Does America Bomb Academy Award Winners? Ten Things to Learn from Iran’s A Separation

Iran is back, center stage…The diminutive president in the ill-fitting suits…The Supreme Leader with the hat and the beard . . . The techs, in lab coat, who are splitting the…ATOM !

What’s missing from this seemingly evergreen news story is a clear sense of what, behind the official façade, Iran is really like.

One of the few relatively unmediated views of Iran available to Americans is the motion picture A Separation, Iran’s recent Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.  This film tells us a lot about Iran’s film industry and, by extension, about Iran itself.

1.  Is Iran’s film industry isolated?

Not as much as you might think.  In 2009, the head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization that awards Oscars) led a delegation to Iran.  In 2010, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) – trade association of the major studios – gave the producers of A Separation a cash development grant.  In 2011, A Separation won the top prize (the Golden Bear) at the Berlin Film Festival.  Through the efforts of Memento Films and Sony Pictures Classics, A Separation can now be seen throughout the world.

2.  Is Iran’s film industry state-run?

There are public sources of capital, as well as private sources.  Iran’s leaders periodically attack the country’s more artistic filmmakers, jailing them and banning their movies.  Although A Separation had a robust and successful release in Iran, the Iranian government, after the Academy Awards, stopped Iranian industry groups from holding their own ceremony honoring the film’s director, Asghar Faradi.

3.  What is A Separation about?

The film opens with a husband and wife in front of a judge.  The wife says that “under present circumstances,” she doesn’t want to raise their 11-year old daughter in Iran. With great effort, she has obtained exit visas for the family.  The husband, however, refuses to leave, because his father has severe Alzheimer’s.

4.  Is A Separation an allegory?

The father’s advanced Alzheimer’s may be a random case . . . or it may be that, at some level, Iran’s revolutionary generation is suffering intellectually from dementia, physically from incontinence, and emotionally from an overwhelming numbness.  And as to the husband in the movie, even when handed the opportunity, he is unwilling or unable to simply step away from a dreadful situation.

5.  Does A Separation show anything to be wrong in Iran?

In the film, the wife’s desire to emigrate is an admission that, at least for some Iranians, something is very wrong.  To a government run by deniers (of human rights, the Holocaust, A-bomb ambitions – you name it), for someone to suggest that something is wrong can be a first step into a bottomless hole.  In A Separation, the admission that something is wrong leads to a tragedy of errors and the loss of much that the husband and wife hold dear.

6.  Does A Separation make Iran seem alien?

Hardly.  Parents love and are devoted to their children.  Women drive, show their faces and wear makeup.  The film has no scenes emphasizing daily prayer.  The judge presiding over the family separation seems kind but weary.  A devout character who is central to the story is more honest and forgiving than anyone could expect.

7.  How does A Separation compare to Hollywood movies?

The same day that I watched A Separation¸ I also watched No Strings Attached, in which Ashton Kutcher wants a relationship, but Natalie Portman only wants uncommitted sex.  I don’t want be a spoiler, but at the end . . . American values remain intact.

8.  How about other Hollywood movies?

That same weekend, I also saw Safe House, in which CIA agent Denzel Washington is trapped in an uncompromising landscape that’s messy because . . . it’s messy.  After many, many inexplicable deaths, CNN’s John King, playing himself, assures us that the guys who did the crime will be doin’ time.

9.  Overall, how does A Separation compare to commercial American films?

It’s fair to say that A Separation takes far more personal, political and artistic risks than many of its engaging but more commercial American counterparts.  But of course that positions it in the market.

10.  Is there a single takeaway?

Since the start of the best foreign language film category in 1956, the U.S. has never bombed a country that won the Oscar.  Moreover, from all indications, the U.S. has never bombed a country to which the MPAA has awarded a film developmental grant.

My personal hope is that, before our respective governments break out doomsday scenarios, the film communities of the U.S. and Iran, which share a common language, culture and aesthetic, will be given a chance to mediate.


Ezra Doner is an entertainment and copyright lawyer who has represented clients in the filmed entertainment sector, both as an in-house business and legal executive and as a lawyer in private practice, for more than 25 years.Before entering private practice, he worked at film companies in LA and NY, including Gladden Entertainment, Cinema Group and Miramax Films.

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