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Mullahs' Messengers Say Iran's Oscar Choice Long On Art, Short On Politics

No Date, No Signature won the best-director and best-actress awards at the Venice Film Festival.
No Date, No Signature won the best-director and best-actress awards at the Venice Film Festival.

Iran's clapperboard crowd has spent the past two decades amassing international audiences and acclaim, as evidenced by prestigious filmmaking awards from Cannes to California.

Directors like Jafar Panahi, Samira Makhmalbaf, and Asghar Farhadi have elevated an already proud cinematic culture and exposed millions of filmgoers around the world to the creativity and filmmaking prowess behind one of Iran's best-known exports.

But despite unprecedented recent success at the Oscars and nominations at some of the world's most discerning film festivals, the industry's arbiters of success are under fire from conservatives for not injecting enough politics into the process.

State media and a hard-line daily with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have suggested that the Farabi Cinema Foundation's selection of Vahid Jalilvand's award-winning drama No Date, No Signature to compete in the best foreign-language film category at the 2019 Academy Awards was a mistake, because its bleak portrayal of Iranian life risks playing into the hands of the clerically dominated leadership's biggest critics.

In a commentary titled Iran's Oscar Choice With Trump's Signature, the daily Javan said Jalilvand's "bitter and dark" film "portraying Iranian society as ruins under decay" could compromise national interests at a time of intense U.S. pressure.

A better choice, it suggested, would have been Damascus Time, a drama that puts a more positive spin on Iranian activities in Syria about an Iranian pilot and his son who are captured by Islamic State (IS) militants while trying to deliver humanitarian supplies.

Iran has deployed IRGC commanders and sent thousands of troops and volunteers into neighboring Syria to fight IS and other "terrorists" and to help prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime regional ally derided by the West since his brutal campaign to stomp out street protests in 2011.

More recently, President Donald Trump has unilaterally increased U.S. pressure on Tehran by abandoning a 2015 deal that eased international sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities, reimposing many sanctions, and pledging to punish anyone doing business with Iran.

Iran's already struggling economy has been hit hard and its currency, the rial, has continued to plummet to record lows.

Javan cited a Bloomberg story in May that quoted Trump suggesting that the effectiveness of his policies invited the "question of will they survive" with respect to Iran's political leadership, adding that "under such conditions" Jalilvand's film was an inappropriate entry for an Oscar.

The film No Date, No Signature has been praised by critics as a "visual pleasure" with superb acting, and it won the best actor and best director awards at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. It explores feelings of guilt and culpability through the story of a forensic pathologist who is involved in an accident that he fears might have caused the death of an 8-year-old-child. The answer hints at economic and other divides in Iranian society.

The Farabi Cinema Foundation, which traditionally selects Iran's Oscar entries, said 42-year-old director Jalilvand's film was deemed fit to represent Iran for having been well-received internationally and also due to the efforts of its distributor in the United States helping the movie receive attention and recognition.

Iranians walk past a poster for the film Damascus Time by Iranian director Ebrahim Hatamikia in Tehran.
Iranians walk past a poster for the film Damascus Time by Iranian director Ebrahim Hatamikia in Tehran.

Damascus Time was reportedly produced with IRGC funding and has been praised by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and General Qassem Soleimani, who heads the IRGC's elite Quds Force, as highly valuable.

"Can the goal of the U.S. and Trump's bragging against the Islamic establishment and the revolution be anything else than the content of this film?" the daily asked.

Javan argued that by not selecting Damascus Time, the Farabi Cinema Foundation was missing a "golden opportunity" to explain the goals and strategy of Iran's 1979 revolution to an international audience.

'Too Dark'

Iran has seen sporadic protests over the past 10 months, including antigovernment demonstrations that quickly spread to more than 80 cities and towns in December and January.

Farabi Cinema Foundation dismissed calls for "the boycott of the Academy Awards" and described the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a nongovernmental organization that "belongs to American cineastes."

"Iranian cinema as part of the country's cultural diplomacy can use the participation in the event as an opportunity for strengthening ties between nations, making an impact on the public opinion and pressuring the U.S. government," the foundation said in a statement released on September 14.

State-controlled TV, which plays a major role in the Iranian leadership's censorship efforts, acknowledged the artistic merits of No Date, No Signature but criticized the cinema foundation's choice.

"It's a good and powerful movie with ideal characters, yet it's a film that depicts a dark picture of the Iranian society for outsiders," a film critic told state TV before adding that Iran should instead introduce its many films inspired by the bloody 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War to the world.

Steer Clear Of Politics -- Or Else

Director Asghar Farhadi has won two Oscars for best foreign-language film -- for The Separation in 2011 and The Salesman in 2017. He did not attend the 2017 ceremony to protest a U.S. travel ban that targets Iran and several other mostly Muslim countries.

The Salesman is the story of a young married couple that must cope with trauma resulting from an assault on the wife. The Separation examines a family's difficult choice between moving to another country in search of a better future or staying in Iran and taking care of a parent who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

Filmmakers living in Iran must work under strict censorship guidelines that, for example, prevent them from criticizing Islamic rules or showing couples touching each other.

Iranian authorities routinely ban award-winning movies from cinemas inside the country.

Many filmmakers steer well clear of politics in favor of social issues. But artists who fall afoul of such guidelines have been persecuted, including in some cases being sentenced to prison terms. They include director Panahi, a Cannes laureate who was banned from making movies or leaving the country over his support for a 2009 protest movement in Iran.

Panahi has made a few movies that have been screened outside the country despite the official ban, including a 2015 film, Taxi, that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Panahi has also remained outspoken on social media.