Of all the political statements made at the 89th Academy Awards last night — subtle or otherwise — Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's conspicuous absence was the most tangible of all. Farhadi, who won the Best Foreign Film category for The Salesman, declined to attend the event in protest of President Trump's travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. In his stead, Farhadi sent two distinguished Iranian-Americans to accept his award: Anousheh Ansari, an engineer and female space traveler, and Firouz Naderi, a former NASA director.
Onstage, Ansari read a statement from Farhadi pointedly criticizing Trump's ban:
I'm sorry I'm not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the "us" and "our enemies" categories creates fear. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.
The letter was a powerfully personal statement against the divisive campaign promises that Trump followed through with after taking office. The haphazardly executed travel ban unleashed chaos at airports across the world and affected an estimated 90,000 people. Federal judges have since struck down the ban, but the administration has a revised version in the works.
Farhadi's remarks were well received by the audience, but some conservatives watching at home were less receptive, scoffing at the thought of an Iranian condemning the U.S. government for encroaching democratic values. On social media, they made it clear just how unwelcome Farhadi's remarks were.
But the backlash against Farhadi's statement is misplaced — it conflates Iran's government with its citizens and the wider Iranian diaspora that has fled precisely because of its hardline rulers.
Like America, Iran's institutions and its people are separate entities with often opposing views, and Farhadi happens to be one of his government's most prominent critics in the film industry. In his review of The Salesman in Vulture, David Edelstein wrote that the movie is "another of the director's analytical but deeply empathetic films about modern Iranian society and what separates men from women and the government from its people." Farhadi's work — including the movie that won him his first Oscar, A Separation — is often oblique repudiations of Iran's repressive regime, a fact that America's right-wing critics failed to take into account.
In January, as the legality of Trump's travel ban played out in the courts, Farhadi compared hardliners in Iran to the ones in the U.S.:
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.
Recently, Iranians at an anti-Trump rally were seen bearing signs of support and gratitude to Americans who protested the travel ban on their behalf. Perhaps having lived under hardline rule for decades, Iranians have an even more intimate understanding of the differences between a government and its people.
Those living under a repressive regime can, and should be as critical of other governments as they are of theirs — the confluence of opposing opinions and ideologies is precisely what makes a democracy. Because if Americans truly value liberty and freedom, then should they not champion that for others fighting oppression elsewhere? And, just as importantly, if America wants to live up to its claims of exceptionality, should it not expect to be held to an even higher standard?
Cover image via Jaguar PS / Shutterstock