonies and maladjustments of a shapeless society capable of reshaping their individuality under violated and violating dreams. Farhadi points to humiliation as a major theme linking the play and his film, a theme that also speaks to the film’s subsequent challenges in the Oscars: “Willy Loman constantly gets humiliated, by his sons, the society, the neighbors, etc. These humiliations force him to take revenge on himself, and destroy himself. In my story too, Emad gets humiliated by his surrounding… these instances of humiliation persuade him to take revenge” (“A Conversation”). He refers to the taxi scene, in which Emad is accused of molesting an unknown woman sitting nearby as one of the first instances of humiliation in the film (see Figure 1). When Amin, a student sitting in the taxi who looks up to Emad, declares his anger about Emad’s silence in reaction to the unjust accusation, Emad answers that the woman had probably been molested by another man in another taxi, as a result of which she perceives all men as potential sexual assailants. Later, Rana will be treated as a prostitute just because she opens the door to a stranger in a space formerly occupied by one. The stranger recognizes Rana as a different person but still expects her to serve him as a prostitute. In a rehearsal scene, their friend Sanam accuses her fellow actor and ex-husband of disrespecting her “just because [she’s] playing a hooker”.2 The psychological effects of such stigmatizing social deductions make the audiences participate in Emad’s state of mind and perceive a potential abuser in almost every man in the story.

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: 
A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time 
, Rezaie, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: The taxi scene- Emad being humiliated in the presence of his student Amin.

The iconic figure of a salesman in post-war America has been universalized through Willy’s singularity, whereas Farhadi goes for intersecting characters, fragments of whose personalities merge with, and diverge from, their adapted counterparts on and off the stage. The concept of salesmanship unfolds in contemporary Tehran through characters’ investment in buying or selling socio-moral values and conceptual commodities, including the truth, at varying prices. Emad, who is trying to sell his car to be able to move to a new apartment, is primarily interested in selling cultural values as a teacher and actor. He takes a bunch of free books for his students, although his principles forbid him to distribute them, and invites them to the Arthur Miller play in which he is appearing. Emad represents Willy not only by taking his role in the play but by participating in a similar act of self-destruction. Farhadi adds that Emad is more significantly a counterpart to Biff, especially when he confronts the middle-aged man whom he once called “father” as the intruder.3 Babak, who plays Charley on the stage and loans his apartment to Rana and Emad, apparently for free and out of friendship, is also a seller who tries to conceal the story behind the former tenant, to whom he had once been a client, and her remaining furniture’s occupation of the space. Amin, Emad’s ardent student, shows another side of Biff by witnessing Emad’s fluctuations between a role model and a role player. His gaze is captured at different stages of the narrative following the inspirational teacher’s behavioral changes from a humorous man toward an intolerant one even though he fails to perceive the identical shift beneath the surface when watching Death of a Salesman on the very night Emad is keeping a salesman captivated at his place (see Figures 2 and 3). The salesman of the film, on the other hand, is a father to a daughter with a son-in-law he considers like his own son, a modification that customizes the masculine-oriented concept of fathers-and-sons in the play for a contemporary society in which women are actively engaged in pushing the boundaries of stereotypical gender-based attributions. Hence, as Milani observes in A Separation, Farhadi once more depicts “the shifting lines of power within the Iranian family and the trauma of transition from an old civilization to a newer order” that crosses “the line of demarcation between victor and victim, prisoner and prisoner warden … right or wrong…hero or villain” and acknowledges “the imminent and already begun sea change in notions of masculinities and feminities” (208-211).

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: 
A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time 
, Rezaie, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: In class- Amin observes Emad’s harsh behavior with another student.
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: 
A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time 
, Rezaie, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: In theatre- Amin is watching the play with Emad acting as Willy.

In addition to echoing Willy’s fragmented presence, The Salesman refracts Linda’s iconic figure through the salesman’s wife and Rana who, situated in the background and foreground of the drama, reflect each other in socio-cultural push and pull of traditions and transformations. The salesman’s middle-aged wife, like Linda, represents numberless housewives in traditionally established roles who attempt to serve as guardians of a domestic sphere. Her dress coding, language, and difficulty in walking quickly mark her as a typical Iranian middle-aged woman of a traditional religious background who has lost her physical health through years of housekeeping and cleaning chores. The Iranian audience has always known this woman. Rana,  who is not from Tehran4 but is dwelling in the modernized city and represents younger generations of Iranian women, stands in a hybrid zone in which her identification is defined by both Linda and Miss Francis, as she is connected with both in former’s presence and latter’s absence. She keeps silent about the details of the intrusion and does not want to file a complaint, probably her means of self-protection, but proves to have a voice in protecting the salesman’s family when she tells Emad: “If you talk to his family, it’s over between us.” Rana does not reveal whether the rape has actually been committed or not, an indeterminacy within the plot and the couple’s relationship that enables the film to pass safely through the filters of taboo topics in Iranian cinema without being censored.5 Although Farhadi’s camera cannot enter the bathroom because of the impossibility of presenting either nakedness or sexual encounters in Iran, it does not eavesdrop from behind the door either. Arguably, this absolute exclusion functions against the exploitative politics of rape in cinema in which audiences are indulged in the guilty pleasure of witnessing a sexual assault without committing it (Donmez-Colin 75). This resentment of the unsolicited gaze also informs the couple’s mutual discomfort about the neighbors’ presence as witnesses of the incident and Rana’s hysterical reactions on the stage after one audience member’s gaze reminds her of the intruder’s eyes. Donmez-Colin observes that “some films use violence against women as a metaphor, [however], often women herself is the victim” (74). Struggling with and against her role as a victim, Rana actively chooses silence as her means of survival and confrontation, even though such a choice might potentially sound passive (see Figures 4, 5 and 6).

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: 
A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time 
, Rezaie, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Rana silently confronting the salesman's weeping wife.
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: 
A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time 
, Rezaie, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: The salesman's wife cherishing her dying man.
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: 
A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time 
, Rezaie, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Rana playing Linda and mourning  over Emad-Willy’s dead body.

Death of a Salesman famously exhibits the fluidity of boundaries between past and present, memories and realities, dreams and nightmares within the illusionary frames of a supposedly secure domestic zone. Throughout the play, Willy Loman’s thoughts are constantly swinging back and forth between memories of the past, the laughter of the woman he had an affair with, his shattered dreams for his sons, and his miserable existence in a home with a kindhearted wife who cannot penetrate his inner agonies. A transcultural counterpart of Willy Loman in Farhadi’s film enters the apartment of the protagonists, who are acting the same play, and assaults the woman even after learning that she is not his kept woman. In a bitter irony, he also leaves some money behind, apparently in exchange for the sexual encounter. Between the lines of this nightmarish narrative there are echoes of Willy Loman’s inability to distinguish between the past and the present, the hotel room and his apartment, the woman he had an affair with and Linda. Both salesmen must endure the tormenting memory of a single night with calamitous impact. Emad and Rana also suffer in the domestic and social spheres of their everyday lives, for they have to continue acting Willy and Linda on the theatre stage, act as cultivated citizens on the social stage, and act understanding toward each other on the domestic stage of their conjugal relation despite what lies shattered beneath the surface. The three stages ultimately merge into one with multiple dark dimensions, as Emad and Rana carry the burden of the death of a salesman and his mourning, uninformed wife onto the stage, masked as Willy and Linda.

Neither The Salesman’s global success as a cinematic production nor the controversies formulated around it as a politico-cultural phenomenon drew serious attention to its status as an adaptation even though the film has generated intertextual and border-crossing encounters between the adapted and the adapting. In his essay “Players on the Stage,” James Robert Douglas explains how the opening shots of the film establish a stage-setting for the rehearsal and performance of Miller’s play within the film: “in a series of tight shots, the camera delineates several sections of a theatrical set – bed, table, doorway – that fit together as the performance space for a community production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman” (49). However, he maintains that neither he nor many other critics have been able to trace “a substantial narrative connection between Emad and Rana’s story and Miller’s play” apart from the film’s production design (49) (see Figures 7 and 8 ). In speaking about the connection between Miller’s play and his film, Farhadi explains how for the final scene he wanted “the mise-en-scene, the camera, the acting, and even the lightning” to convey the impression of seeing a play, “hoping that this film could show us theatre in a way that blends the boundary between life and theatre, to the point that we ask ourselves if what we are watching is real life or theatre” (“A Conversation”). He also reveals that a great portion of his rehearsal time with Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini was devoted to reading Miller’s work as if they were truly about to perform the play rather than making a film (“A Conversation”).

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: 
A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time 
, Rezaie, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 7: The opening shot—setting the stage for Miller's play and Farhadi's drama.
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman: 
A Border-Crossing Adaptation in a Border-Blocking Time 
, Rezaie, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 8: The final shot of the opening credits—Willy Loman’s staged world in Tehran.

The plastic projection of Miller’s play through The Salesman’s production design dissects a theatrical whole into a series of cinematic pieces by cinematizing selected characteristics of the play and dramatizing selected characteristics of the film. What happens in this diverging and merging process resembles the passage of light through a prism as it is dispersed into shades that are not identical with the source but are embodied by it. The metaphor of the prism is evocative of Dudley Andrew’s famous passage about what he classifies as intersecting adaptations. In an intersection like The Salesman, which is different from the intersecting adaptations Andrew defines, the cinema is not merely “a crude flashlight”  at the service of adapted text’s crystal chandelier to “produce […] an experience of the original modulated by the peculiar beam of the cinema,” for it brings the dark corners of its own socio-political setting to the game as well (90). Farhadi looks back at Miller’s play through the prism of contemporary Iranian society by adapting a combination of the passing shades without transferring the whole spectrum, and his rethinking of Miller’s text in alternate socio-political conditions responds to Andrew’s invitation to a “sociological turn” in adaptation studies (104).

The Salesman gained an exceptional global reputation just as the world of politics was undermining the very notion of globalism by considering the necessity of establishing even stricter boundaries between nations. A year after its production and more than half a century after Miller’s play, just as the film was expanding its global reputation by its Oscar recognition, an unexpected rebirth of political forces that stereotype individual beings under collective labels challenged the Iranian director to a one-on-one ideological battle:

On Friday, January 27th, 2017 President Donald Trump, shortly after his inauguration, signed executive order 13769, the “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” into law. The order made changes to immigration policies and procedures and banned individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries [including Iran] from entering the United States for 90 days. The ban set off a fury of protests across U.S. cities and airports. (Collingwood, Lajevardi, and Oskooii)

Asghar Farhadi, who had just stepped into a promising zone of cross-cultural and transnational adaptability and dialogue with a canonical American text, was one of the very first individuals targeted by the discriminating order. He was about to travel to the U.S to attend the Academy Awards ceremony when the first executive order hit the news and marked him as an iconic representative of all those affected by it. The Miller-Farhadi correlation gained a new conceptual weight in depicting how an individual might lose face and equality in an unequal situation. Just as Willy Loman resembled all frustrated American dreamers, Farhadi stood for all those suddenly banned from entering the U.S. because of their nationality.

The film already embodied a cross-cultural dialogue between the Middle East and the West, and between Iranian cinema and American literature, when Farhadi’s voice in the Oscars echoed Miller’s in defending the human rights of every individual suppressed by the generalizing, standardizing, dehumanizing forces of the political world. The fluidity of the concept of barriers already embedded in his family drama ascended a politically charged platform in a world that had desperately been struggling against the impossibility of drawing any definite lines between terrorist and anti-terrorist, national and non-national, domestic and universal in order to sketch a securely protected zone in which to live happily ever after. In his counter-adaptive reaction against the Executive Ban, Farhadi undermined the steadiness of presumably solid borders between us and the others, friends and enemies. His political stance was a consequential extension of his cinematic adaptation that showed the unreliability of barriers between private and public spheres, on- and offstage performances, interior and exterior spaces, and also questioned the practicality of differentiating lines between a prostitute and a housewife, a salesman and a rapist, an actor and a murderer.

In the context of worldwide reactions to the first Executive Order, Farhadi’s statement about his absence from the Oscars became a hot topic in Iranian people’s social media interactions. Taraneh Alidoosti, the actress, was the first The Salesman associate who, on her instagram, announced that she would be boycotting the Oscars even if the U.S. exempted artists from the order: “Trump’s visa ban for Iranians and others is a racist move and unacceptable. Whether this will include a cultural event or not, I won’t attend the #AcademyAwards 2017 in protest” (qtd. in Strachan). The post went viral, and the news spread on many other platforms with implicit reference to Farhadi’s impending decision on the subject. In fact, Alidoosti’s immediate reaction had already limited Farhadi’s choices by generating a certain expectation. In the next couple of days, as global media were covering the airport protests and many passengers with visas were detained from entering the U.S., several images showed protestors holding pictures of Farhadi, the Oscar nominated film director who could not enter the United States, along with other placards. Farhadi’s name was bolded in headlines, and the socio-political impact of The Salesman reached new horizons through the implementation of new borders between the nations. Many Iranians reached out to Farhadi’s profile as a highly credible national and cultural icon who could represent them as a nation the way they wanted to be presented, instead of looking for governmental institutions or political agents to speak for them. Farhadi, the first and only Oscar-winning Iranian filmmaker now on the verge of making history by receiving a second Academy Award, was chosen by Iranians as the ambassador of their collective voice against a dehumanizing label that targeted every single Iranian, even those who might never apply for a U.S. visa, as a potential terrorist based on nationality and religion.

Under the watchful eyes of social media users and the pressure of public demands, Farhadi published a letter announcing his decision not to attend the Oscars, remarking that he “neither had the intention to not attend nor did [he] want to boycott the event as a show of objection, for [he] know[s] that many in the American film industry and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are opposed to the fanaticism and extremism which are today taking place more than ever.” Despite that initial intention, he announced that “the possibility of this presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to [him] even if expectations were to be made for [his] trip” (qtd. in Erdbrink and Donadio). Through this message, Farhadi stands by other dissenting voices against the mentality that perceives the world “via an us and them” in order to “understand the world,” and stands against the proponents of that mentality who “create a fearful image of them and inflict fear in the people of their own countries” (qtd. in Erdbrink and Donadio). Although some commentators accused Farhadi of not fighting for freedom in his own country while pointing his finger at the U.S. government, Farhadi’s letter, followed by his award speech, clearly addressed the Islamic government of Iran as well as the U.S government (Kamali Dehghan). His letter and speech attached the terminology and ideology of “us versus the enemies” to both the Iranian government over decades and the global political discourse today:

This is not just limited to the United States, in my country hardliners are the same. For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hardliners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. (qtd. in Erdbrink and Donadio)

This reaction against the “unrealistic depiction of nations” gains weight in the context of Farhadi’s cinema in view of the fact that he is known to have globalized a realistic image of contemporary Iranian life by pushing the boundaries of the limited expectations of international audiences who knew Iranian cinema mostly through a specific genre classified as Iranian Art Film. After the Oscar night, the New York Times critic Thomas Erdbrink announced that “Iran’s Master of the Ordinary, Wins a 2nd Oscar,” an extraordinary event in the history of Iranian cinema that raised the status of a globally acclaimed film director who had never presented himself as a propaganda artist on politico-cultural platforms (Erdbrink). His impending absence from the ceremony placed The Salesman within a wider international scope and made the director’s voice reverberate beyond national and ideological tensions by proposing a more universal human cause, as explained in the letter:

I believe that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences. I believe that the root cause of many of the hostilities among nations in the world today must be searched for in their reciprocal humiliation carried out in its past and no doubt the current humiliation of other nations are the seeds of tomorrow’s hostilities. (qtd. in Erdbrink and Donadio)


This was not the first time Farhadi used an award-winning moment as an occasion to call for political reform and change. After the Iranian director’s acceptance speech for A Separation,  “commentators lauded Farhadi’s bravery and suggested that he might not be able to return to Iran because of his remarks,” which, according to Atwood, “captures the exotic appeal of Iranian cinema for international audiences” (14). Atwood, who argues against the classification of Iranian cinema into pre and post-revolutionary and explores the concept of Reform Cinema as a third transformative category over the last three decades, observes that the international response to Farhadi’s first Oscar acceptance speech “encapsulates the way in which audiences have come to understand the relationship between cinema and politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” a speech in which “he claimed that Iranian culture had been buried under a heavy dust of politics” (14). In fact, Farhadi’s cinema, with its general badge of a post-revolutionary Iranian one, is more accessible through the discourse of Reform Cinema in terms of its socio-political bearings and effects, both nationally and internationally. The auteur-director “might want to avoid politics, but his observant camera and his insightful, revealing pen capture the essence of a fact that cannot be neglected,” and he continues to act as a reformist by observing, registering, and perpetuating what Milani calls a “seismic change that is shaking the very foundation of society,” a change that pushes the segregating boundaries in favor of a braver new world (211).

In a review published in the Guardian in March 2017, Peter Bradshaw claims that “The Salesman is arguably the most pro-American work the Iranian film industry has ever produced” and describes this feature as an “undiscussed irony” (Bradshaw). In order to reconcile Farhadi’s dissenting political stance with the unexceptionable adaptive strategies of his film, Bradshaw adds that “Miller’s play is a trenchant critique of the American dream, of course, but nevertheless its cultural value is calmly assumed, without any attendant attack on the States in Farhadi’s dialogue” (Bradshaw).  However, one does not necessarily need to classify The Salesman as a pro- or anti- American film, as its relation with American literature and culture is more dialogic than linear, disruptive, or endorsing. Cristina Della Coletta theorizes each new act of adaptation, specifically cross-cultural adaptation, as an encounter between former expectations and new horizons. It is arguable that the cross-cultural adaptation of Miller’s play in Farhadi’s cinema in its national and international domino effects, starting from a hybrid text and developing to an enlarging context, shaped an infusion of new horizons beyond expectations.

On February 26th, a few hours before the Oscars ceremony, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, hosted an open screening of the film in London’s Trafalgar Square, inviting thousands of people, including actors and directors like Mike Leigh, to “celebrate the capital’s success as a creative hub and beacon for openness and diversity” after the Brexit vote (Khomami). Guardian reporter Nadia Khomami, describing the event a snub against Trump’s ban, asserts that the screening announcement came “after actors and film-makers including Julie Christie, Kevin Macdonald, Keira Knightley, Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam wrote to the Duke of Westminster to ask for permission to hold a screening outside the US embassy to protest against the US president’s ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries” (Khomami). Farhadi did not attend the event in person but sent a video message for the opening, and declared that “the gathering of the audience around The Salesman in this famous London square is a symbol of unity against the division and separation of people” (qtd. in Bowley). This was a distinctive moment for Iranian cinema: the world pronouncing an Iranian film as a democratizing voice in global communications and resistance, an expressive counterbalance to Iran’s political struggles with democratic rights and demands. A few hours after the London screening, the second momentous event of the day marked the history of Iranian cinema, putting Farhadi’s name “on a shortlist of elite directors who have won an Oscar in the foreign film category more than once, including Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman” (Kamali Dehghan).

Thomas Leitch reminds us that “in many ways texts can cross borders, cross them partially, cross them while not crossing them, and not cross them at all”; in the case of The Salesman the hybrid text crossed the limits of cinematic frames to be revisited by political and epistemological subtexts (39). The  platform Farhadi was placed on in 2017 is a reminiscent of many other historical platforms on which the world’s artists, including Arthur Miller himself, stood on to integrate the art of healing with the wounds of their contemporary world. In “Arthur Miller: Guardian of the Dream of America,” Steven Centola refers to a picture printed in the New York Times in the February 19, 2003 issue that shows the eighty-seven-year-old Arthur Miller standing beside the rapper Mos Def to protest the war in Iraq, an event that “served as a vivid reminder of […] the role of the literary artist in American society” (33). Highlighting “Miller’s commitment to social justice and human decency and the rights of all people to live with dignity and in peace,” Centola maintains that the playwright’s presence in this antiwar protest “unveils the moral backbones not only of his plays, stories and essays, but also of his lifetime work to free dissident writers abroad and champion the human rights of the oppressed at home” (34-5). The cross-cultural adaptation sets the ground for an ideological reincarnation the moment a non-American independent artist of the sort Miller would champion speaks against the distortion and abolition of Miller’s dream of America, a “more-than-American dream […] a universal dream that transcends culture, ideology, and geography, and […] speaks to all people of all societies and all ages” (37-8).

The sequence of politico-cultural events surrounding The Salesman alongside the combination of actions and reactions exemplified by the mayor of London’s screening decision had already made the film’s success at the Oscars widely expected. At the same time, such a politically charged outcome invited skeptical views on the film’s artistic values from extremist political parties and a number of film critics and filmmakers, even in Iran. Although the film had already won the Best Leading Actor and Best Screenplay prizes at Cannes and been nominated for the Palme d’Or and the Golden Globes’ Best Motion Picture–Foreign Language award, its success at the Oscars threatened to undermine it as a political tool. Farhadi’s Oscar speech was reported to “upset right-wing critics” in the U.S., provoking a wave of how-dare-you tweets: “we give an Iranian filmmaker an award & he writes us a lecture on our government. How about he go lecture his own Iranian leaders?” (qtd. in Mazza). Iranian right-wing critics also expressed their dissatisfaction with Farhadi’s elevated status and his choice of two Iranian-Americans who work for NASA to represent him at the Academy Awards. The domino effects of the film’s presence at the Oscars continued to create domestic clashes between ideological forces in Iran whose stance towards Farhadi’s global success revealed their position on  a range of other controversy subjects, including Iran’s international relations. Moreover, it drew attention to the topic of censorship and institutional decisions made for Iranian cinema during the past four decades that prevented other outstanding auteur directors’ films from being made available in international venues. Masud Kimiai and Bahram Beyzai, two prominent new wave filmmakers whose cinemas have never gained wide global recognition despite their essential roles in reconstituting the identity of Iranian cinema before and after the revolution, supported Farhadi’s controversial success by officially congratulating him in metaphorical messages that also ended their long-term silence about the suppression of many deserving Iranian films barred from global interactions by local boycotting.6

The Salesman has been in explicit dialogue with the history of Iranian cinema, the Iranian new wave, and literary adaptations, just as it had been in dialogue with the American Dream and its challenges even before getting into metafictional political conflicts with it. An expressive scene of the film finds Emad dozing off in the classroom during a screening while his students are silently making fun of the show. The film projected in this scene, Dariush Mehrjui’s 1969 feature The Cow (Gaav), is one of the first films that initiated the new wave movement and one of the first significant literary adaptations in Iranian cinema (Naficy 336).7 The Cow is based on Ghoalm-Hossein Saedi’s story about a villager’s increasing tendency to identify himself as a cow after his beloved cow, his only possession, has died. In the first classroom scene in The Salesman, students reading a passage of Saedi’s story ask Emad if he could show the film in class, an idea he welcomes. When one of the students asks how one could turn into a cow, Emad answers, “gradually.” Farhadi asserts that this brief exchange, with an intervention of another student who mockingly says, “look yourself in the mirror,” foreshadows Emad’s psychological turn throughout the film, which is also a reminiscent of Willy’s gradual changing: “This potential exists in everyone. Anyone can gradually take a path that turns him/her into a character that is not expected of that person […] Emad seems to be looking into a mirror” (“A Conversation”).

The attribution Farhadi paid to the memory of The Cow and the story’s thematic implications extend the intertextual significance of the film made by an intellectual filmmaker with an American education and a degree in philosophy from UCLA, who cooperated “with the leading dissident writer Saedi, a physician whose further studies in a psychiatry were sabotaged by Savak arrests and torture” to adapt his short story for cinema (Naficy 345).8 The Cow is  one of the first national Iranian films that entered international domains of recognition, screened in the Venice International Film Festival in 1971 without the Shah regime’s approval and without subtitles, to receive the international film critics’ award: “Highly impressed by the work, Italian critics compared Mehrjui to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray” (346). The film’s depiction of the harsh conditions of Iranian villagers at first alienated the Iranian government. However, its international success brought it support for new wave cinema as an example of the unexpectedly powerful combination of censorship and courtship Naficy speaks of (328-47). The fact that this pioneering new wave film evolved through the cooperation of an emerging auteur director with one of the leading figures of twentieth-century Iranian literature invites us to ask whether, through this hommage, Farhadi has been  drawing invisible lines between Iranian and American literatures, writers, and thinkers in addition to connecting his cinematic authorship to its roots in the  evolutionary history of Iranian cinema.

In his letter “I write to Asghar Farhadi,” published in Shargh Newspaper, Masud Kimiai, one of the first and most influential Iranian new wave directors, juxtaposes images of past and present not only to support Farhadi’s global credibility against any doubting attitudes but also to contextualize the Academy Award as a universal symbol associated with the dream of cinema in the nostalgic mindset of new wave precursors in Iran. Using poetic discourse, the letter recounts how the dream of a global cinema projected by American classics was shared by the first generation of cinema iconoclasts in Iran, including Kimiai himself. The seventy-five-year-old Kimiai celebrates the realization of his dream by the forty-five-year-old Farhadi, who represents the next generation of filmmakers as inheritors of that aspiration:

Now, Asghar Farhadi is a two-Oscar-winning one. […] My friends and I who have been making films worked our fingers to the bone […]. This path is marked by thorns of envy. One should step on them and smile, to respect those who have opened ways. Farhadi is knowledgeable and understanding. He has worked and worked hard, a skillful cinema-man, a pure one, holding one Oscar in each hand. The same “Scar” of good old days, not torn out of our memories by thorns. Let’s not envy Asghar Farhadi […] Let’s cherish him instead of bothering. Even winning the game over Trump is a pleasure. Asghar Farhadi has found a special place in my sky and my dream, and has told me that a dream does not always remain a dream, I exist. You had them receive your Oscar for you, those who have witnessed the tininess of the earth. (Kimiai, my translation)


In March 2015, in a video interview I recorded with Hamid Naficy about adaptations in Iranian cinema, he declared, “the Iranian adaptation of western literature is not recognized in the west as a badge of honor, because it is not advertised in any big way. And most foreigners do not care about what Iranians do with Ibsen or Hemingway. This is already part of their colonial mindset. In some ways the global south has not earned the right to speak to the global north” (Naficy, Personal Interview). A year after the interview session, the global achievements of The Salesman provide a stellar example of how an Iranian cross-cultural adaptation could also seek audiences beyond local borders and open ways to red carpets without essentially undermining Naficy’s main argument, since Farhadi’s film has never been advertised as an adaptation of Miller’s play. The resentment against the western work’s assimilation through an eastern adaptation could be further analyzed as a counterbalancing force of orientalism that refuses to meddle with the so-called originality of the eastern artistic productions. Whether American literature, through a cross-cultural adaptation of Miller’s play in Iranian cinema, has been spoken of, spoken via, or spoken to, the  lack of interest in establishing The Salesman as an adaptation under the excuse of the absence of plot-line clues speaks to a wider historico-political lack of interest in looking back at oneself through other eyes.

There is an idea of a total dream, a reminder of Bazin’s myth of total cinema, that puts Arthur Miller’s plays, Willy Loman’s frustrations, Farhadi’s “ordinary” middle-class characters, Kimiai’s nostalgic memories, the Oscar news, London’s Trafalgar Square’s screen, twitter messages and social media controversies in ongoing inter-textual interactions. Even the shawl worn by Ansari around her shoulders at the Oscars is a text depicting the map of Mashhad, her hometown in Iran that both symbolizes Farhadi’s democratizing stance in face of totalitarian views and acknowledges the Iranian people’s support of border-crossing dialogues. Farhadi is an independent filmmaker who has maintained and developed his globally acknowledged cinema under limiting institutional supervisions in Iran without cutting his professional and cultural relations with his homeland  even after having international producers funding his projects. Today, he is a moderate activist9 and an internationally renowned film director who reinforces cross-cultural dialogues through depiction, understanding, and adaptation. His voice is consistent with the ideal of a dream which has all too frequently been fragmented or forgotten.


1  A metaphorically charged and logically possible problem in contemporary Tehran.

2  This moment also alludes to the impossibility of showing a woman in the bathroom in Iran, which leaves both camera and audiences behind the doors of the main incident of the film.

3  It is a cultural norm in Iran to show one’s respect to an elderly by calling him/her father or mother.

4  This deduction follows from Rana’s rejection of Emad’s offer to book a ticket for Rana so that she can go and spend some time with her family, to whom she does not want to answer for her physical injuries.

5  On the night of the incident, Emad does not accompany Rana home because a group of government observers are about to issue a new list of changes the censors have ordered for the following night’s show. Thus a few crew members stay to negotiate the order. The rehearsal scene of Miss Francis’s nakedness in full clothing contextualizes the impossibility of showing Rana in the shower. Douglas points to this allusion as “Farhadi’s dance with the censors and its consequences [which] becomes a constitutive element in the film’s central drama” (49).

6  Iranian new wave cinema was pioneered by a generation of young Iranian filmmakers who in the 1970s incorporated the notion of authorship into their films in the cultural and commercial context that had already provided “the foundations for this film movement” (Naficy 328). In A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Naficy explains how “the new-wave cinema in 1970 was formed by both censorship and the state’s courtship of cinema,” a paradoxical driving force that is still detectable behind outstanding Iranian cinematic productions including The Salesman (328). Although Farhadi’s cinema is not an alternative one in view of its thematic and stylistic appeal to common filmgoers, it functions as an alternative to the internationally acclaimed type of Iranian films and represents the aspirations of a generation of emerging Iranian directors.

7  Naficy introduces two films, The Cow by Mehrjui and Qaisar by Kimiai, both produced in 1969, as official initiators of the new wave in Iranian cinema in which the sparkles generated by some prior social-realist films “finally burst into full flame” (336).

8  Mehrjui remained a highly influential figure in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema and registered his name as one of the most successful auteur-director adaptors of the world’s literature in Iranian cinema with outstanding adaptations of Herzog (Hamoun 1990), A Doll’s House (Sara 1992) and Franny and Zooey (Pari 1995).

9  In May 2017, in the week of a highly controversial presidential election in Iran, the news and pictures of Farhadi collecting his Oscar statuette during the opening ceremony at Cannes (May 17) went viral, and were soon followed by a video of him voting at Cannes (May 19). He continued to be an inspirational figure by sending out a political message to Iranians who were stuck between the two basic choices of boycotting the election after prior frustrations or, once more, participating in it in hopes of a gradual move toward democratization. 

Works Cited

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