Donald Trump's xenophobic travel ban on the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries has felled its first artist: because of the 90-day executive order, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi will not attend the Oscars where his film The Salesman is nominated for best foreign-language feature.
Farhadi's acclaimed film A Separation made cross-cultural history in 2012, winning Iran its first-ever Oscar; this year The Salesman won a nomination in the same category with a subtle story about a Tehran school teacher and his wife whose marriage is disrupted when she is attacked by a stranger in their new apartment.
In a statement he made to the New York Times Sunday Farhadi said that he had originally planned to attend the 89th Academy Awards to be held in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, where he could have spoken against the proposed ban, but Trump's executive order presented "ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip." Farhadi declined all other media interviews on the subject but Trina Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, confirmed to the Globe Sunday that his organization had concluded the executive order does bar the director from the United States.
Farhadi went on to say: "Hard-liners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way. In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an "us and them" mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of "them" and inflict fear in the people of their own countries.
This is not just limited to the United States; in my country hardliners are the same. For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hardliners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals.
The ban is painfully ironic for several reasons. The couple in The Salesman (which opens in major Canadian cities Friday) are amateur actors appearing in a production of Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman, and the film is something of a homage to that American classic. In several key scenes the characters are shown performing the 1949 play and Farhadi also includes two secondary figures – a salesman and an unseen but much discussed prostitute – who share professions with characters in the American original.
Also, Farhadi's films, social dramas about class tensions and the status of women in contemporary Iran, are precisely the kind of art that encourages peaceable understanding between cultures. North American viewers received A Separation with delight and some surprise, because its story of a middle-class couple preparing to divorce was propelled by a notably autonomous and hard-headed female character.
"The reason for the reaction is that they have some stereotypes in their head and when they see something slightly different it becomes very bold for them," Farhadi speculated through a translator during an interview with The Globe and Mail at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. "The limitations on women in Iran – there are limitations on men too, but there are more on women – make them try harder. It makes them stronger, they take more responsibility."
It will not surprise fans of A Separation to know that in person Farhadi is a gentle and thoughtful man, tactful in his intelligent analysis of some of the differences between his country and yours. For example, in The Salesman the prostitute's trade is never openly identified but Farhadi politely explained that the euphemisms in the film represent a cultural reality rather than self-censorship in a country where the government has script approval.
"Farsi is not a very direct language," Farhadi said. "For example, if they want to say this woman is a prostitute they would say this woman has many friends. They talk about it indirectly. In the Persian language, this word [prostitute] is not an informal, every day word, so they talk around it."
The director suggested that the rapturous response to A Separation abroad has strengthened his ability to make the films he wants at home. When asked about the amusingly odd costume of the prostitute in the Tehran production of Death of A Salesman in his film – she is dressed in a coat and headscarf instead of a slip and the silk stockings that Wily Loman bestows on her in the play – he said discreetly "that points to the limitations in Iran."
The ban on Farhadi could overturn the expected outcome in the foreign-language category: members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have until Feb. 21 to cast their Oscar ballots and until now it was assumed that a majority of them would be voting for the much-talked- about German comedy Toni Erdmann. Farhadi's film was well received but many critics and industry observers felt it was not quite as satisfying as A Separation and it seemed unlikely that Farhadi would win this year. Now, Hollywood may choose to make a political statement against Trump and give Iran its second Oscar.