For the first time in the history of the Oscars, three Persian-language films are in the running for the Oscar for best international feature film. Parallel to the official entry of Iran, Houman Seyyedi’s darkly comic World War IIIDenmark submitted a serial killer drama holy spider of Ali Abbasi, born in Iran and based in Copenhagen. Britain’s hopes, meanwhile, rest on Winnersa tragicomic tale about (amongst all) a missing Oscar statue, from director Hassan Nazer, another Iranian expat, who lives in Scotland.
Taken together, the trio of films represents the breadth of Iranian cinema, both in the country and among the cinematic diaspora.
Winners is Nazer’s love letter to the filmmakers of his country. Dedicated to Iranian directors Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Majid Majidi and Jafar Panahi, it is full of references and quotes from other Farsi films, including Panahi’s. Taxi and at Majidi children of heaven and The song of the sparrows (the star of these last two films, Mohammad Amir Naji, has a prominent meta role in Winners). The story, that of two poor village children who find a statue of Oscar and try in vain to sell it, points, with a gentle but sometimes biting humor, to the chasm between the dreamlike world represented by the films and the harsh realities. of daily life in Iran.
This gap between the cinematic world and the real world is also visible in World War III, but Seyyedi’s film is less a children’s fairy tale than an absurd satire (see story, left). Hitler’s film-in-film, from what we see of it, looks gruesome (albeit hilarious), and Seyyedi seems to be saying something about the impossibility of capturing the real tragedy – like the fate of like Shakib – using cinematic cliches.
Both Winners and World War III were made with the approval, but not the support, of the Iranian government. (Winners was fully funded in Scotland; World War III was privately funded.) Both received official permits to film in Iran. This is not the case for holy spiderwhich was financed outside Europe and had to shoot in Jordan after Tehran refused to approve Abbasi’s screenplay, a fictionalized account of the hunt for a real serial killer who murdered sex workers in the streets of Mashhad, Iran’s holiest city, from 2000 to 2001. Of the Persian trio of Oscar winners, Abbasi’s film is the most radical, both in its graphic violence and its direct condemnation of the Iranian regime, that the director sees as deeply rooted in misogyny.
This open political position could help holy spider in the race for the Oscars, given public outcry over Iran’s brutal crackdown on women and other human rights protesters. But all three contestants, in their own way, reflect on the realities of life in Iran and the struggles of Iranian filmmakers to make art under tight government control and censorship.
This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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