Iranian moviemakers have long been a toast of the Cannes Film Festival, and this year looks to be no exception, with the director Asghar Farhadi almost certainly booked for new plaudits. Sadly, for those of us with a first-hand knowledge of Iran, the celebrated director will be receiving due recognition for his extraordinary skill in not offending sensibilities of a religious extremist regime. I am not talking about politics here. I am talking about Iranians’ everyday lives.
Farhadi, who first wooed western critics with his 2011 film A Separation, is now up to his fourth Cannes candidate, A Hero, which follows on from The Salesman four years ago as well as the earlier film that scooped two Oscars. All of these films showcase his talents as a writer and producer.
Just as notable, I think, is Farhadi’s skill at never giving serious offense. Which takes remarkable talent, really, given how the Iranian government has its paws on virtually everything when it comes to Iranian lives. Take women for instance.
In Iran, women can’t even dress as they please in public but must rather wear an Islamic uniform, with head, legs and elsewhere suitably covered. Not a single woman in skirt has been publicly seen in the country now for 42 years. Not to mention the dogs.
Yes indeed, the dogs. As the festival attendees at Cannes sip their sparkling wine and murmur critical superlatives, the Iranian security forces will be apprehending people and their pets in Tehran, arresting owners and impounding their beloved animals.
We know this because the Iranian activist and journalist Massih Alinejad has this week uploaded a video, seen by thousands of viewers among her five million followers on social media, in which a dog owner in handcuff is seen resisting arrest and the security forces pull on a full-on military weapon on this man. This is the same Massih Alinejad whom the Iranian regime plotted, disgracefully, to kidnap from her home in New York on US soil. Her crime is showing people of the world what is happening to the Iranian citizens inside Iran. The news shocked the world this week.
Has any of this particularly bothered Mr. Farhadi and his film crew? Presumably not. The 49-year-old director, who has yet to show a woman and man holding hands in a scene, or even an uncovered woman, had nothing to say.
Instead, there they were atop of the stairs on the red carpet with a nostalgic Iranian song is being played loudly on the speakers. The actresses, as one might expect, all had some kind of scarf on their heads trying to at least pretend their hair was covered. This, after all, is the new style of the forced hijab in Iran for the privileged celebrities who earn millions keeping their “art” away from ordinary Iranians’ struggles, promoting the regime, keeping out of trouble and trying to look oh-so-fabulous.
To be sure, modern Iranian women wear their compulsory hijabs a bit looser these days, and the compulsory, rigid Islamic garb has changed shape since the late 1980s. to become, as it is in 2021, more of a long shirt or a poncho, a raincoat or colorful cloth. All the same, though, it is an enforced hijab by any other name. Some Iranian women go to jail protesting about it, like 20 years old Saba Kord Afshari or Jasmin Aryani or the famous lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh, or so many others. Some, like Iran’s taekwondo champ, Kimia Alizadeh, seek asylum elsewhere. Those who want to keep their jobs back home, however, play the game and pretend this state intrusion is “normal”.
How darkly humorous that it should be at Cannes, where freedom and artistic exploration is constantly being celebrated, the compulsion and horror of the regime should be on full display on the red carpet.
Farhadi, a great Iranian director, knows this full well. That is why his young daughter, Sarina, wears her own pink little scarf. He will be familiar with what happened with the referee from Iran for the world’s women chess championship, Shohreh Bayat, who just last year had her scarf too loose for comfort in an international tournament. The scarf was so loose that it looked like she did not have one in photos. She ended up having to ask asylum in the United Kingdom because she was scared to go back to Iran and face the consequences.
Ah, but for the French talking emotionally about all things lovely as Farhadi and co made their way along the red carpet, it was all too exotic. What, after all, is “diversity” if not a woman forced to wear a heavy covering in 30 degrees stifling heat? This is not Iranian culture nor exotic, it is state compulsion, not happening on the streets of Tehran but in Cannes, of all places, the navel of freedom and individuality.
As for Farhadi himself, asked about his film A Hero and how two of his characters have had a role in movies produced by the notorious Iranian intelligence service, which kills, tortures and kidnap Iranians, he responded thus: “I see the actor as the actor, and he tries to play that role in the best possible way” Which is to say: he simply does not care. They’re just doing their jobs. Oh, of course. Just like Eichmann and the others were doing their jobs for another state killing machine.
By the way on the same week as Cannes, the news of the Iranian abducted father by the same intelligence agency came out 77 days since he originally vanished. Nobody knew what became of Manouchehr Bakhtiari, the father whose son, Pouya, was shot dead on the street for protesting in 2019. According to a sound file, he has been handed over a three and half years prison sentence while abducted. All because he asked for justice for his slain son.
Iranian cinema is great and deserves to be celebrated. As an Iranian, I am proud of it. But while brilliant Iranian filmmakers like Mohammad Rasoulof are in and out of court and jail making the real movies about real issues in everyday life in Iran, it’s the likes of Farhadi who are endlessly celebrated in Cannes. But what exactly is Cannes celebrating? For me, it seems like fascism — and it’s for this, rather than his films, that Mr Farhadi actually deserves his biggest recognition. He is certainly nothing close to “a Hero”.