Art and Experience: Let’s start off with the easy stuff, first. Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” should have won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It also should have won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film over “Elle,” another film I adore. It’s a crime Ade missed out on a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination this year and certainly a Best Director nod over “Hacksaw Ridge’s” Mel Gibson. How much do I personally love “Toni Erdman”? It was my no. 2 film of 2016 after “Moonlight” and the fact an American remake is already in the works with the stars and producers set, but no director yet or Ade’s involvement makes me cringe. All that being said, if I had a vote for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, it would not get my vote. Instead, I would encourage Academy members to vote for Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman.”
I know, this seems a tough pill to swallow for some (and reps for the other nominees are not thrilled with the idea). “The Salesman” is not as good as Farhadi’s previous Oscar champion, “A Separation,”which won Best Foreign Language film, and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, and it’s only marginally better than his previous release, “The Past.” It does have a strong critical consensus with an 86 on Metacritic and but there is a feeling of familiarity about it that has given many pause. Notably, it already has fans in The Academy including on the Foreign Language Branch who many believed had to use one of their committee saves to make sure it was included on the initial 10 film shortlist. It’s not Farhadi’s best work in this pundit’s opinion, but it’s a fine film and, truthfully, may be the first choice among many members already.
A new political reality is upon us, however. Farhadi, his cast and his crew are Iranian. Without the recent judicial hold on the Trump administration’s Muslim ban (we’re gonna call it that because even Trump refers to it as that), Farhadi may not have been able to attend the Academy Awards as Iran is one of seven countries on the travel order. Before that legal ruling was determined, Farhadi had already decided to skip the show and will instead travel to London where “The Salesman” will be screened in Trafalgar Square right before the Oscars telecast (and, yes, that sounds like a slightly cold 2 hours and 5 min). No, Farhadi won’t be on hand to pick up the statue if the film wins, but the Academy can send a message by announcing him as the winner to an expected audience of 70-80 million viewers around the globe.
As Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs noted during her remarks at the annual Oscars luncheon, “You are part of an almost century old community which is not just a Hollywood community or an American community, but a global one. Filled with storytellers domestic and international.”
She continued, “When our storytellers tackle issues of importance from religious intolerance to racism to sexism, when we bring to the screen stories from around the world we become agents of change. And when we speak out among those who try and put up barriers we reinforce this important truth: that all artists around the world are connected by a powerful bond. One that speaks to our creativity and common humanity. Today we celebrate you. Your work and your achievements, but everyone knows there are some empty chairs in this room which has made Academy artists, activists. There is a struggle globally today over artistic freedom that feels more urgent than at anytime since the 1950s. Art has no borders. Art has no language and doesn’t belong to a single faith. No, the power of art is that it transcends all these things. And strong societies don’t censor art. They celebrate it.”
Over the years the Academy has often reminded its members and the media that it is not a political organization, but these words by Isaacs were striking in that regard. Referring to the members as artistic “activists” was a first and by voting for “The Salesman” the organization would not just be sending a message to the administration (and, trust, Trump may be more annoyed by any other remarks against him during the telecast than this win), but to the American public to watch a film that shows Iranians and Muslims as people dealing with every day problems, with their own personal faults we can all see ourselves in. And not as the stereotype of angry jihadists intent on toppling the American dream.
It’s funny. When “A Separation” won two Oscars five years ago there was hope that the Western reception for the film could crack open the doors of creative freedom in Iran ever so slightly. On a broader level, many even thought that given time the Iranian Nuclear Deal could justify trust between the governments of both nations leading to a more friendly discourse. How quickly it can all be twisted backward in the span of just a few weeks.
Hollywood doesn’t have to do this, obviously. The Academy could still anoint “Toni Erdmann” and that would certainly make me smile. If the “The Salesman” is announced as the winner wouldn’t that be something, though? As Isaac noted in her speech sometimes art is about action. The Oscars are cinema’s finest artistic honor and the action in this case is more than justified. Taking a stand for artistic freedom and an open society is something we should all fight for, not just The Academy.
You have a respected and loud voice Academy members. You have a spotlight on you that can shine a light in the darkest of times. Use it wisely.