Ben Affleck gave a heartfelt and emotional speech last night when he accepted the Best Picture Oscar for Argo. But unlike the Academy, the people at Iran’s state TV were unimpressed.
Calling it an “advertisement for the CIA,” Iranian media representatives criticized the film’s “unflattering” portrayal of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath. Argo’s political motivations are debatable, but the film clearly excludes any prominent Iranian voices from it’s narrative. And although American cinema has a history of neglecting “othered” perspectives, the responsibility, in this case, falls equally on Iran’s film industry.
Affleck’s film dramatizes a CIA operation to rescue U.S. Embassy employees from Tehran, after the embassy is overrun by protesters. The ensuing “Iran Hostage Crisis,” during which 52 Americans were held captive for 444 days, is a central historical reference point for many regarding U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
According to Iranian state TV, the problem with Argo’s Oscar win centers on the “political statement” made by having First Lady Michelle Obama co-present the award. Iran’s culture minister, Mohammad Hosseini, further claimed that the film “[distorts] history” and constitutes a “‘soft war’ of cultural influence” waged by Hollywood against the nation’s people. Bootleg Argo DVDs are available on the streets of Tehran, so it’s safe to say some of the Iranian public has seen it: “moderate” local newspapers even claim it’s “worthwhile” viewing because of the unique perspective it brings to strained diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S.
Some Iranians present for the ‘79 Islamic Revolution say Argo exaggerates the violence perpetrated by those who stormed the embassy, and fails to mention that most protesters were students. The emerging narrative, consequently, is that Iranians feel victimized by this multi-billion dollar American industry that has taken ownership of their cultural history and distorted it.
These complaints might be valid, but the truth is, Iran’s film industry has done little to combat this “distortion.” In the 34 years since the Islamic Revolution, virtually no Iranian movie has dealt with the U.S. Embassy storming. And while Iran has produced some of the most brilliant films of the past three decades, finally winning it’s first Best Foreign Language Oscar for Asghar Farhadi’s devastating A Separation last year, Iranian filmmakers have been subject to harsh government censorship.
As a result, the Iranian film industry has limits to what it can legally portray. Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker placed under house arrest while appealing a 6-year prison sentence and 20-year ban on film-making, humanizes this creative struggle in his documentary This Is Not a Film. The only reason anyone saw the movie? It was smuggled out of Iran inside a birthday cake.
If the Iranian media apparatus wants to complain about international distortions of its national history, it must first lift the creative restrictions placed on its filmmakers and allow them to speak critically about the Islamic Revolution and its consequences. That these artists have produced such brilliant work despite these harsh restrictions speaks to their incredible talent. Imagine the possibilities if they were allowed to speak freely.