The win for “A Separation” in the Best Foreign Language Film category at last February’s Academy Awards marked a major breakthrough — and not just because it marked the first time in donkey’s years that the critics’ favorite actually took home the prize. More significantly, Asghar Farhadi’s searing marital drama made Iran the first Middle Eastern country the win this mostly Eurocentric award.
Not that all of Farhadi’s compatriots appreciated the gesture. The Iranian government has been famously suppressive of its more outspoken artists — notably in the case of filmmaker Jafar Panahi, placed under house arrest and banned from producing films for 20 years for “making propaganda against the system” — and “A Separation” had its own share own hurdles to overcome. Initially banned while still in production due to Farhadi’s past criticisms of the administration, the film was used by certain factions as a political pawn after its success: Javad Shamaghdari, head of the government’s cinema agency, labelled the film’s Oscar win an anti-Zionist victory, much to the dismay of its makers.
Now, Iran’s relationship to the Oscars has again been muddied by politics — this time before it’s even had a chance to submit a film. And again, Shamaghdari is involved: he’s urging the country not to participate in the Oscar race at all, in protest against the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” anti-Islam YouTube video, which has prompted multiple demonstrations and outbreaks of violence across the globe in the past month.
If Shamaghdari’s stance takes hold, that’s bad news for the film that has been earmarked as the country’s submission, pending the Iranian government’s endorsement. “A Cube of Sugar,” directed by Reza Mirkarimi (a winner in Critics’ Week at Cannes 11 years ago), is reportedly an airy family dramedy portraying a wedding that turns to a funeral when a senior member of the wedding party dies. All evidence suggests it’s no “A Separation,” but Variety’s Ronnie Scheib, reviewing it at its Montreal Film Festival premiere last year, described it as resembling “a kinder, gentler ‘Rachel Getting Married,'” with a “glowing pastel canvas, seemingly inspired by French impressionists.”
It sounds a rather innocuous film to be the victim of a political protest, while Shamaghdari’s proposal seems counter-productive: if a viral video is causing consternation by showing one’s culture in a negative light, denying Western exposure to more positive artistic expressions from Iran hardly benefits anyone. Sitting out this particular Oscar race, meanwhile, is a gesture so minor as to affect only the filmmaker who would otherwise compete. Either way, it’d be a shame if Iranian cinema didn’t at least get a chance to defend its title.
In other news in the category, the last couple of days have brought three new submissions into the fold: India’s “Barfi!,” a romantic comedy about a deaf-mute rogue that had critics referencing both “Amelie” and Charlie Chaplin upon its release in the US last week, Thailand’s cop thriller “Headshot” and Estonia’s “Mushrooming,” which I gather is a political black comedy of sorts. All have been added to the category’s updated Contenders page.