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Will "A Separation" Oscar Win Hurt or Help Iranian Cinema?

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik February 6, 2012 at 9:47AM

It's practically a forgone conclusion that "A Separation," Asghar Farhadi's incisive examination of domestic and class struggle in Iran, will win the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the forthcoming Oscars. As I've mentioned before, the film reveals universal truths about fidelity and concealing it that transcends borders, and as of last weekend, I believe the movie became the top-grossing Iranian film in the U.S. ever (CORRECTION: Not yet, it's still got half-a-million to go to beat Majid Majidi's 2000 release "Color of Paradise"). It's a strong film, worthy of its screenplay nomination, as well, and by all measures, such success and accolades should be cause for celebration in the Iranian film industry. But it's not.
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It's practically a forgone conclusion that "A Separation," Asghar Farhadi's incisive examination of domestic and class struggle in Iran, will win the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the forthcoming Oscars. As I've mentioned before, the film reveals universal truths about fidelity and concealing it that transcends borders, and as of last weekend, I believe the movie became the top-grossing Iranian film in the U.S. ever (CORRECTION: Not yet, it's still got half-a-million to go to beat Majid Majidi's 2000 release "Color of Paradise"). It's a strong film, worthy of its screenplay nomination, as well, and by all measures, such success and accolades should be cause for celebration in the Iranian film industry. But it's not.

According to The Guardian, a backlash is brewing in Iran: On state TV, Masoud Ferasati, an Iranian writer, said: "The image of our society that A Separation depicts is the dirty picture westerners are wishing for." Ferasati added that A Separation should not be welcomed by Iranians. Apparently, his comments have been echoed across the Iranian establishment.

The struggle to criticize or champion the film falls in line with Iran's often complex relationship with its artists: On one hand, they want to take pride in their countrymen who create internationally recognized works of art; on the other, the strict Islamic regime is highly nervous about the way the country is represented.

Director Jafar Panahi and countless others have been arrested, harrassed and even imprisoned over the years, so the hostile reception by the Iranian authorities is nothing new, of course. But unlike Panahi, Farhadi's criticisms towards the Iranian state are arguably non-existent. If "A Separation" presents a less rosey view of Iranian life, the film's initial set-up seems to chastise the female protagonist for wanting to leave the country and her family behind -- which would seem to please hardliners. While this situation is complicated as the film goes on, you'd think conservatives would complement this element of the film. (Popular Iranian melodramas can be far more harsh and histrionic, from what I've seen.)

At a time when relations between Iran and the West couldn't be more contentious, you'd think a good work of art could help break down some walls between them. But no government--not in the U.S. either, I should add--likes to let someone else come along and make bridges without their approval. It takes away their power. And I think that's one of the reasons why the film isn't being universally accepted at home. Success spoils the government's ability to censor and control. Just look at all the trouble Panahi has caused them.

This article is related to: Iran, Asghar Farhadi