Iran's 'Separation:' Oscar glow and slap at Israel

By Nasser Karimi

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In this undated photo released by Filmiran film distributing company, Iranian actress Leila Hatami, and actor Peyman Moadi, act in a scene of movie "A Separation" which won the Academy Awards in foreign films. Iran trumpeted the Islamic Republic's first foreign film Oscar win Monday as a triumph over archfoe Israel _ even as audiences in Israel packed theaters to watch the movie that beat their country's entry at the Academy Awards.

Filmiran International Company, Habib Majidi, Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran hailed the country's first Oscar-winning film as a triumph over arch-foe Israel on Monday after an Academy Award race with its own subplots: Iranian officials giving a grudging nod to cinema and Israeli audiences flocking to see a made-in-Tehran drama.

Iran's state-spun praise for "A Separation," which beat out an Israeli film and three others in the foreign language category, was mostly wrapped in patriotic boasting as a conquest for Iranian culture and a blow for Israel's perceived outsized influence in America.

Yet the high-profile attention by the Islamic leadership also represented a rare stamp of approval for Iran's movie industry.

Iranian filmmakers have collected awards and accolades worldwide for decades, but Iranian hard-liners often denounce domestic cinema as dominated by Western-tainted liberals and political dissenters. Some directors and actors have faced arrest or fled the country. In January, a well-known independent film group in Tehran, the House of Cinema, was ordered closed.

Iranian hard-liners had already taken pot shots at director Asghar Farhadi's film even as it racked up international prizes and pre-Oscar buzz. The film explores troubles in Iranian society through the story of a collapsing marriage. Iranian conservatives were upset with the themes of domestic turmoil, gender inequality and the desire by many Iranians to leave the country.

The divide touches on much deeper fissures in Iran.

Iran's young and highly educated population — nearly half born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution — feel increasingly estranged from a theocracy that allows no room for political opposition, has tried to muzzle the Internet and is growing more isolated by its defiant nuclear policies.

Farhadi, in his acceptance speech Sunday in Los Angeles, said he hoped the Oscar would raise awareness of Iran's sizable artistic achievements and rich culture that has been "hidden under the heavy dust of politics."

That has been the case in of all places, Israel, which feels its very existence threatened by Iran.

The Iranian film has drawn tens of thousands of Israeli movie-goers since it opened in mid-February. Some came to see the Oscar competition for Israeli director Joseph Cedar's "Footnote," the saga of a Talmudic scholar. But many were drawn by a chance to glimpse inside Iranian society.

"It's very well acted, exceptionally well written and very moving," said Israeli film critic Yair Raveh. "Ultimately you don't think about nuclear bombs or dictators threatening world peace. You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us."

After a Sunday screening in Jerusalem, 70-year-old Rina Brick said she was surprised by the humanity of the Iranian bureaucrats portrayed in the film.

"Our image of how Iran works is less democratic than we see here," she said. "The judge, the police, everyone behaves as if they are in a Western country."

Still, Iran's nuclear program was on the minds of some. Israel has not ruled out military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, which the West fears could be used to develop weapons. Tehran insists they are for peaceful purposes like energy production.

Moshe Amirav, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said he "didn't stop thinking about the bomb the whole time" he was watching "A Separation."

"I said, what a contrast that we see this Iranian film with such admiration, and then when we leave we think about how they want to kill us," Amirav said.

Iranian cinema has reaped praise and prizes at top festivals for decades. But while the government often highlights sporting achievements and technological leaps as a source of national pride, it is typically dismissive of international cultural and entertainment awards.

However, taking the Oscar over an Israeli rival was too powerful for state image builders to ignore.

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