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Hollywood's Love/Hate Relationship with Iran

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In a room full of stars, at a time in which the United States and Israel contemplated possible military strikes, crippling sanctions and Iran's nuclear ambitions, an Iranian man created a counter-narrative as Hollywood awarded him a Golden Globe, which he received from Madonna on stage.

"I was coming on stage I was thinking what should I say here, should I say something about my mother, my father, my kind wife, my dear friends, my crew, my great and lovely crew, ...But now, I just want to say something about my People, I think they are truly peace loving people."

This year, Hollywood and the White House re-connected onstage and under the same tense political lens, Iran was once again recognized as First Lady Michelle Obama -- surrounded by service men and women -- announced Ben Affleck's win for his "Argo".

"I want to thank everyone in the movie, on the movie, worked with the movie, I want to thank our friends in Canada, our friends in Iran living in terrible circumstances right now." Affleck emotionally said as he received the golden statue for best picture.

Last winter when Asghar Fardahi won the Golden Globes for "A Separation", marked history by winning Iran's first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and went on to make Time's List of The World's 100 Most Influential People, Hollywood enabled a narrative in which Iran and Iranians thrived amidst an ongoing volatile climate.

"Anytime, something good happens to Iran, it brings joy and happiness to all Iranians all over the world" Farhadi said the night before the Golden Globes.

In April of 2012 Time's senior movie critic Richard Corliss praised Farhadi, 40, as a "filmmaker and not a diplomat", however Corliss wrote: "A Separation is no pacifist political tract yet as the picture accumulated awards, Farhadi became a de facto spokesman for a besieged people, and his movie the face of a complex modern society."

A modern society that for the past 35 years has been governed by a cleric-led Islamic regime that wrested power from a seemingly invincible absolute monarch in the cold winter days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It was then that Iran's 2500-year old legacy of Monarchy gave way to the world's only modern Theocracy, which soon cut all diplomatic ties, communication, and exchanges with the United States.

In 2012, Hollywood revived a positive - or at least a textured and human - image of Iran and the Iranian people by praising Farhadi's "A Separation", creating a setting in which the American audience and the International community could clearly distinguish the Iranian society from its radical government.

The American film industry showed tolerance to an Iranian narrative that wasn't a politically-charged tale; and unlike all other popular pictures about Iran that have gained attention from the west, this film did not caricaturize the Islamic government of Iran or its people. Yet, six months later, in October of 2012, praise and admiration were eclipsed by Argo's nostalgic trauma and the brutalities of Iran's religiously-charged regime.

"If a culture and people are capable of bringing and producing such fantastic films that are celebrated to such a large extent, then they can not be the same people who are caricaturized in a film like Argo." said Hamid Dabashi, Scholar and Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Dabashi argues that the 444 days Hostage Crisis "wounded the American Pride", marking a "traumatic" event that highlights the demise of ties between these two nations. Yet, fast forward 33 years, when threats of war, sanctions and disagreement are at the forefront of every newscast, political discussion and international forum, Ben Affleck and his "Argo" went back in time--digging up a slice of history that refreshed the trauma, betrayal, and horror of the early days of the Islamic Revolution.

Dabashi, "baffled' by Argo's strong reception, said that even if Hollywood intended to show support for young directors, there are other more "superior" talents such as Paul Thomas Anderson and his film "The Masters"; "so the only explanation for this recognition, is political, in the most generic sense, since Iran is in the news and this is about Iran and a topic like the hostage crisis--which many still think is an un-resolved crisis for Americans."

An un-resolved crisis that for those who witnessed it first-hand is a chapter, still worthy of reflection. Ambassador John Limbert is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and a U.S. Embassy diplomat who was held hostage during the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran. He too believes that the general image of Iran in the United States is negative; to counter that "you go and confront your past." A past that he so vividly remembers from his days in Tehran. "This incident happened, and you can't cast a shadow over it, even today, even after thirty years," said Ambassador Limbert.

Yet, Affleck, said the films intentions are to honor "the real people who make sacrifices for their country when they do these missions." Real men and women of the Foreign Service like Ambassador Limbert who Affleck honored after winning the Oscars, "We do have, all of us, a tremendous respect for what the Foreign Service sacrifices and goes through and that we, I think, gained further appreciation for that as we shot the movie and visited the State Department."

Hamid Dabashi questioned the image Argo infused into the current narrative toward Iran--especially when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Argo to make a point during a January hearing on the Benghazi terror attack on the Capitol Hill.

"Marine security guards, as you know, are very much a presence on more than 150 of our posts," Sec. Clinton said, in response to a question about Marine securing embassies around the world, "and in order to give them the facilities and support they need--they need a Marine house. They need to be very close to the embassy. Because as--if you saw the recent movie Argo, you saw the Marines in there destroying classified material when the mob was outside in Tehran."

Even though Affleck suggests that his movie aims to "honor the truth", Dabashi believes that "no good has come out of this film," suggesting that traumatic stories as such, only hurt the already-volatile image of Iran and smear the positive imagery that "A Separation" won back in 2012.

While Hollywood creates opportunities for Iran to shine through films like "A Separation", Dabashi stressed the need to "create a formal nuance that if for example a movie like Argo comes along, that "offers a cliché of Iran and Iranians, you could have others who deliver an alternative narrative."

A narrative that Ambassador Limbert still believes is "pushing against a very heavy tide."
Neda Sarmast is an Iranian-American documentary film-maker who produced a documentary film titled "Nobody's Enemy"; she shot in Iran during a span of five years. Her film tells the real story of the Iranian youth and a society that is often represented in the West solely through its Islamist government.

"Unless you know the people of a country, the future generation of that country, there would never be any understating between the two countries." She is surprised that there are not many more moments like that of "A Separation", where the Iranian story was told by its actual people rather than its government and "the praise film's vast reception separated the Iran conversation from a political conversation."

Dabashi recalls the 1953 coup d'état where the United States and the UK over threw the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh's government, providing sole authority to Mohammad-Reza Shah, who relied heavily on the U.S. for the rest of his reign.
"My generation grew up obviously and entirely politically pissed off at the U.S. (for its role in the 1953 coup) but with deep affection, love, and appreciation for American arts, American literature and American cinema." Dabashi said going back to the days he grew up reading John Ford and John Steinbeck his generation never mixed and confused culture, art, and people with politics.

"There is no breakthrough in a monologue, there is always a breakthrough in a dialogue" said Sarmast who believes in the power of film, whether it's "A Separation" or "Argo".
At a time where dialogue is a rare commodity and only screenplays, essays, dueling newscasts, and politically charged official statements communicate narratives, the Los Angeles film Critics Awards awarded "A Separation" for the best screenplay--a screenplay that was written in Farsi. This year, the same award went to Argo, an English script about a tragedy in Iran.

Reminiscing about the past and the course of this journey, Ambassador Limbert thinks of this tale as "a sad story; how easy it was to set the events on a dangerous course and how hard it is to change the course--it's a sad, sad state of affairs."

A state of affairs that Asghar Farhadi managed to alter through his film and its impact, and perhaps point the way beyond; when in his Oscar acceptance speech he proudly offered his award to the people of his country, saying that "at a time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression are exchanged between politicians, the name of their country Iran, is spoken here through its broadest culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been under the heavy dust of politics, I dedicate this to the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."

The embrace of one film, perhaps, represents the promise of a better future - a globalized future in which common themes of humanity are explored and accepted across political borders. The embrace of the other, perhaps, represents the strong desire to come to grips with a trauma in the past. These two films viewed together offer the prospect of moving forward into a different future beyond the shackles of the past, and Hollywood's attention to both films demonstrates, yet again, the transcendent value of film as cultural medium.