Why Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar Ban Should Provoke A Flashpoint Of Protest At This Year’s Ceremony
Art and Experience: If he wasn’t already — and there was a good argument that he was — Iranian director Asghar Farhadibecame the most important filmmaker alive this weekend. Farhadi became a favorite of festival-goers starting nearly a decade ago with humane, beautifully crafted dramas like “Fireworks Wednesday” and “About Elly,” but broke out much wider with his 2011 film “A Separation,” which won the Golden Bear at Berlin, the Best Foreign Language Oscar (along with a nomination for Best Screenplay), making him the first Iranian national to win an Academy Award, and landed him on Time’s 2012 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the world.
Farhadi’s latest, “The Salesman,” about the tragic events that follow a couple moving into a new home, has proven just as popular, winning Best Actor and Best Screenplay awards at Cannes, and an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Language Film announced just six days ago. And then came Friday, when President Steven Bannon, through his bloated orange frontman, former reality TV host Donald Trump, introduced a shameful, cruel, almost certainly unconstitutional executive order that “temporarily” banned all entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority nations: Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran.
The uproar against the ban, which saw protests at airports and elsewhere around the country (and a successful ACLU suit that caused a jam in President Bannon’s plans — donate to the ACLU here, people) meant that most weren’t paying attention to something as relatively trivial as Oscars. But then actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who plays the female lead in “The Salesman,” tweeted that she would be boycotting the ceremony to protest what she called, correctly, the “racist” ban.
Without a special allowance, it was likely that neither she nor Farhadi would have been allowed into the U.S. anyway and yesterday, in a beautiful statement, the director confirmed that he would not be attending to the Oscars.
“Over the course of the past few days and despite the unjust circumstances which have risen for the immigrants and travelers of several countries to the United States,” he wrote, “my decision had remained the same: to attend this ceremony and to express my opinions about these circumstances in the press surrounding the event. I neither had the intention to not attend nor did I want to boycott the event as a show of objection, for I know that many in the American film industry and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are opposed to the fanaticism and extremism which are today taking place more than ever… however it now seems that the possibility of this presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip.”
It was absolutely the right thing to do — the government might have hoped to dampen down protests by giving Farhadi a waiver of some kind to attend the awards, but as the filmmaker points out, it would have been unfair to do so when most of his countrymen and countrywomen would have been unable to take advantage as well. And some went on to suggest that this year’s Oscars should be boycotted or canceled in solidarity with Farhadi.
In many respects, it’s a fine idea, and would send a signal in a major way that this was no longer business as usual. And it’s worked in the past — as Mark Harris documented in his great book “Scenes From A Revolution,” the 40th Academy Awards were originally meant to take place on April 8th, 1968, but when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, stars including Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Diahann Carroll, Louis Armstrong, Mike Nichols, Rod Steiger,Norman Jewison and Arthur Penn announced that they would stay home unless the ceremony was delayed. “I certainly think any black man should not appear,” Davis told Johnny Carson at the time. “I find it morally incongruous to sing ‘Talk To The Animals’ while the man who could make a better world for my children is lying in state.”
The Academy gave in: for the first time in Oscar history, the ceremony was postponed, and the Governor’s Ball was cancelled. This is not — yet — a similar situation, and as Farhadi says, his quarrel is not with the Academy, but with the U.S. government that has barred his entry. But even so, as the situation stands, a ban might be counterproductive, and for reasons that became clearer than ever at the SAG Awards last night.
Normally, the Oscar precursor awards can be just extended back-slapping, but Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes earlier in the month, where her plea for tolerance attracted the ire of Puppet-In-Chief Trump on Twitter, reminded us of the power that a speech shown in front of millions can have. And at the SAGs last night, speeches by, among others, Taraji P. Henson on behalf of the cast of “Hidden Figures,” and David Harbour on behalf of the “Stranger Things” ensemble, proved to be similarly powerful moments.
Most important of all was the speech by Mahershala Ali, the clear front-runner for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Moonlight,” who picked up the same prize at the SAG Awards yesterday. If he does take the prize, he’ll become the first Muslim person ever to win an acting Oscar — indeed, we believe, the first to win a major Oscar at all — and he spoke about his religion in a gorgeous acceptance speech. “My mother is an ordained minister,” he said. “I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, you put things to the side and I’m able to see her and she’s able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown. And that stuff is minutia. It’s not that important.”
For Ali to cancel, or for the Academy to cancel the ceremony, would deny Ali the chance to be that first Oscar winner in front of an audience of hundreds of millions worldwide, and would silence a chance for him to speak out (particularly given where the Supporting Actor award normally arrives, at the start of the ceremony, where he would be able to set a tone for the evening).
Indeed, it would silence the chance for anyone to speak out, to an audience far larger than the piddling 22 million that follow the former “The Apprentice” host and who now signs whatever Bannon puts in front of him. People like Ava DuVernay, director of powerful documentary “13th” and a strong possibility to take the Best Documentary Oscar, or Viola Davis, sure to win Best Supporting Actress. Like Best Original Song nominee Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican heritage and whose musical “Hamilton” and its famous line “Immigrants, we get the job done” has already become an unlikely hub of protest and Bannon/Trump-aggravation.
Like the makers of Documentary Short nominee “The White Helmets,” whose Syrian subjects are presumably also not allowed to enter the U.S. Like Live-Action short nominee Selim Azzazi, whose film “Interior Enemies” deals with xenophobia in France towards Algerians accused of terrorism. Like even the makers of “Zootopia,” a billion-dollar earning Disney movie about racial tolerance that could be the unlikeliest source of protest.