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Critic's Notebook: What Does Iran's Oscar Boycott Mean For the Future of Iranian Cinema?

By Hossein Eidi Zadeh | Indiewire September 27, 2012 at 9:16PM

After the Iranian film "A Separation" won an Oscar last year, many people eagerly awaited the country's Oscar submission for 2013. But the sudden impact of the anti-Islamic movie "The Innocence of Muslims" ruined everything.
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Editor's note: Earlier this week, it was reported that Iran had withdrawn its submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in response to the dissemination of the hotly contested "The Innocence of Muslims" film. Yesterday, the director of that film was arrested by the FBI. The following essay was written by an Iranian film critic in response to the film's withdrawal. --Eric Kohn

"A Cube of Sugar."
"A Cube of Sugar."

After the Iranian film "A Separation" won an Oscar last year, many people eagerly awaited the country's Oscar submission for 2013. Although a committee assembled by Farabi Cinema Foundation (under the watch of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance) selected Reza Mirkarimi's "A Cube of Sugar," the sudden impact of the anti-Islamic movie "The Innocence of Muslims" ruined everything: Following the global controversy surrounding its release, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance announced that Iran will boycott the Academy Awards by withdrawing its submission.

This raises a variety of questions: What impact does this decision have on the growing reputation of Iranian cinema around the world? What, if any, relationship of does the former Oscar submission have with "The Innocence of Muslims"? Is a boycott really the best way for demonstrating widespread resentment of this other movie? And what impact does this decision have on Iranian filmmakers?

Last year was a historic and memorable year for Iranian cinema. By winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for "A Separation," director Asghar Farhadi proved that Iranian cinema can be accessible for all kinds of people -- not only the most devout scholars of cinema. It also showed that, unlike movies by Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Bahman Ghobadi, Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf -- movies that are fine representations of Iranian storytelling -- there are more than a handful of Iranian auteurs capable of making movies in the country today. Now, in the wake of introducing new cinema from Iran to the world through the most famous movie-related award in the world, an unwise decision from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance may have jeopardized everything.

Why is it unwise? First of all, the Oscars are a bonafide Hollywood event, but "The Innocence of Muslims" was not made in Hollywood. High-ranking U.S. politicians have deplored the movie. The only person responsible for the movie is its director and if any decision should be made it must be related to him. The most democratic response would be neglect; if the intent is show that the ideas expressed in the movie are wrong, it would be better to erase the effect of this unworthy movie with better ones.

If the intent is show that the ideas expressed in the movie are wrong, it would be better to erase the effect of this unworthy movie with better ones.

It is especially unfortunate that Mohammad Hosseini, the Minister of Guidance, chose to take the advice of Javad Shamaqdari -- a film director and chairman of Cinema Organization -- and boycott the Oscars. He did this while under his watch a group of cineastes discussed eligible movies for the Oscar submission and even managed to select a fairly interesting movie. Though not screened at major film festivals around the world, "A Cube of Sugar" has some thematic and aesthetic strengths that suggest it actually had a shot at a nomination, if not a win (even its nomination would be a great success, since in the last 35 years Iran had only two movies nominated).

Many critics believe the Ministry made this decision for reasons that have nothing to do with "The Innocence of Muslims." Instead, the real cause may stem from "A Cuba of Sugar" director Mirkarimi’s support of "House of Cinema" (an independent cinema foundation which was closed by the government for no good reason). Many people suspect that the minister and directors who make movies for the government have used the anti-Islamic movie as an excuse to "kill" the potential success of the "A Cube of Sugar."

Some pundits argue that the Ministry wanted to submit "Days of Life," a war movie by Parviza Sheikhtadi, and have now chosen to boycott the Oscars because their preferred movie was not selected. In one interview, Mirkarimi said that the decision was based on personal hatred for his work.

"A Separation."
Sony Pictures Classics "A Separation."

Regardless of the cause, the success of "A Separation" is virtually unrepeatable. We have submitted movies for the Oscar many times with a very low success rate. But by rejecting the Oscar submission for such childish reasons, we are putting at risk the reputation of all Iranian cinema. In another words, we are saying to the world: "You are right. No one can make movies in Iran unless he or she has governmental support. No one can criticize the society. No cinema foundation can work independently.”

Shouldn't we think about the consequences of such decisions? Considering the overall quality (not the quantity) of the movies made these days in Iran, the continuation of such behaviors will only lead to Iran's cinema -- and, by extension, Iranian filmmakers -- into a state of isolation.

Knowing that the success of "A Separation" has paved the way for more Iranian movies to be seen around the world, this decision is essentially a form of cultural suicide. It seems that the Ministry of Islamic Guidance either does not know or care that cultural exchanges with the world are profitable in many ways: They may encourage Western filmgoers to come to Iran and make their movies here. Our own filmmakers will have the opportunity to show their talents in non-Iranian movies. These benefits can be seen in the proliferation of contemporary cinema from Brazil, South Korea and Turkey, among others.

What will happen to the filmmakers working in Iran today? They won't stop making movies, but this may impact their stamina. An artist requires freedom; when he or she cannot operate this way, two choices remain: continuing to work under severe compromises or leaving the country with no guarantee of what the future may bring.

Iranian cinema does not fare well today, but it seems like its officials aim to put out its dying sparks as well.

Hossein Eidi Zadeh is a film critic based in Tehran. He holds bachelors and masters degrees in translation studies. Since 2006, his writing has appeared in several Iranian publications as well as Filmnegar, Etemad and Tajrobe. His translation efforts include the screenplays for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Drive" and "Once Upon a Time in America," all of which he translated into Persian. He is currently working on translations of a "Cahiers du Cinema" anthology and Richard Schickel's "Conversations With Scorsese."

This article is related to: Critic's Notebook, Reviews, News, Iran, Iranian Film, Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, A Cube of Sugar