While Hollywood has been loudly critical of Donald Trump since the early days of his presidential campaign, that relationship has only grown more adversarial with the former reality-TV star’s assumption of office last month. As my colleague David Sims noted Monday, the current awards season has seen many filmmakers, performers, and others in the industry calling out Trump, whether for his behavior toward women and minorities or for moving ahead with campaign promises to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico or to keep Muslims out of the country for professed national-security reasons.
Then, on January 27 came a confusing and messily enacted executive order that, in part, temporarily bars citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. It quickly emerged that the order would likely mean that at least one important face would be missing from this year’s Oscars: the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose film The Salesman is nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film award. A few days later, Farhadi confirmed to The New York Times that he wouldn’t be attending:
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 ... 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.
In addition to celebrities condemning the executive order, which also bars refugees, the film industry has expressed its support for Farhadi. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences called the travel ban “extremely troubling,” and on Tuesday, the American Film Institute praised Farhadi’s work while saying, “We believe any form of censorship—including the restriction of travel—to be against all values we cherish as a community of storytellers.” Immediately after the order was announced, one of The Salesman’s stars, Taraneh Alidoosti, said she would be boycotting the ceremony and called Trump’s move “racist.” Others have reportedly also been prevented from attending.
The absence of Farhadi and Alidoosti at this year’s Oscars is the result of a unique dovetailing of events: the timing of Trump’s executive order ahead of the Oscars on February 26, and the fact that both the order and the Academy Awards happened to highlight Iran. Iran is one of just a handful of majority-Muslim nations to have a movie win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. (The first Iranian film to nab the award was 2011’s A Separation—also directed by Farhadi.) As a result, Hollywood is being forced to reckon with Trump’s executive order in a very concrete, albeit specific, way.
To get a better sense of the cultural and geopolitical context of Farhadi’s recognition by the Oscars and his eventual boycott, I spoke with Hamid Naficy, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication and the author of several books on Iranian culture and media, including A Social History of Iranian Cinema. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Lenika Cruz: What sorts of issues do you think Farhadi’s absence brings to light?
Hamid Naficy: What’s interesting here is the tactic that Farhadi and The Salesman actress, Taraneh Alidoosti, chose. In some ways, you could say that if they had come, or if they had been willing to come to the Oscars, they would have had a fantastic platform, and whatever they would say in opposition to Trump’s executive order would get a lot of publicity. On the other hand, that platform would depend on them winning an award—like Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes. The boycott is probably a better strategy, because at least this way they will get some press.
Cruz: Can you describe the cultural exchange between the U.S. and Iran in recent years, and how that relationship might change moving forward?
Naficy: It’s important to realize there are different partners in this cultural relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The players as I see it are: the U.S. government and the U.S. commercial media; the Iranian government and its media; the Iranian internal public and dissidents and their media; and lastly, the Iranian diasporic population and their media.
Look at the situation in Iran since the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, when the Iranians took 50 American diplomats in their own embassy in Tehran hostage. There hasn’t been any diplomatic relationship between the two countries for over 30-something years. Americans have never forgotten, and Iranians have never apologized. This hostage crisis is like a thorn in the side—any time politicians in the U.S. talk about enemies, Iran comes up.
It’s in that context that you have this very complicated diplomatic, media, and cultural dance between Iran and the U.S. As part of this anti-American cultural diplomacy in Iran, American films were banned in the country after the Iranian Revolution, but a whole active underground market developed for them.
On the one hand, the government of Iran declares that there is a cultural invasion of Iran—that Americans are trying to win the hearts and minds of Iranians, not through force but through culture. On the other hand, Iranian cinema, in particular arthouse cinema, has after the revolution become quite a credible presence in international film festivals and in commercial cinema. Those films are valued because they’re so artistic and interesting, but also partly because the view they represent of Iran is almost diametrically opposed to the view the Iranian government presents of itself and that the Western media presents of Iran.
These films show Iranian people to be normal like everyone else. They love their children, their children fight with each other, they’re jealous, they’re loyal. There are all kinds of humane stories that I think make people sympathetic to Iranian society and culture. So you have these kinds of competing visions of self and other that are taking place in the two film industries.
Hollywood, from the hostage crisis onward, has produced a huge number of films that basically sort of exploit the enmity between the two countries. I guess the last big one was Argo, which was about the rescue mission of the Americans by the Canadian embassy. (Although I must say, the Canadians didn’t get a lot of credit in that film and neither did the Iranians, but that’s Hollywood.)
Cruz: Of the seven countries affected by the immigration ban (the others are Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia), Iran is the only one globally recognized for its filmmaking industry. What are some of the reasons for that?
Naficy: Partly I think it’s because it has a larger population. Almost all of the Arab countries have a much smaller population. But beyond that, Iran has a very diverse population of Christians and Jews and Muslims and Baha’is and Zoroastrians, and it has a long tradition of culture and art. Cinema also began very early on in Iran, with the first cinemas established around 1900.
Iranian cinema, like American cinema, benefited greatly from the presence of minorities. Many of the first major Hollywood studios in the early part of the 20th century were founded by Jews who had emigrated from the Soviet Union or from Eastern European countries. Likewise, many of the early pioneers of filmmaking in Iran were either emigres to Iran or internal ethnic minorities, like Armenians and Jews.
There’s also a long tradition of mining the mythologies and the oral traditions of the past—and a lot of these were incorporated into the movie business. By incorporating the old and also the new from the West, it created a kind of hybrid cinema in Iran that I think is very vital.
The country also produces a lot of films—not all of it is good, not all of it is arthouse. But Iranian cinema has enough customers at home, and it’s distributed to the neighboring countries, partly because the Persian language, or some variation of it, is still used in countries that once were part of the Persian empire.
You also have a large diaspora population of Iranians abroad, many of whom are involved in the arts—in cinema, television, and music.
Cruz: What was the significance of Farhadi’s film A Separation winning an Oscar in 2012 and becoming the first Iranian film to do so?
Naficy: I think it was a good, intense melodrama about a family that everybody could appreciate, and that everyone outside of Iran could appreciate. It was not political, so that was, I think, another plus.
I don’t think the awarding of the prize itself was political in the sense that the Academy voters were trying to appease Iran or the Iranian reformists. That’s the problem with this long media war between the two countries; anything that happens in either country is usually seen in political terms at first. Especially Iranians who want to see hidden motives behind everything.
There are multiple annual festivals of Iranian cinema that feature new films from Iran and the U.S. I started two of them—one in Houston and one in Los Angeles. When I first started the one in Los Angeles, a lot of Iranian exiles came out against it. They said, “You are appeasing the Iranian government, you’re trying to curry favor with them, you’re getting paid by them.” All of which was untrue.
At the same time, average Iranians who went to see these movies came out of the cinema all teared up, and they hugged me and thanked me for giving them the opportunity to see films from the Iranian point of view.The festival has continued without controversy thereafter, because the films are really the best responses to all these politicized readings of Iranian culture.
The people who were pushing back were entertainers who were being pushed out of Iran and had lost their livelihoods. I think they felt very angry at the government. That’s what exile is about, partly—political exiles, especially, tend to see everything through the lens of politics. They declared a boycott of the first festival, and urged people to not go.
I had invited two key arthouse directors who spanned the revolution—they made films before and after the revolution—to be guests of the festival. One was [the legendary filmmaker] Abbas Kiarostami. When he saw a whole group of well-known entertainers outside the theater holding protest signs and declaring a boycott, he walked up to one of them and he said, “Mr. So-and-So, why don’t you give me the placard. I will carry it. You go in and see the film.” None of the protesters had seen the films; it was entirely political.
Cruz: In a recent statement, Farhadi said some of the things he had planned to tell the American press if he attended the Oscars. At one point, he made a comparison between “hardliners” in both America and Iran, saying that, “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.” What is your response to that?
Naficy: Right, you have factions—hardline factions—in both countries, who see this fire of antagonism and exploit it. And the mainstream media here kicks it up, because it fits the normalizing stereotype of Iranians as hostage-takers and belligerent and anti-West. Also in Iran, the belligerence of Trump fits the Iranian narrative of America as being imperialist and colonial. So anybody who wants to do cultural work that brings the two sides together, like the festival I was describing to you, gets oftentimes criticized by the hardliners on both sides.
But there are all kinds of other people in between in both countries. Those are the people who go to see these Iranian films here in America and appreciate them.
Cruz: Right now, Hollywood and the Trump administration have a tense relationship, with each loudly critical of the other. How does this dynamic compare to the one that exists in Iran, between the government and the film industry?
Naficy: In the U.S., obviously, there’s a lot more freedom of speech and press. Someone like Meryl Streep could stand up and read that very incendiary comment about Trump at the Golden Globes and not be worried about being arrested the next day or finding the head of a horse in her bed. But in Iran, when average people talk back to the government, they do it through social media; they are much more elusive.
It’s interesting that at one time, poets in Iran were considered to be the soul of the country, because they spoke for the people. Now I think, in many ways, the arthouse filmmakers are rivaling the traditional poets. They are looked to as spokespersons for the thoughts and minds and emotions of the people. That’s why I think they’re so respected and why many people go into filmmaking.
Those filmmakers who fight the government more head-on have had to accept censorship and prosecution and persecution and jailing. Getting arrested also buys you credit; it gives you a certain prestige as a spokesperson and as a fearless poet, if you will. These are individual decisions that filmmakers make. For example, Kiarostami wasn’t officially banned in Iran, but his films were not really shown much either. That’s partly also because his films were such that only intellectual people or cosmopolitan people would appreciate them, not so much religious viewers or day-workers who are very tired at the end of the day and go to the movies in order to be entertained.
Cruz: What can American film fans, some of whom may not have seen an Iranian film, take away from the circumstances surrounding Farhadi?
Naficy: I think culture—and I’m including cinema—should bring people together and does bring people together, generally. When you share your culture with another society, it’s like sharing a meal. It’s very hard to be antagonistic when you invite somebody to your house to share your meal with that person. I’m not being la-dee-dah about this; obviously politics always intervenes, whether the politics of money or the politics of gender. Sometimes politics is really very useful. Look at the nomination of black people at the Golden Globes and the Oscars this year. It’s clearly a reaction to criticism over the last couple years about how white the Oscars were.
But to pander to the radical, intolerant side of each society I think is wrong, and cultural events, instead of polarizing people, really should bring people together. And when they’re together, then they can talk about their differences and find solutions. But if both of you stand on opposite sides of the street and spit at each other, you’re not going to get anywhere.