The first-ever Oscar victory for an Iranian film is being hailed by many Iranians, both inside and outside the country, as a humanizing antidote to pervasive talk of war over Iran's nuclear program.
A Separation grapples with universal themes, from troubled relationships and their destructive impact on ordinary families to class divisions. Taking place under the shadow of an unbending and grinding Islamic regime, however, it also uses a failing marriage as a metaphor for Iranians who desire to leave their country for a better life.
Elation erupted across Iran at the Oscar announcement, as Iranians stayed up into the early hours to watch the ceremony on illegal satellite dishes. State television did not air the event.
"At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy," writer-director Asghar Farhadi said while accepting the golden statue.
"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," Mr. Farhadi said.
"I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment," he added.
Backdrop of war talk
The appeal to Iran's rich cultural history and civilized tradition could not be in starker contrast to the overbearing war of words (and covert war that includes assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists) being waged between politicians and pundits of Israel, the US, and Iran.
Though top American intelligence and military officers state clearly that Iran has not decided to make a nuclear weapon, expectations of imminent conflict and constant threat warnings have been fanned by Republican presidential candidates and some in Congress, and furthered by the media.
Into this toxic atmosphere has come a film deceptively simple in its outlook – like so many of Iran's cinematic masterpieces before it – but which then binds its characters within an increasingly destructive web of mutual misperceptions, misjudged actions, and lies.
Even as Iranians are feeling the burden of US and European sanctions, and hear daily threats and counterthreats about war, A Separation delves into the daily lives of families coping with troubled domestic circumstances, unemployment, a religious-secular divide, and caring for a school-age daughter and an incapacitated, ailing father.
"I feel fresh air in my lungs," art student in Tehran Erfan Khazaei told the Associated Press after watching the awards ceremony with friends on an illegal satellite set-up. "Now we are more hopeful about the future."
"Zealous Iranian" tweeted: "This Oscar win will make the urban Iranian feel as if they're part of the world, a feeling Iranians don't get often."
Farhadi told the Monitor in an interview last month that A Separation, while not overtly political, is an allegory about the responsibility that comes with freedom.
"There are those who simply want to live their lives, and feel they cannot live the way they want to in Iran," Farhadi told the Monitor. "Others are ideologically motivated: They will stay not matter what and try to change things."
He added: "In a sense, human agency has decreased. The characters are inherently good, but their environment pushes them to fight with one another."
That is why acclaim for A Separation abroad has been a mixed blessing for Tehran's conservative leadership, who since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have railed against the cultural influence of the West, from Barbie dolls to video games.
Criticism on state-run TV
While Iran is proud of its own Fajr Film Festival, and a cinematographic tradition praised around the world, hard-liners are wary of praise from the West – especially arch-enemies like the United States.
In recent months, hard-line authorities have sought to shut down Iran's renowned "House of Cinema." In the past decade they have reimposed much greater control over all aspects of cultural, artistic, and media expression, after a blossoming in the late 1990s under former President Mohammad Khatami.
State television today cast the Oscar in political terms, as a victory over arch-foe Israel – the "Zionist regime," it said, that was "left behind" by the Iranian movie – since another contender in the foreign film category was the Israeli film "Footnote."
Likewise, an initial Farsi-language report by Fars News Agency, which is linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, erroneously reported that Farhadi had defended Iran's nuclear program in his acceptance speech. It later deleted those references.
Many Iranian news outlets simply gave the story a low spot on their story line-up, and reported it straight. It was difficult to ignore, since A Separation was made in Iran with official approval, and deals with issues common to many filmmakers in Iran – but usually limited in their reach to domestic audiences.
On state-run TV, conservative Iranian writer Masoud Ferasati reflected the official view: "The image of our society that 'A Separation' depicts is the dirty picture Westerners are wishing for," he said, according to a translation in the Guardian.
"On one hand, they [the US] impose sanctions against us and on the other, they give award to our film, to send us a positive signal, I think this [the film's success] is an illusion. This is not a good film," said Mr. Ferasati.
But while the regime grits its teeth, many ordinary Iranians cheered the nation's first-ever Oscar, just as they cheered when A Separation won a Golden Globe in January, among many other awards.
"What a proud moment for Iranians all over the world," wrote Iranian Shirin Shahabadi, in a tweet retweeted again and again.
And tweeting from Toronto, Rouya Botlani: "'A Separation' does it once again! Just another reason why I'm so proud to be Iranian!"
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