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It’s Feb. 26. Amid fears of anti-Muslim sentiment and growing tensions between Iran and the U.S., director Asghar Farhadi takes the stage at the Oscars to accept the trophy for best foreign-language film and issues a call for peace. Clutching his statuette, he declares, “I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.” The audience, including a visibly moved Steven Spielberg, erupts in applause.
No, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario for Oscar night 2017; it’s what actually happened on Oscar night 2012, when Farhadi won for his masterful domestic drama A Separation. The director’s words moved many. Donald Trump evidently wasn’t one of them. (The future president did, however, vlog the next day about how Sacha Baron Cohen should have been punched in the face.) Now, the acclaimed Iranian director again is in the hot seat in the wake of the president’s controversial — and, let’s face it, insane — executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim nations, including Iran, from entering the U.S.
Farhadi is nominated this year for The Salesman, another suspenseful domestic drama, and after initially saying he would attend, the writer-director now has chosen not to come. In a statement, he said, “The possibility of this presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip.” The Academy stands by Farhadi, saying it finds the ban “extremely troubling.”
In the grand scheme of international affairs and human rights, an Oscar ceremony largely is meaningless. And the legal (and political and social and moral) battles over the executive order still are playing out as these words are being written and will certainly continue to do so beyond Feb. 26. But The Salesman has emerged as something more than a mere Oscar nominee; it has become a rallying cry for Hollywood to protest Trump’s Muslim ban.
That said, the situation with Farhadi’s new picture may not play out as it did with A Separation. Politics were secondary to the earlier movie’s win: It was widely beloved, marching triumphantly through awards season as the easy favorite; at the Oscars, it also was nominated for best original screenplay, a relatively rare occurrence for a foreign film. The Salesman, too, is critically acclaimed, but the adulation this time isn’t nearly as unanimous.
If Oscar wanted to make a blunt political statement, there might be a more obvious opportunity in another contender, Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove, about a cranky, elderly, bigoted Swedish widower whose life is upended by the arrival of an Iranian woman next door. Ove raises a cornucopia of issues suddenly relevant in Trump’s America: the aging unemployed, concern for the disabled, anti-immigrant sentiment, corrupt land developers. What’s more, the film has its own challenges with the Muslim ban: Its Iranian-Swedish co-star, Bahar Pars, may not be able to enter the U.S. if the executive order gets reinstated.
But what’s not political these days? Even a vote for the Australian entry, Tanna — a gorgeously shot tale of forbidden love on a remote Pacific island — may feel like a small act of defiance, given the president’s feud with that country’s prime minister. Meanwhile, the historical movie Land of Mine, about German POWs in postwar Denmark tasked with clearing land mines, might once have benefited from its humane look at young soldiers on the losing side of WWII, but at a time when neo-Nazis suddenly are in the news again, it makes for a queasy watch.
When we talk about foreign-film politics and the Oscar race, we often specifically mean geopolitics — border disputes, feuding leaders, etc. That downplays the political valence of a picture like Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade’s three-hour German father-daughter comedy-drama. A critical favorite that pretty much swept the European Film Awards in December, Toni follows an ambitious female executive in the high-stakes world of management consulting. Yes, it’s a droll, somewhat arty comedy, but it’s also an incisive look at the double standards governing women in the workplace and the soft drone of corporate doublespeak that bulldozes difference and dissent. In its own way, Toni might be the most politically explosive film in this category this year, but it’s not the kind of work that lends itself to soundbites about solidarity.
If history is any judge here, however, given the chance to make a political point of any sort, Academy voters may well opt not to do so. The Oscar’s best foreign-language film more often than not goes to controversy-free, consensus-building titles, such as in 2008, when two much-discussed and debated works — Waltz With Bashir, an animated Israeli documentary about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and The Baader Meinhof Complex, an intense epic about the West German far left radical group — were upset by the sentimental Japanese drama Departures. Or 2006, when Israeli-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now was nominated as an entry from Palestine, angering both Palestinians and Israelis; it lost to the earnest South African thriller Tsotsi.
Similarly, in 2015, Oscar voters could have made a powerful statement by giving the award to Abderrahmane Sissako’s beautiful and deeply humanistic Timbuktu, about a jihadist takeover in Mali; the film was based on real-life events in the West African country, but it had gained newfound resonance with the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. Also up for the award that year was Russian entry Leviathan, director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s sprawling allegory of Putin-era gangsterism, which had infuriated both authorities and conservative groups at home. Instead, the Oscar went to Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski’s touching Polish drama about the legacy of the Holocaust. Ida itself wasn’t without its own controversies — there was a heated debate in Poland over its portrait of ordinary people’s collaboration with the Nazis — but little of it was reflected stateside.
Could a set of changes to the nomination and voting process introduced in 2013 further complicate matters? Previously, those voting for the winner in this category had to view the five nominees in a theatrical setting, to ensure that they had seen all the films. That made for a level playing field and may well have been why such dark horses as No Man’s Land and The Secret in Their Eyes kept winning over such heavily tipped titles as Amelie and The White Ribbon.
But voting now basically is done on the honor system: Academy members get screeners in the mail, and they need not prove that they’ve seen all, or in fact any, of the nominees before they send their ballots. That could mean a surge of people voting for The Salesman simply because they’re looking to stick it to Trump.
But there might be more far-reaching implications for a Farhadi win. The Muslim world has undergone a filmmaking renaissance in recent decades. Much of this began with the work of Iranian directors in the 1980s and ’90s, but it has since expanded to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. For many years, Oscar failed to recognize these works. Abbas Kiarostami, who died in July, was the most important figure of the New Iranian Cinema and an undisputed giant of international film but notably was never nominated.
Slowly, however, the Academy has been noticing. Last year, Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang, about the plight of young women in Turkey, was a nominee (albeit as a French submission) alongside Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar’s gripping World War I drama Theeb. During the past decade, directors including Palestine’s Abu-Assad and Algeria’s Rachid Bouchareb have vied for statuettes multiple times. And the more visible people are, the harder they become to demonize.
In that sense, a win for Farhadi would mean more than just a repudiation of a specific presidential decree. It would help to push further into the spotlight a cultural revolution that has been happening for years now. In doing so, it would be the ultimate assertion of a people’s humanity. And sadly, we now live in a world where that indeed is a political act.
Bilge Ebiri is a film critic for the Village Voice.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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