Iran and Pakistan at the Oscars | Pakistan Today

Iran and Pakistan at the Oscars

Steve Coll writes for the New Yorker that it has been hard to find much art in mainstream American politics this winter or to find much politics in mainstream American art, at least in the filmmaking category. The Oscars last Sunday celebrated nostalgic, self-referential, wilfully irrelevant films such as ‘The Artist’ and ‘Hugo.’ There were a few fleeting moments of inspiration, though; they came from filmmakers from Pakistan and Iran-two countries that bedevil, befuddle, provoke, and frighten the United States-who slipped in through the Academy’s carefully policed side doors for documentaries and international writers and directors.
Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian director, won for Best Foreign Language Film for his intense drama about family and justice, ‘A Separation.’ Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and her co-director Daniel Junge won for ‘Saving Face,’ a documentary about a Pakistani surgeon who aids women who have been disfigured in acid attacks. It was striking to watch them come onstage and deliver their acceptance speeches. In American discourse, Pakistan and Iran often appear as one-dimensional, cartoonish countries. Yet the space for independent filmmaking, journalism, and social activism Pakistan is growing; in Iran, it is narrowing. Pakistan seems to be emerging from the heaviest shadows of its recent crises, while Iran seems to be slipping down and down. In Pakistan, the space for speech and dissent is enlarging in bracing ways; in Iran, it is shrinking. On Sunday night, before the music swelled and the filmmakers exited the stage, they signalled these differences. Holding her Oscar, Obaid-Chinoy called out to her country’s activists and exhorted them: “Daniel and I want to dedicate this award to all the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan. To all the women in Pakistan who are working for change: don’t give up on your dreams. This is for you.”
‘A Separation’ is a terrific film—compelling from the start, well acted, moving and challenging. It is certainly a better movie than any of the English-language finalists for the main Best Picture award this year. Yet ‘A Separation’ is, in fact, limited by censorship, both explicit, and, perhaps, self-imposed. The story follows a middle-class couple torn by disagreements over whether to leave Iran; how to care for the husband’s Alzheimer’s-burdened father; and, later, how to cope with an investigation by a local judge into an alleged crime in their household.
In Pakistan, where I was travelling during the past two weeks, the mood is different, as reflected in Obaid-Chinoy’s words at the Oscars. The country’s proliferating satellite and cable television channels are alive with criticism of the government and the military. It is only to observe that the country’s potential to identify and respond to its crises through uncensored politics, art, journalism, and social activism is becoming far greater than in Iran, never mind in a Stalinist prison like North Korea. Obaid-Chinoy, who grew up in Karachi and was educated at Smith College and Stanford University, launched a campaign in her hometown on Monday to leverage the publicity from her Oscar to eliminate acid attacks against women and bring perpetrators to justice. “The campaign is mainly aimed at making our society more humane and better to live,” the director’s mother explained. For that much, if little else this year, I’d like to thank the Academy.

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