Asghar Farhadi, Hollywood Hero

Hollywood's hypocrites – and Tehran's.

Yes, you’re right. The best way to deal with today’s Hollywood community is to try to ignore it. The Oscar ceremony is a parade of mostly dimwitted narcissists whose fame and wealth have convinced them that their inane parroting of received elite opinions amounts to thoughtful political expression. And the nominations and awards themselves, especially in the documentary and foreign-language categories, are often based less on artistic accomplishment than on identity politics and other PC considerations. This year, it was widely assumed that the annual festival of shameless self-celebration would also be an all-out attack on Donald Trump, and that we would all have served ourselves, our country, and our culture best by tuning out. Plus a fact, I, for one, had nothing to root for, since I’d seen only one of the nominated pictures: Silent Nights, a nominee for best short film that happened to have aired on Danish TV immediately prior to the red-carpet nonsense.

But in my case, curiosity won the day. Would the winners, presenters, and host Jimmy Kimmel actually go after the president, and thereby alienate half the country (and bore much of the other half), thus continuing the show’s yearly slide into low ratings and cultural irrelevance, or would they do the smart thing and leave politics out of it? It didn’t take long to learn the answer. Preening statements about walls and religious bigotry and international brotherhood abounded. So did tired Trump humor: Kimmel kept flogging that dead horse, and each gibe was worse than the next – but that didn’t keep the glitterati from laughing reflexively at each lame gag. (It was interesting to note that when Kimmel, in reference to the winning feature documentary, O.J.: Made in America,  actually cracked an O.J. joke, the audience response was one of discomfort – so much so that Kimmel commented on it, joshingly serving up a faux apology for having mocked “our beloved O.J.”) Also worth mentioning is the winner of the short documentary award, whose director, upon accepting his statuette, piously intoned that ubiquitously misquoted line from the Koran, “To save one life is to save all of humanity.” The audience, of course, applauded lustily.

But the highlight, or low point, of the whole preposterous pageant was the presentation of the award for best foreign-language film. A couple of days before the ceremony, the directors of the five pictures nominated in this category signed a joint declaration in which, presuming to speak “[o]n behalf of all nominees,” they expressed their “unanimous and emphatic disapproval of the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the U.S. and in so many other countries, in parts of the population and, most unfortunately of all, among leading politicians.” Subtle, huh? Speaking up for “the diversity of cultures,” they decried those who raise “divisive walls” that categorize people by “genders, colors, religions and sexualities” and celebrated the power of film to offer “deep insight into other people’s circumstances and transform feelings of unfamiliarity into curiosity, empathy and compassion — even for those we have been told are our enemies.”

Who were the signers of this pompous document? Martin Zandvliet of Denmark, Hannes Holm of Sweden, Maren Ade of Germany, Marin Butler and Bentley Dean of Australia, and – last but not least –  Asghar Farhadi of Iran. Farhadi ended up winning the trophy, but didn’t show up. In fact he may have won precisely because of his announcement, some days before the big night, that he wouldn’t be showing up. His motive: to protest Trump’s temporary ban on travel to the U.S. from his country and six others. When his victory was announced (it was his second in the category, after A Separation in 2011), the audience cheered, and it cheered again, quite fervently, when an Iranian-American woman read aloud a statement by Farhadi in which he explained that he’d stayed home “out of respect for the people of 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.”

Taking in Tinseltown’s huzzahs for Farhadi, I couldn’t help but recall the students at Columbia University who, ten years ago, gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the then president of Iran, a similar ovation. Never mind that Ahmadinejad then, and Farhadi now, represent a nation that is in the world’s bottom ten for free speech and free press, a nation that arrests, tortures, and imprisons writers and artists, a nation that executes gays and rape victims, a nation that has made no secret of its desire to destroy Israel, and a nation that, since we’re speaking of travel bans, happens to be one of sixteen (all of them Islamic, needless to say) that ban entry by Israeli citizens. But who cares about such niggling details? Just as the kids at Columbia hailed Ahmadinejad because he was the enemy of their enemy, George W. Bush, the celebrities at the Dolby Theater on Sunday night cheered Farhadi because his country is the enemy of their enemy, Donald J. Trump. If anybody saw the absurdity of an Iranian accusing America’s president of “fanaticism” and of taking an “inhumane” action, there was no sign of it whatsoever. 

Who, you might ask, is Asghar Farhadi? Well, let’s just say that there are a few courageous Iranian movie directors who use their position and their talent to challenge their nation’s truly fanatical and inhumane regime. Farhadi is not one of them. Those filmmakers who stand up to the mullahs either go into exile, like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Marjane Satrapi, or end up in prison, like Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasbha – the latter of whom has said that Farhadi, unlike the rest of them, has been careful to work within the Iranian censors’ very narrow guidelines: “no men and women touching; no blasphemy or anti-government messages; headscarves on at all times.” Exiled Iranian film critic Mohammed Abdi agrees, describing Farhadi as “unusually adept at working within and around the censorship restrictions to produce films that both gain permission for domestic showing in Iran and gain international acclaim.”

No surprise, then, that the audience members at the Academy Awards weren’t the only ones thrilled with Farhadi’s award. The Iranian government was delighted too. Both Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and Vice President Ishaq Jahangiri eulogized Farhadi for his Oscar nod as well as for his protest against what Zarif called the “narrow-minded and racist policies of novice American politicians.” Congratulations, Hollywood – you’ve found your soulmates in the international community and, to use your own language, built a bridge rather than a wall between your own spoiled, pampered selves and one of the world’s most dangerous and oppressive tyrannies.