As the United States government assumes an official posture of Islamophobia, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s decision to not attend the Oscars has become image control as international incident. In a statement released to the New York Times, Farhadi explained his choice:
Over the course of the past few days and despite the unjust circumstances which have risen for the immigrants and travelers of several countries to the United States, my decision had remained the same: to attend this ceremony and to express my opinions about these circumstances in the press surrounding the event. I neither had the intention to not attend nor did I want to boycott the event as a show of objection, for I know that many in the American film industry and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are opposed to the fanaticism and extremism which are today taking place more than ever. Just as I had stated to my distributor in the United States on the day the nominees were announced, that I would be attending this ceremony along with my cinematographer, I continued to believe that I would be present at this great cultural event.
However, it now seems that 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 CIA funded the avant-garde work of American expressionists advocating for artistic unrest even as they monitored black activists and communists who advocated for civil unrest. Stalin promoted the socialist realist art movement even while condemning real socialist citizens to the gulags. The Nazis designated the Theresienstadt camp as an unofficial landing spot for Jewish artists in lieu of deportation to more brutal death camps, and in 1944, this camp was prettied up to show to the Red Cross an example of Nazi hospitality. When you take the long view, Farhadi’s statement is more than a refusal to attend an awards show. It’s a refusal to exempt himself from the Iranian masses who are now denied access to the nation that was once known as the land of the free.
Farhadi’s act of resistance might seem like the decision of a lifetime to American audiences unaccustomed to thinking of art as a byproduct of global politics, but for Farhadi and generations of Iranian filmmakers that came before him, navigating nationalism is nothing new. Donald Trump’s travel ban might treat Iranian society as if all of its 82 million citizens were members of terrorist organizations or the country’s religious government, but against that dim view, Iranian cinema stands as a demonstration of the diverse possibilities for intellectual and political resistance, a reminder that a people are never the same as a nation.
Farhadi is the first Iranian filmmaker to win an Oscar, and his existence as an exception within Iranian cinema is thanks to an Academy rule that leaves the choice of a country’s Best Foreign Film nominee up to the government of the nation in question. In Iran, where leaders in artistic life are often dissenters in political life, this policy has meant that some of the country’s greatest artists have been denied recognition. The recently deceased Abbas Kiarostami made his final work in exile, while his protégé Jafar Panahi makes films under house arrest. Neither was ever chosen to represent Iran at the Academy Awards.
Farhadi has flirted with the expatriation chosen by his compatriots, making his film The Past with French Muslim actor Tahar Rahim in Paris. But for his currently nominated movie, The Salesman, the artist returned to Iran. Farhadi is younger than his peers, and if the old guard of Iranian cinema provided the world with examples of how to effectively remove your art from your government, Farhadi is an example of how to resist from within the boundaries of censorship.
Kiarostami and Panahi became world-renowned for exploring political dissent through a radical blend of fiction and nonfiction storytelling, and under their leadership the film movement known as the Iranian New Wave became inseparable from real-life actions of resistance. In Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami showcased a character making the taboo choice to pursue suicide, before breaking the fourth wall in the final moments to include himself and his crew members and the audience in the filming of the scene. Meanwhile, Panahi extended Kiarostami’s idea of cinema as intellectual freedom to cinema as a civic freedom by filming women disguised as men illegally attending a soccer match.
But Farhadi breaks from this postmodern tradition by telling stories that are novelistic works of fiction. Rather than ask the audience to participate in resistance as witnesses, Farhadi wants the audience to choose their own sense of morality from among the differing perspectives of clearly defined characters. By burying his critique of Iranian politics in morally ambiguous stories about civil concerns like divorce, immigration, and public housing, Farhadi has found a way to make critical work that can still pass through the official avenues of Iranian cultural life. Farhadi’s movies receive funding from international producers, but before he starts shooting, he petitions for approval from Iran’s censorship board. He submits his screenplays for review, which means that unlike his predecessors, Farhadi’s films are free to play in Iran’s multiplexes without having to circulate through a black market. Where Kiarostami and Panahi chose to attack the official narrative of Iran from a position outside of it, Farhadi chooses to change the official narrative from within.
It has taken careful and creative planning for these filmmakers to chart their paths to artistic freedom, and their success in sustaining their senses of individualism only makes the discriminatory actions of the American government this weekend more appalling. To make matters worse, Donald Trump’s executive order is not the first time American bigotry has intruded on Iranian artistry. In 2001, Panahi was kept in handcuffs and detained at New York’s JFK International Airport. Kiarostami was denied a visa in 2002 when he tried to come to the New York Film Festival to show Ten. Farhadi is only the latest in America’s dangerous post-9/11 tradition of Arab stigmatization. At home, these artists have an insider’s ability to manipulate the boundaries of Iranian laws and norms, but within our country, their treatment is dependent on our advocacy for the rights and safety of outsiders.
That it should be an Iranian filmmaker whose work has become a symbol of an international border conflict is the kind of brutal irony that could almost come out of one of Farhadi’s films. But as we look for ways to respond within Trump’s world, the work of filmmakers like Farhadi exists as a light in the darkness, a guide for those who are unaccustomed to living and working in opposition to official narratives. Regardless of the tyrannical actions of a nation’s government, a nation’s citizens always have the choice to dissent.