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

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by Anthony Kaufman
February 6, 2012 9:47 AM
3 Comments
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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.

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3 Comments

  • Mehrdadiii | February 26, 2012 10:40 AMReply

    Dear Mr. kaufman,
    Two yearz ago and after re-selection (it wasn't
    An election at all) of Ahmadi Nejad we first
    Started a movement which called the Green
    Movement to look for our votes then we fought
    The goverment and the rejim so many of us
    Were killed, arrested or scaped from Iran...!
    Since then we have had a big separation
    Between the minority of government supporters
    And the majority of green movement supporters
    So many of artists have also joined many of the
    Mentioned groups. In this case doesnt really matter
    What a guy like Mr. Ferasati says on Rejim official
    TV channels coz hez been paid to say such things
    The point is how happy lranian ppl are after all
    These seccess "A separation" has achieved...! And
    Every one is waiting for the first oscar of Iran cinema
    It definitely helps out cinema and reminds us that
    We will be able to do everything if we really
    want... This victory will let help us to finish our
    Fight against islamic radicalism which we started
    Two years ago...

  • Patrick | February 9, 2012 11:10 AMReply

    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."

    If by "dirty picture", Mr. Ferasati means one in which we learn that life is complicated, in which family members have a sense of duty to ailing parents and growing children alike even though they sometimes are at cross purposes, that religion is important and religious leaders are consulted for guidance...that's the "dirty picture" that westerners are looking for? That Iranians share the troubles that we would find familiar? That there is depth and breadth to the kinds of people living in Iranian society today that defies a simple characterization which could be employed to political ends? That "dirty picture"?

    Poppycock. This film brilliantly tells a story that resonates with people because it highlights certain aspects of life which we have in common by the nature of our humanity. It's a tremendous picture of which Iran should be very, very proud.

  • Godfrey Cheshire | February 7, 2012 1:28 AMReply

    Anthony -- As you know, I've been to Iran several times to report on its cinema. From my perspective, there's no way all the attention going to A SEPARATION can hurt Iranian cinema. It can only help. The film was a top prize-winner at the state-supported Fajr Film Festival and was a huge box-office hit in Iran. Even many conservative Iranians are proud of the international acclaim it has won. There will always be hardline fringe elements who complain about any Iranian work that gains Western acclaim, but when they do it about a film as universally well-liked as this one, they only discredit themselves. I wish I was as confident as you about the film winning the Oscar. But I do feel that such a win would be a huge boost to Iranian cinema to those of us who would like to see cinema advance the cause of peace.

    best, Godfrey

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