This week, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won an Academy Award for best foreign language film for his movie The Salesman (Forushande), his second Oscar. Farhadi and his film crew chose not to attend the Los Angeles ceremony to protest President Donald Trump’s proposed visa ban that affects citizens of seven countries, including Iran. His acceptance speech espousing empathy and rejecting an “us and them mentality” was applauded by fans across the world, including some Iranian officials. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted: “Proud of cast & crew of ‘The Salesman’ for Oscar & stance against #MuslimBan. Iranians have represented culture & civilization for millennia.”
Farhadi’s movie deserves the praise it has received – and much more. Iranian cinema has a long-established and well-earned reputation for providing a powerful, nuanced perspective into Iranian society. Yet while Iranian officials bask in pride on the international stage, their rhetorical support does not translate into respect for filmmakers at home, where they have harassed and jailed movie directors and other artists for work they find displeasing.
And while the power of cinema to promote tolerance and diversity has been on global display, the 31-year-old director Keywan Karimi continues to serve a one-year prison sentence on charges of “insulting the sacred” for his movie, Writing on the City (Neveshtan bar Shar), a documentary about graffiti on the streets of Tehran. Just this past weekend, fellow inmates in Tehran’s Evin Prison allegedly beat up Karimi, injuring his leg.
Karimi is not alone. In the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections, authorities arrested Jafar Panahi, a prominent director, for allegedly attempting to make a movie about protests that followed the vote. In December 2010, Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced Panahi to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on all his artistic activities. Following international outcry, the government did not execute Panahi’s sentence but kept the ban in place, forcing him to make movies without an official permit.
These filmmakers could serve as powerful messengers for the diversity and talent in Iran today. But until the authorities stop censoring and imprisoning them, they put into question the Iranian government’s expressed commitment to supporting the country’s millennia of “culture & civilization.”