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An Iranian Movie 'Masterpiece'... And Why It Might Not Make It to the Oscars

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

02 Sep 2011 19:55Comments

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Politics may keep "A Separation" -- celebrated by critics and audiences alike -- out of the Academy Awards.

[ dispatch ] Tehran's artistic circles are abuzz these days. The question everyone is talking about seems straightforward enough: Which movie should be submitted as a candidate for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film? As it turns out, the answer to that Oscar-worthy question strikes many as obvious, but it is very, very far from simple.

Despite the many challenges faced by artists in Iran, the country's movie industry has produced some remarkable works in recent decades, winning critical acclaim and many international awards. Its unofficial hall of fame includes such names as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof, Bahman Farmanara, Majid Majidi, Bahman Ghobadi, and Asghar Farhadi, each renowned within the international film community.

Farhadi is among the most recent additions to this roll of honor. He attracted attention abroad two years ago with his movie About Elly, a drama that revolves around a group of young people who travel to the seaside, where they face unsettling questions following the death of one of them. His latest work, A Separation (in Farsi, Jodaeiye Nader az Simin -- Nader and Simin, A Separation), secured his international fame by winning the Golden Bear for Best Film and Silver Bears for Best Actress and Best Actor at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival. His success at the festival sent shockwaves through the Iranian cultural community, many of whose members had given up hope for their nation's cinema.

A Separation is the first Iranian movie to win Berlin's prestigious top prize. Its success is particularly noteworthy since many overseas observers believed the Iranian movie industry's international presence and artistic potential had been irreversibly crippled by censorship. Instead, they discovered, as Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian wrote, "an examination of theocracy, domestic rule, and the politics of sex and class."

At home, the movie visibly inspired critics. Writing for Pardeh Cinema, Amir Ahvaraki called it "the greatest Iranian movie on the definition of morality." Movahed Montaghem, also with Pardeh Cinema, wrote, "This was a masterpiece, a great movie with all the things you expect from a great movie."

Outside Iran, as well, A Separation has received virtually universal praise. On the day the film debuted in Paris, it was featured on the front page of Le Monde. In Variety, Alissa Simon described it as "tense and narratively complex, formally dense and morally challenging." The Guardian's Bradshaw hailed it as "complex, painful, fascinating." In light of such praise, there is no wonder that many in Iran think A Separation should be the automatic pick for submission to the Academy Awards.

Producer and actor Ali Reza Shoja Nouri told ISNA, the Iranian Students' News Agency, "A Separation is the natural choice. It is our best movie in recent years." Bahman Farmanara, the acclaimed director and producer, wrote in a piece for the Roozgar daily, "Choosing any film other than A Separation would be a waste of time." He was both realistic and optimistic about its prospects: "Of course, sending it to the Academy Awards does not mean it will win an Oscar; still, it has the best chance. The movie has been selected for the New York Film Festival and that is a very good sign." Many other voices, even those close to the establishment, believe A Separation would clearly be Iran's best representative. Shoja Nouri emphasized that point: "Watching our movies over the past decade, this is the best movie produced by our cinema. It will introduce the Iranian movie industry to a global audience."

While these voices, and many others like them, speak for the Iranian movie industry, the fact remains that others call the shots. The Cinema Office in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance chooses which movie will be submitted. Critic Keyvan Kasirian holds out little hope that the decision will be based on merit. Khabar Online quotes his blog: "I do not think A Separation will be submitted despite its many awards...its director, its many fine qualities, and its international success. For one simple reason -- the authorities have proved on numerous occasions that they will do the wrong thing instead of the right thing to prove who is really in charge." He has no doubt though that "A Separation is our best chance to win an Oscar for the Iranian movie industry." Last year, the Cinema Office submitted an obscure film, Farewell Baghdad, to the Academy without even cursorily consulting industry members. Farewell Baghdad barely met the screening requirements -- given a pro forma seven-day provincial run, it had never been seen in Tehran or any other major city -- and did not make it to the final nominations. There is little hope that the office will behave any differently this year. So the speculation buzz is on.

Farmanara believes, "It is most likely that Dissertation will be submitted, since its producer has a very close relationship with the Cinema Office." There's also its story to consider: Dissertation (also translated as Thesis) is set in Tehran during summer 2009, in the aftermath of the presidential election. Students at a university discover their professor is a member of political group active in organizing violent unrest. Their lives are endangered as members of the pernicious group try to murder them before they can notify the authorities.

A widespread boycott of the movie was organized through social networks. Its producer, Ruhollah Shamaghdari -- brother of the Culture Ministry's deputy film commissioner, Javad Shamaghdari -- offered half-price tickets and lottery prizes in an attempt to avoid a complete box-office disaster. The movie did register one achievement, though. When it was shown last February at the Fajr Film Festival, Iran's leading annual cinema expo, it was voted the worst movie by critics. Of its chances for nomination, Kasirian writes, "You must be joking!" He adds, "And yes, it is true the Cinema Office takes such jokes very seriously."

Unlike Dissertation, A Separation was an immediate hit with moviegoers in Iran. Released during Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, in 19 days its sales exceeded ten billion rials, more than $1 million, in Tehran. In attendance, it ran behind only the government-sponsored Ekhrajiha 3, by Basiji-turned-filmmaker Masoud Dehnamaki, which was shown in 32 theaters across the capital compared to A Separation's 23. While many students boycotted Ekhrajiha 3, thousands went to see A Separation. Behnam, a 26-year-old government employee, was one of them. He told Tehran Bureau, "A Separation is a great movie. It really engages you and pushes you to think." He had seen About Elly and believes, "This one was much stronger."

The popularity of A Separation and About Elly among young audiences has not endeared Farhadi to the authorities. For a while, it was not even clear if he would get a license to make A Separation. The fact that About Elly had won him the Best Director award at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival led many conservative columnists to label him a filmmaker more concerned with his international reputation than with domestic audiences. Comments he made at the awards ceremony prompted the state-funded, hardline daily Kayhan to publish a column titled "Why About Elly Should Not Be Distributed." Farhadi had simply expressed his wish that Golshifteh Farahani, About Elly's lead actress, be permitted to return safely to Iran. Farhani had left the country to perform in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, the sort of professional step not forgiven by the Islamic Republic's hardliners, especially when you flout your hejab in the process.

Despite the obstacles, Farhadi fought his way through the government apparatus while keeping a low profile. After considerable bureaucratic bickering, it was announced that A Separation had been awarded a production license. It seems a similar story is unfolding these days -- while many in the industry believe A Separation is Iran's best choice for the Oscars, the authorities intend to play out their bureaucratic game.

A nine-member committee has been appointed to choose the movie that will represent Iran. It has until September 14 to announce its decision. Ahmad Mir Alayi, head of the Farabi Foundation, who was appointed to supervise the selection process, told reporters that Alzheimer is among the top five movies being considered by the committee. Its director, Ahmad Reza Motamedi, was less than thrilled by the announcement. He issued a statement immediately following Mir Alayi's comments: "For God's sake and for the sake of whoever you love, leave me and my movie out of your politics."

Easier said than done. Kasirian believes, "Alzheimer is the likely choice, since people close to the ministry are rooting for it." He add, "What a disastrous mistake it would be to put forward anything other than A Separation." Box-office results are not the only indication that the public agrees; according to an informal poll on Khabar Online, 7,563 out of 8,220 participants believe A Separation would be the right selection.

Director Ali Zamani Esmati, whose recent movie Oryoon has won awards in Russia and Asia, asserts that the entire debate is trumped up, and for reasons that go beyond even ideology. In a commentary for Mardomsalari daily, he wrote, "A Separation is the best choice. However, we are going to lose another opportunity because producers and officials are engaged in a phony fight. They do it to get a bigger share of public funds." He mourns the fact, but asks, "What else could you expect from a movie industry run by the government? Where else could a second-class director [achieve] first-class [status] because of government interference and ignorance of the profession's views?"

And who said the Iranian movie industry, despite all its achievements, is free of personal jealousies and pettiness? According to Kasirian, "A few people never miss these chances to settle their own personal scores by ruining great opportunities."

Another year, another tragedy for Iranian cinema?

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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