02/29/2012 07:10 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Hollywood as Global Public Square

Unsuspectingly, Sunday night's Academy Awards turned into a kind of prism of global politics as Oscars were given out to Iranian and Pakistani films as well as to a film produced by a French director with French actors financed with French subsidies.

The Iranian film, A Separation, looks at the touchy subject of a marriage falling apart in the complex world of life under the Ayatollahs. In accepting the award, the film's director, Asghar Farhadi, seemed both to take a dig at politics back home as well as make a plea to the West not to attack Iran. "At a 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."

He added: "I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."

In Iran, the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami offered his congratulations on a similar theme. "Cinema," he wrote in an open letter to Farhadi , "helps humanity to overcome aggression [and to be] able to bring hearts closer to each other." Like post-national literature, movies can evoke empathy by opening up the lives of others, as the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi, often says.

Khatami has long believed that movies are a key "medium" for "the dialogue of civilizations," as he told me in a conversation in Davos a few years ago when Persepolis, which he thought a fine film, won an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. Of course, the screening of Persepolis in recently liberated Tunisia has caused a firestorm because some hardline Islamist groups are enraged that it offends the faith.

Saving Face documented the work of a tireless plastic surgeon working to heal the faces and lives of women scorned and scarred by their men under the narrowly interpreted honor code in Pakistan's fundamentalist tribal reaches. An Oscar blessing for this Pakistani film will no doubt fuel some anti-Western backlash, but in the end is likely be a massive boost to shaming such practices.

The most delicious Oscar award went, as expected, to The Artist, which prompted an outpouring of Gallic pride which is as often as not aimed against Hollywood. For the throngs who mobbed Jean Dujardin at Charles DeGualle airport on his triumphant return to Paris to Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee, it was as if the golden statue had restored France's downgraded credit rating.

And, let's not forget the visit of China's next leader, Xi Jinping, to Los Angeles just before the Oscars, announcing a deal with Dreamworks and others that will allow more American films into China, provided they are mostly of the new 3D kind -- read spectacular special effects entertainment that doesn't touch sensitive topical issues. In a backhanded way, that is a compliment to the power of Hollywood cinema over hearts and minds.

Despite real worries about the inroads of new media, the Oscar producers needn't have gone so over the top in their paen to "the magic of movies" and the "theatre experience." The Hollywood big screen, for better and worse, still clearly commands the world's attention.

"The global public square created by the planetary reach of the media is the new space of power where images compete and ideas are contested," producer Mike Medavoy and I wrote in American Idol After Iraq, our recent book on the impact of Hollywood in the world. "It is where hearts and minds are won or lost and legitimacy is established. It is a space both of friction and fusion where the cosmopolitan commons of the 21st century is being forged. If culture is on the front line of world affairs in the times to come, then Hollywood has a starring role." It played that role well on Sunday night.