Iran's Oscar: The Delicate Victory Dance of the Director of A Separation

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Joel Ryan / AP

Asghar Farhadi, of Iran, poses with the Oscar for best foreign language film for A Separation during the 84th Academy Awards, Feb. 26, 2012, in the Hollywood, California.

As Asghar Farhadi stepped up to the stage in Hollywood to receive the best foreign language film Oscar for A Separation, the first award of its kind for Iran, millions of his fellow Iranians back home broke out in rapturous celebration. Dozens of messages of congratulations were posted on Twitter and Facebook and videos were uploaded to YouTube showing small gatherings of Iranians screaming in delight at the moment when the award was announced. Former president Mohammad Khatami even weighed in with a message of congratulations.

At a time when many Iranians feel more isolated than ever and the country faces a steady drumbeat of war, the Oscar was a welcome bit of news. For the first time in many months, the country was generating buzz for something not related to sanctions or the nuclear program. Iranians inside the country stayed up late to catch the show on bootleg satellite feeds and thousands of Iranians in the diaspora also tuned in; some even organized elaborate Oscar-themed parties.

Farhadi didn't disappoint. When he got to the stage he gave a short greeting in Farsi, and said, "At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. At the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics." This was exactly the kind of message that many Iranians want to send out to the world.

Still, the Oscar nod comes at a particularly fraught time for Iranian cinema. Despite widespread critical support for Iranian films abroad, the government has begun cracking down on the film industry. The House of Cinema, an independent guild that supports filmmakers, was shut down in early January. In recent weeks, Farhadi had tried, unsuccessfully, to use his new celebrity status to appeal to authorities and keep the House of Cinema open. The government claimed the guild didn't have the proper paperwork to operate but the reality is that some conservative media outlets had bashed the guild and claimed it was a front for foreign plots.

The film industry in Iran has long been a target for hardliners and many filmmakers have had to engage in pitched battles with government censors to get their work released. Often, filmmakers have drawn on humor or blunted any overt political criticism to get their films to theaters. One example is Santouri, a 2007 drama from director Dariush Mehrjui which critiques the regime through the story of the downfall of a drug addicted musician. Other filmmakers have had a difficult time masking their views after the controversial 2009 presidential elections that kicked off unprecedented protests. Jafar Panahi, a director known for films that are punchy social critiques, was arrested for taking part in protests supporting the opposition Green Movement in 2009 and is currently in jail on a six-year sentence. He also faces a 20-year ban on film-making.

Farhadi carefully tip-toed through this minefield with A Separation, a complex story that touches on religion, class, family and, ultimately, the Iranian government. During his sweep through the awards shows in the U.S., Farhadi repeatedly downplayed or dismissed any political message in the film. But there are subtle jabs. And it's clear that Farhadi was keeping a watchful eye on the authorities back home. Farhadi didn't shake hands with Madonna when she presented him with the Golden Globe award, nor did he shake hands with Sandra Bullock at the Oscars on Sunday. This could be simply because of Farhadi's devoutness. But chances are he was also aware that a handshake or a hug or even a peck on the cheek with either lady would have gotten him in trouble back home. As it turned out, his refusal to shake hands with either of the superstars just earned him a fair amount of ridicule in the Iranian blogosphere.

The ever-mindful censors in Iran have long maintained that Iranian actors and directors will be held responsible at home for their actions abroad. So when the actress Golshifteh Farahani appeared in the movie Body of Lies with Leonardo DiCaprio in 2008 only wearing a thin headscarf, she was later questioned in Tehran and briefly prevented from leaving the country. Last month, Farahani, who now lives in Paris, struck back by posing topless for a French magazine and Iranian authorities subsequently announced that she's banned from returning to the country.

In Farhadi's case, the Oscar win has now led to some of his conservative critics warming up to him, albeit in their own fashion. After the award announcement on Sunday, Iranian state TV ran a news item that tried to portray Farhadi's Oscar as a victory over Israel. This was a reference to the Israeli film Footnote which was also nominated in the same category. Fars News, a semi-official news agency, took things a step further by posting a falsified account of Farhadi's acceptance speech. "I present this award to the people of my homeland with pride," the fake Farhadi speech read on the Fars site, "people who, despite all the hostility and the tensions that have been created between Iran and the West over Iran's nuclear program, are valued by all cultures and civilizations."

It remains to be seen whether Farhadi will be allowed to work more openly when he returns to Iran or if the authorities push him to use his new star status to produce messages and films that reflect the sentiments of the speech on the Fars site. At this time, however, millions of ordinary Iranians are celebrating his victory with him.