As voters hover over their ballots, which are due February 21, the Best Foreign-Language Feature category presents a dilemma that’s unique to this year. Traditionally, many don’t vote in this category unless they’ve seen all the films. While the Academy sends links as well as screeners for all five nominees, it’s an honor system.
No one’s asking them to do anything differently now, but this year they may have a different reason to vote. Three out of the five documentary short Oscars focus on fallout from the Syrian conflict, as does documentary feature “Fire at Sea.”
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar in 2012 for “A Separation” and whose second Oscar-nominated film, “The Salesman” (Cohen Media), is playing on more than 65 screens and could pass the $1 million mark this weekend, grabbed a lot of press when he canceled his plans to attend the February 26th Oscars ceremony following President Donald Trump’s 90-day visa ban for citizens from seven Muslim countries, including Iran. (Farhadi’s full statement is here.)
The order has since been blocked by the courts, although Trump has said he will issue a new one. In the meantime, this mess has disrupted Oscar travel for many people. Taraneh Alidoosti, Iranian star of the “The Salesman,” tweeted in protest of the new policy, writing that “Trump’s visa ban for Iranians is racist” and that she would not be attending the Oscars.
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Now that the travel ban is blocked, many Muslim attendees are now getting visas to attend the Oscars after all. Flying to Los Angeles are Raed Saleh and Khaled Katib, members of the Syrian rescue squad featured in Netflix’s documentary short “The White Helmets,” as well as Iranian-born Bahar Pars, who stars in Swedish nominee “A Man Called Ove,” and Syrian Hala Kamil from documentary short “Watani: My Homeland,” among others.
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This week, London’s mayor announced a free Oscar-night screening of “The Salesman” in Trafalgar Square in protest of the travel ban. “The gathering of audiences around ‘The Salesman’ in this famous London square,” Farhadi responded, “is a symbol of unity against the division and separation of people.”
Farhadi is still not attending the Oscars, although he communicated with his four fellow foreign directors — Maren Ade of “Toni Erdmann,” Hannes Holm of “A Man Called Ove,” Martin Zandvliet of “Land of Mine” and Bentley Dean and Martin Butler of “Tanna” — before and after the Academy nominee lunch. They talked about how to make some kind of united statement on Oscar night.
One precedent is what Michael Moore did when he won the Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine” in 2003. He brought his fellow documentary nominees up on stage to cheers, followed by jeers when he stated, “We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president. We live in a time with a man who sends us to war with fictitious reasons.”
By staying away from the Oscar campaign trail, Farhardi’s political stance has yielded significant media coverage for “The Salesman,” and what some consider to be an unfair advantage: His film is the one everyone’s talking about. Director Rod Lurie tweeted:
— Rod Lurie (@RodLurie) January 29, 2017
“It seems unfair for someone to write that a vote for Asghar is a vote against Trump,” Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard told Deadline. Needless to say, Bernard is concerned about getting votes for his two contenders, “Toni Erdmann” and “Land of Mine.”
Politics aside, “The Salesman” has done well in its own right with critics and audiences, winning the Best Actor and Screenplay prizes at Cannes. Cohen Media has refrained from taking out Oscar ads like the ones created by Harvey Weinstein with statements from prominent figures like Madeline Albright, in support of “Lion.”
CEO Charles Cohen, who released Oscar nominees “Mustang” and “Timbuktu,” made the deliberate decision to send screeners to all Academy voters before Thanksgiving, he told IndieWire. “We wanted people to see this film, we support the film and the director, and we think a lot of people have seen this film, and for whatever reason have responded well, irrespective of any controversy after its release.”
Bernard’s criticism “smacks of a desperate attempt to try to justify something that doesn’t have a basis in fact,” Cohen said. “The Academy is made up of people who take their voting very seriously, who respect art for what it is … They still have the right to vote the way they see fit. We have been conspicuously silent in support of the film; we want the film to stand on its own merits. Academy members would not vote for a film that they did not see or respond well to, nor would they vote strictly for politics while not giving the art of it a fair chance. What we all responded to is that artists should be free to express themselves, free to travel, and represent the work they worked hard for, in whatever country or award ceremony. The film is what should be judged, not a travel ban.”
It’s hard to measure how far the tides of the times have moved toward Farhadi’s film, perhaps driving more people to watch it, and how much voters will be inspired to send a message to Trump. This happens every year. The zeitgeist is a powerful force, as Oscar votes often reflect how the Academy wants Hollywood to be viewed by the rest of the world. And this year is no exception.