Leticia Cáceres is drawn to stories in which ordinary people negotiate extraordinary circumstances. The award-winning director, who immigrated with her family to Brisbane as a 13-year-old, grew up in Córdoba, Argentina, where watching actors on the street sparked an early love of theatre. Cáceres, who moves between stage and screen, has since applied her powers of observation to a series of critically acclaimed productions including 2016’s The Drover’s Wife, 2018’s Going Down and the first two seasons of Stan’s Bump. When we speak, she’s preparing for the upcoming Belvoir adaption of Anne Deveson’s memoir of fighting for her son who’s diagnosed with schizophrenia, Tell Me I’m Here.
She’s long been captivated by the work of renowned Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. For Cáceres, Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation – which sees a Tehran couple caught between the decision to move overseas for their daughter or stay to look after a sick parent – reflects the kind of deeply human struggle she wrestles with in her own work.
Tell me about A Separation. When did you first come across Farhadi’s work?
I was actually working on a play called The Dark Room. What resonated with me was that it was about people trying to migrate and why they migrate. Farhadi doesn’t make his characters political migrants. They are economic migrants, but there are underlying political questions about the everyday life of these people. What are the repercussions of staying? What are the repercussions of leaving? These are the things that we wrestled with when we left Argentina. We were a middle-class family and we could have stayed. But in terms of what could have opened up for the next generation in a country that has more stability, in a country that doesn’t have the same morality or religiosity imposing itself, means that different questions of class arise. I felt very strongly for these characters who work in the home, the conditions under which that woman has to travel for hours with a child. Those were images that I grew up with. That is the world for most people.
It’s a privilege to choose to move countries but I think those class questions are really underexplored.
There are the reasons why someone would want to stay. Your ties to family, your responsibility – oh my god, I’m getting emotional. There are subtle things that Farhadi peppers in there, like the dishes piling up and you go, this guy is really struggling. I just fell in love with the way he interrogates character in such an unobtrusive way. The camera isn’t there in a flashy manner, it’s just there as a companion to their lives.
To me, A Separation wrestles with difficult moral truths. The film revolves around a middle-class couple. The wife, Simin, wants to leave the country to give her daughter, Termeh, a better life. And her husband, Nader, wants to stay to look after his father who has Alzheimer’s. No one is right or wrong. How does the film’s ethical complexity inform you as a director?
It’s about allowing audiences to bear witness to life in a manner that allows empathy and compassion, and how these complexities intersect with politics. So we can ask broader questions like, why was Razieh on the bus for two hours? Why didn’t she say, I can’t take that job? We know why, but why does she persist? And the presence of that little girl, the way that he reveals information like when they are fighting the judge and the mother says, Look at all the pills my husband is taking, the depression that he’s in because he can’t get work!
The dignity and indignity of her husband, who you feel so much for. There are layers in there to do with Iranian culture that we can’t even get at. But he gives you the opportunity to understand the way we make choices and how we make choices. None are very simple. They are tied to a series of conditions that are sometimes social, sometimes political, sometimes emotional – and all of which are valid. And that is Farhadi’s mastery as a director.
The way we think of free will in the West is very individualistic. The scene where Razieh has to clean Nader’s father achieves something very powerful in terms of showing us how we try to protect our loved ones, what human dignity is.
There’s this beautiful moment when Nader goes in after her, trying to protect his dignity and hers. The way Farhadi as a director also maintains the dignity of the actor by closing the door on the camera so that the cleaning can happen. It is so delicate and so soulful.
In A Separation, the family is a microcosm of social forces. You’re also drawn to family in your own work.
I think part of it is about trying to enter into this family without a sense of judgement or preconceived notions about who they are and how they behave. I’m interested in the way we relate to each other and how power manifests in these relationships and what this speaks about societal infrastructure.
In Tell Me I’m Here, a professional like Anne Deveson, with enormous amounts of intellectual and financial privilege, can still be confronted by the cruelty of a chronic mental illness in a system that is not equipped to protect the most vulnerable.
Family is where the personal becomes the political. We don’t live in a bubble, we live in a society. We abide by cultural rules. All of these things are in play constantly. In A Separation, the middle-class family is quite open, but they also exploit cultural forces – for example, the granting or not granting of divorce. Also, the twist at the end when Nader says to Razieh, We will leave you alone, we will give you the money you want but you have to swear on the Quran that I didn’t hurt you. And he knows that she can’t!
That scene is devastating!
Farhadi sets up these 40 days at the beginning of the film, about when the lease is going to run out, until the end when the child has to decide who to live with. There’s this incredible disintegration of that family over that two hours. Then there’s the way that he is able to show the structural challenges that people negotiate on a daily basis and how those impact the most innocent, like an 11-year-old girl or a five-year-old girl.
In A Separation, although the female characters are confined in some way, they still possess agency. Termeh questions her father even as his choices make her suffer. You’re compelled by women’s stories in your own work.
A Separation is such an interesting story of women negotiating impossible circumstances. A lot of women still carry the domestic load in their own lives. But in A Separation, there’s the simple fact of the father not knowing how to do the laundry. What I find so thrilling is the way these women navigate these restrictions and find their own power. But until we are living in a world where everyone knows how to use the damn washing machine, we will not have reached equality!
All the women have equal screen time, they are treated with full complexity. You see women working, you see them earning money, trying to survive. He doesn’t show women as pious or vulnerable but as active and assertive. They have the agency that all human beings have.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Leticia Cáceres".
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