Hollywood is abuzz with news that a delegation of the film industry’s heaviest hitters—Sid Ganis, the president of the motion-picture academy, and actors Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard, among others—had secretly traveled to Iran over the weekend to take part in a cultural exchange with Iranian filmmakers. In addition to touring Iran’s Film Museum, the Americans delivered a series of workshops and participated in a panel with Iranian actors and directors at the House of Cinema, a popular meeting place for Iranian filmmakers.
Cultural exchanges like this one between the US and Iran are nothing new. Over the last decade, the two countries have engaged in “wrestling diplomacy,” “soccer diplomacy,” even “badminton diplomacy.” Why not “movie diplomacy?” After all, Iran boasts the most vibrant, most celebrated film industry in the developing world. Some Iranian filmmakers, like Abbas Kiarostami ( Taste of Cherry, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes), Abbas Kiarostami ( Children of Heaven, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1998), and Mohsen Makhmalbaf ( Kandahar, winner of the Federico Fellini Prize) are practically household names in the US (though I suppose it depends on the household).
Thanks to Iran’s lax piracy laws, Iranians often see Hollywood blockbusters on pirated DVDs even before the films are released in American theaters.
Iranians are quite literate when it comes to international cinema. Western films, though officially banned by the Islamic Republic, are especially popular in Iran, particularly among the younger generation, of which some 70% are under the age of 30 years old. In fact, thanks to Iran’s lax piracy laws, Iranians often see Hollywood blockbusters on pirated DVDs even before the films are released in American theaters. (I watched the third Harry Potter film over and over again at my cousin’s apartment in Tehran weeks before the movie premiered in the US.)
That said, the American delegation did not exactly receive a warm welcome from the Iranian government. In comments to the press, Javad Shamaghdari, an adviser to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blamed Hollywood for “30 years of insults and slanders” against the Iranian people. “We will believe Obama's policy of change when we see change in Hollywood, too,” Shamaghdari said, “and if Hollywood wants to correct its behavior toward the Iranian people and Islamic culture then they have to officially apologize.” And Ahmadinejad himself is not exactly known as a cinephile. “We believe that the American cinema system is devoid of all culture and art and is only used as a device [to further Western imperialism],” the blustering president has been quoted as saying. ( Rumor has it, however, that he was asked by Oliver Stone to play himself in the controversial director’s recent biopic of George W. Bush.)
Of course, such comments are standard for Iranian officials, and are meant primarily for domestic consumption. The fact is that the Americans could not have traveled to Iran without the express approval of the Iranian government in general and of Ahmadinejad’s office in particular. What is less certain is whether the delegation’s trip to Iran was authorized or in any way coordinated by the State Department. (The members of the delegation deny any involvement by the Obama administration.) President Obama has repeatedly promised face-to-face diplomacy with Iran, though most analysts believe that the US will not reach out to the Iranian regime in any formal way until after Iran’s presidential elections on June 12—an election that, according to many Iran observers, Ahmadinejad is sure to lose. (His poll numbers in Iran hover right around George Bush’s numbers in the US.) Until then, it is expected that any high-level contact between the US and Iran will take place behind closed doors, away from media scrutiny, to avoid the possibility of embarrassment should talks fail.
Still, any contact between Americans and Iranians is a positive development, especially in this time of heightened tensions. At the very least, the visit by such Hollywood dignitaries may once again focus Americans’ attention on the beauty and brilliance of Iranian cinema. As the New York Times noted, some of the Iranian filmmakers passed DVDs of their work to the American visitors, in hopes that their projects could find an audience in the US. Can it be that even in Iran, as in Hollywood, everybody has a movie to sell?
Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God. and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War.