Why Iran’s Oscar Boycott Isn’t Really About ‘Innocence of Muslims’

Word comes from the New York Times that, a year after Iran won its first Academy Award for Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, Iran will boycott the Academy Awards in protest of “Innocence of Muslims,” a crude film about the prophet Muhammad that may not even exist as a feature film:

The boycott appears straightforward: Mohammad Hosseini, Iran’s culture minister, on Tuesday confirmed that his country would not submit a film for consideration at next year’s Oscars in protest of “Innocence of Muslims,” the anti-Islam YouTube video that has sparked deadly riots. He specifically cited the “failure” of Oscar organizers to take an official position on the incendiary “film.”

But Iran’s move left Hollywood scratching its head. Iran, which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film earlier this year, was seriously going to boycott moviedom’s biggest prize because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hadn’t denounced a crude YouTube video made by a former gas station owner? (The academy had no comment.)

It’s hard to know what Iran thinks it will accomplish with this move. Is it to shame an industry that, by all accounts, is deeply embarrassed by the incident? It’s not as if Paramount, which built the old JAG set Innocence of Muslims was shot on, needs Iran’s boycot to think more carefully about where its sets end up and what that means for their brand. It’s not as if the actors involved in the movie, one of whom has already sued over the deceptive use of her image and work, aren’t horrified by how their performances were dubbed and distorted to produce a crude project that didn’t resemble what they’d signed on for. It’s not as if the highest authorities in the United States haven’t condemned the man who made it for his provocations, while still defending his right to free speech. And if Iran thinks it’s going to challenge the American focus on free speech, muzzling itself and its own filmmakers seems like a poor way of making that argument, one that perhaps overestimates Iran’s influence on the Academy and American consumers.

But this actually strikes me as a move that’s aimed more internally than externally. Farhadi and the members of his crew who accompanied him to the Academy Awards, wore neckties, which were banned as a symbol of Western decadence after the Iranian Revolution, to the ceremony. He used his acceptance speech to draw a rather careful distinction between the Iranian people and their government, saying that he knew Iranians would celebrate his win “because at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country Iran is spoken here through her glorious culture. A rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country. A people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.” Iran may not have been particularly eager to have another director take the stage again, perhaps emboldened by Farhadi’s reception.

But in the mean time, Farhadi is working on a new movie in Paris, starring one of the other darlings of the last Academy Awards, The Artist‘s Berenice Bejo. Whatever Iran’s government does, cinema will continue, made by both Iranian visionaries, and actual moviemakers in the United States.