Accessibility links

Breaking News

Unpacking Iranian Director Farhadi's Oscar-Night Balancing Act

Former NASA scientist Firouz Naderi and engineer/astronaut Anousheh Ansari pose with the Best Foreign Language Film award for The Salesman on behalf of director Asghar Farhadi at the Oscars on February 26.
Former NASA scientist Firouz Naderi and engineer/astronaut Anousheh Ansari pose with the Best Foreign Language Film award for The Salesman on behalf of director Asghar Farhadi at the Oscars on February 26.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won rave notices ahead of winning his second Oscar, for the taut "neorealist" suspense film The Salesman, but the reviews have been more mixed for his long-distance acceptance speech.

Farhadi's reaction to this year's best-foreign-film honor -- delivered live in Los Angeles by the world's first female space tourist, Iranian-born engineer Anousheh Ansari, and another Iranian-American -- highlighted the difficult balancing act required of filmmakers (and many other artists) to practice their craft in Iran.

In it, he criticized as "inhumane" a U.S. travel ban issued last month by President Donald Trump (though currently set aside by a U.S. court) and also implicitly likened it to measures by hard-liners within Iran's clerically dominated political establishment.

Farhadi, who boycotted the Hollywood ceremony to protest the U.S. exclusion of Iranians and nationals of six other predominantly Muslim countries, lamented that such restrictions divide the world between "us" and "our enemies."

It drew fire from observers in the United States who accused Farhadi of lecturing America on human rights and democracy while his own country remains a serial abuser in both respects.

Sohrab Ahmari, an editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal, cited "a great Persian expression" for the perceived contradiction in a tweet that concluded, "Please wipe your own *** first."

Noah Pollack, a contributor to Free Beacon and the Weekly Standard, was another critic, suggesting the movie industry was abetting the injustice and concluding, "Too perfect."

An 'Insult' To Iranians

Farhadi and other outspoken Iranians had bashed the travel ban as an insult to their countrymen, and stayed away amid uncertainty about who might be prevented entry into the United States.

"My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of [the] other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhuman law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the 'us' and 'our enemies' categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war," Farhadi's statement said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif congratulated Farhadi and the cast and crew of The Salesman on their win and the "stance against #MuslimBan," adding, "Iranians have represented culture and civilization for millennia."

But for long-time Iran observers, Farhadi's statement was also a veiled criticism of the establishment in Tehran, which classifies Iranians as "khodi" (from us) if they are regarded as faithful to the ideology of the ruling system and "gheyre khodi" (outsiders) if they are not.

The first group enjoys privileges generally denied to the second group, which is routinely excluded from state structures and decision-making.

'Clever' Denunciation

The Guardian's Iran reporter, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, praised Farhadi's "clever" denunciation as challenging Trump but also underscoring the division on Iran's domestic scene.

Forty-four-year-old Farhadi lives and works in Iran, and would be well-aware of the written and unwritten red lines laid out by the leadership that has run the country since a religiously fueled revolution ousted the Shah in 1979.

In a statement sent last month to The New York Times announcing his decision to boycott the Oscar ceremony, Farhadi was more blunt in his criticism.

"In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an 'us and them' mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of 'them' and inflict fear in the people of their own countries," he said at the time.

Asghar Farhadi won his first Oscar in 2012 for the divorce drama The Separation. (file photo)
Asghar Farhadi won his first Oscar in 2012 for the divorce drama The Separation. (file photo)

"This is not just limited to the United States; in my country hard-liners are the same. For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hard-liners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals," he added.

Farhadi's choice of a prominently successful Iranian woman to read his Oscar statement on his behalf could also be seen as a message to the Iranian establishment. Islamic law as applied in Iran denies women equal rights in divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other areas, and women routinely need the permission of their father or husband to travel.

Iranian Reaction

Many Iranians cheered the win on social media.

"Thank you, Mr. Farhadi. You make us all proud," wrote a woman on Facebook.

The hard-line Rajanews appeared to downplay Farhadi's victory by suggesting that politics was behind The Salesman's Oscar.

"Following [protests] by the political opponents of the U.S. president, the Oscar for best foreign-language film was given to The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi," the news site says in a short item titled Trump Came To Help Farhadi.

Trump has suggested he would renegotiate a major deal to relax international sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program, and has talked about pursuing a harder line on Tehran, which the United States regards as a "state sponsor of terrorism" and a source of regional instability.

Iranian officials have in the past dismissed international cultural awards.

But on this occasion, in addition to Zarif, Culture Minister Salehi Amiri publicly congratulated Farhadi, whose first Oscar was for The Separation in 2012 about a middle-class Iranian couple drifting apart -- and battling for custody of their daughter -- under the strains of modern life in Iran.

Salehi praised Farhadi's "symbolic absence at the Academy Awards as a protest against the shortsighted and racist policies of America's novice politicians against refugees," the semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted him as saying.

"No doubt, Iranian Cinema with its major share in promoting and fostering culture and national security, can make great use of such opportunities to introduce the Iranian arts on an international level," Salehi added.

In a Twitter message, outspoken lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi congratulated all Iranians, "particularly a generation of creative filmmakers" on the win.

Filmmakers living in Iran have arguably mastered the art of creating movies under tight censorship rules that, for example, prevent them from criticizing Islamic rules or showing couples touching each other.

Despite that, many have faced the wrath of hard-liners who accuse them of being pro-Western. Some have ended up in jail, including Keyvan Karimi, who is serving a one-year prison sentence for "insulting the sacred" in his film Writing On The City, a documentary about political slogans written on the walls of buildings in Tehran.