The 89th Academy Awards saw Iranian director Asghar Farhadi win his second Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. His controversial absence at the Feb. 26 awards ceremony, in protest of US President Donald Trump’s travel ban, paved the way for a domestic celebration organized by the Iranian House of Cinema.
Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance had prevented such an event from being held after Farhadi won his first Oscar for “A Separation” in 2012. However, this time Iran’s artistic community was able to come together to celebrate Farhadi’s win and honor his film and message in a ceremony held at the Film Museum in Tehran on March 3.
Mohammad Ali Movahed, a 93-year-old veteran scholar of mysticism and history and one of the guests at the ceremony, addressed Farhadi, saying, “I have come here to see you in person and tell you how much I appreciate your dignity and distinctive intelligence in reacting to such an unexpected situation [Trump’s travel ban] with such decent and thoughtful understanding. Your concise and brilliant message surprised the world.”
But what was the significance of Farhadi’s message to the Oscars in opposition to Trump’s travel ban? Was it “concise and brilliant” and really able to “surprise” the world? Did Farhadi’s protest, his message and the representatives he chose to collect the award on his behalf leave a lasting impact in the history of the Oscars?
Iranian film critic Pouyan Asgari told Al-Monitor, “I think that through his message, Farhadi showed in the best way possible his critical view of Trump’s new law and the atmosphere it has created. At the same time, he portrayed a very real and peaceful image of Iranians and Eastern people to the world — exactly the opposite of their inhumane depiction in the West.”
Asgari said the importance of Farhadi’s message came from his emphasis on three key points, “One was when he said his absence was out of respect for the people of his country and the other six nations [affected by Trump’s travel ban]; one was when he asked filmmakers to turn their cameras to break stereotypes; and at the end of his letter, when he stressed the need of people today to show empathy and solidarity.”
Alireza Majma, editor of the cinema section of the Reformist daily Vaghaye Etefaghieh, said he thinks Farhadi’s absence at the Oscars might have been the only reason his message had an impact. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Majma said, “This message has value as a public relations message for peace, but nothing more. Farhadi delivered a similar message a few years ago when he personally attended the Oscars and won an award for ‘A Separation’ and it had the same impact.”
To Asgari, Farhadi’s latest Oscar was reminiscent of the Academy Award for Best Actor given to Marlon Brando in 1973 for his role in “The Godfather.” That year, Brando boycotted the awards ceremony in protest of Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans and was represented by Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who refused the award on his behalf.
Majma said Farhadi’s behavior was different from Brando’s given the different situation, and while praising Farhadi's choice of representatives, said, “Brando, at that time, did not use his boycott of the Oscars for publicity and sent an unknown Native American woman in his place. He did not actually accept the Oscar, either. However, Farhadi not only made his absence publicly known, but his representatives accepted the Oscar on his behalf and, in Iran, his victory was celebrated.”
As had been predicted by Iranian film critics, Farhadi’s chances of winning a second Oscar seemingly increased after Trump’s travel ban and Farhadi’s protest against it. In Asgari’s view, this was clearly evident in the jury’s selection of “The Salesman.” He told Al-Monitor, “The Oscars have always been political and sometimes in an extreme manner. The  Oscar for Best Director to Elia Kazan for ‘On the Waterfront’ was to appease Kazan and respond to the consequences of McCarthyism. Or the [1968 best picture] Oscar for ‘In the Heat of the Night’ by director Norman Jewison was because it dealt with the issue of racism, which in the Academy’s view was very important — and especially in a year when the films ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘The Graduate’ were nominated. Or the 2010 Oscar for the anti-war film ‘The Hurt Locker,’ despite the presence of a movie like ‘Avatar,’ which was considered a milestone in the history of cinema.”
Receiving the Oscar on Farhadi’s behalf were two prominent Iranian-Americans: Anousheh Ansari, Iran’s first female astronaut, and Firouz Naderi, a scientist and a former director at NASA. On the sidelines of the celebrations at Tehran’s Film Museum, Farhadi responded to reporters who asked about his choice of representatives and said, “They are two successful Iranians who look at the world from above and therefore do not see the borders.”
At the ceremony at the Tehran Film Museum, Farhadi announced that it would be his last night in Iran for a long time, “Please pray that God gives me the strength to come back to Iran and make movies here again, despite all the things on the margins, because when I am in Iran I make films with my heart and when I am in the West I make films with my wisdom.”
Farhadi is now in Spain, where he is working on the screenplay of his new film — a Spanish-language family drama starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. In an interview with Variety magazine after winning his latest Oscar, Farhadi said one of his biggest dreams was to make a comedy when he returned to Iran. Farhadi has experience in this arena, having written the screenplay for the 2008 social comedy “Dayereh-e zangi,” or “Tambourine,” directed by his wife, Parisa Bakhtavar. That film was among the box office hits in Iran.
After receiving two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, protesting Trump’s travel ban, winning a second Oscar and being celebrated at the Film Museum in Tehran, one can only wait and see where Farhadi’s new challenge in Spain will take him next. Asgari said, “Like [Farhadi’s French-Italian-Iranian drama] ‘The Past,’ this film will definitely be a challenge, given that it’s far removed from the filmmaker’s culture and geography. But the most important thing is the impact these experiences will have on Farhadi’s report card and the overall format of his filmmaking. It is important that Farhadi should not repeat himself in his next films, and that he should gain new experiences to become an even more unique filmmaker than he already is.”