Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Separating Fact & Fiction: Does Iran Deserve the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar?

The winner of this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film was not Susanne Bier of Denmark, but in fact Denmark itself. Bier may have waltzed up on stage to accept the award and that statue may indeed be sitting on a shelf in her home, but Susanne Bier is not technically an Oscar winner. It's an interesting yet baffling quirk of the Academy Awards that this category's statue isn't awarded to any specific person - not the director, nor producer - but is instead awarded to the country as a whole. It's stuff like this has made the category a constant yearly source of frustration amongst Oscar watchers.

Of the 60 films submitted for next year's award, it seems almost impossible to conceive that Asghar Farhadi's Iranian divorce drama, A Separation, could lose. Cases can be made for Pina, The Flowers of War, Declaration of War, Where Do We Go Now?, In Darkness, Miss Bala and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia as high profile contenders for the nomination, but a win for Farhadi's film seems like as much an inevitability as this category is able to have. Still, if the category is all about rewarding the country itself - does Iran deserve the win the Oscar? I haven't seen A Separation to judge, but doesn't it seem hypocritical for a nation such as Iran to submit a film that they want the Academy to reward when their own industry is all about censorship and punishment of its own filmmakers?

All year we have been following the case of detained Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Sentenced to six years jail and a 20 year ban on filmmaking, Panahi - who is currently on house arrest as he appeals his sentence - has been accused by the Iranian government of opposing the national regime. It is a claim Panahi has denied, but Iranian officials seem intent on punishing him, silencing him and censoring him. In true anarchic fashion, Panahi, alongside co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, has made This is Not a Film, which has been made on mobile phones and smuggled out of the country. Collaborators have been arrested and the fact that it's being distributed at all is as big of a political act as cinema gets these days. I will be seeing This is Not a Film next week ahead of its national release on 10 November.

However, in the same week that has seen two Iranian filmmakers, accused of being BBC spies, released from jail, yet another shocking case has emerged. The latest incident of Iran's disgusting tyrade against its own artists is actress Marzieh Vafamehr receiving 90 lashes and a year in jail for starring in the Iran/Australia co-production My Tehran for Sale in 2009. The film is banned in Iran - obviously - but was distributed illegally throughout the country. It received only a very minor limited release here where it won the Independent Spirit Award at the Inside Film Awards and is now widely available on DVD. The actress starred as a woman who theatre art is censored by her government and now in a scary case of art imitating life imitating art, Vefamehr will be punished for her participation in it. The film's director, Granaz Moussavi, was also arrest a while back, but quickly released. I don't recall hearing anything in the Australian media about Moussavi's arrest, which is odd considering her Australian citizenship. But, hey, maybe there was an idiot smoking pot in Indonesia that needed more attention?

Indiewire also reports on another Iranian film, Absolutely Tame is a Horse, being banned from international distribution by its home country government. It is just yet another indictment against a country that is courting an international reputation with one hand whilst stripping the undesirables of their freedom with the other. It seems unfair to lump Asghar Farhadi and his film into this, but doesn't it just seem a bit crazy for the Academy to reward a nation that so obviously has such little respect for creative freedom and its own countrymen and women? On the other hand, perhaps we really should be cheering on Fahradi's film (not just for quality reasons), for if A Separation does win and Farhadi gets the opportunity to walk up onto that big stage representing Iran he may just be able to denounce his country's actions. He would never be able to return their, but it might be a small price to pay for bringing to light these attrocious crimes against justice. Furthermore, could the film stumble before it even gets to the Kodak Theatre? What if news of Iran's filmmaker mistreatment spread across the Pacific and into the gossiping gabs of the Academy's foreign language branch? If A Separation becomes the season's year high profile snub and gets left off of the shortlist (that is eventually whittled down to the nominated five) then I think we will have to consider that it did.

What it boils down to is that there is a director, his collaborators, an actress and who knows who else sitting in Iran being punished for creating art. The media rarely seems to care about international film culture unless it's Oscar week, in which case they're allowed an exception. Unfortunately for Panahi, Vafamehr and others of their ilk, the Oscar's are a long way into a future and it's sad that news of their punishments aren't making a bigger ripple amongst the film community.

EDIT: Please sign this Actors Equity petition to get Vafamehr released.


Amir said...

Glenn, I couldn't agree with you more. But as an Iranian cinephile who follows news like this avidly, let me tell you, nothing can feel worse than A Separation's snub for the Iranian film community. I know the oscar is awarded to the country, not the film community of the country, but the possibility of a film becoming as big a hit as A Separation is what gives a glimmer of hope to the filmmakers.
The government already censors everything, they shelf movies they don't like, they arrest anybody they don't like. Great filmmakers like Makhmalbaf and Farmanara haven't made movies for years. The last thing the film community needs is for foreign bodies to ignore the one movie that manages to escape because the government -not the country- doesn't deserve it.
In any case, of all the submissions I've seen so far (including Le Havre and Where do we go now) I don't think anything can hold a candle to Farhadi's film. The only foreign film I've seen as good as this one is Olso August 31st, but Norway didn't submit that one.

And, have fun at the screening of This is not a Film. It's a real gem.

Glenn Dunks said...

Thank you very much, Amir, for the passionate response. As somebody who likes seeing my country's films succeed on the world stage, I agree with your sentiment. Despite not having seen the film, it'd be great to see a film like A Separation break through into another category or two (I think an original screenplay nomination is very possible) and, in the long run, it really is about celebrating the FILM not the country. I just think Iran's place in all of this is a curious one. They want the world to celebrate their films and yet are willing to deny their own countrymen and women the right to make said films.