It made sense that, given a recent Hollywood delegation’s high profile visit to Iran, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences would extent an invitation to Iranian filmmakers to visit the United States.
“It certainly would be appropriate based on what we have just done,” said Sid Ganis, the president of the Academy, who led the 10-day trip that ended last week. “If we assist in making that happen, we will. Now we just have to figure out how to do it.”
The delegation also included Annette Bening, Alfre Woodward, Phil Alden Robinson, Frank Pierson, Tom Pollock, Bill Horberg, James Longley and Ellen Harrington, the Acad’s director of exhibitions and special events. Their trip, at the invitation of Cinema House, Iran’s film academy, was nonpolitical and was not arranged by the state Department.
Much of visit was spent speaking before the country’s filmmakers and students, as well as attending workshops and panels and screenings of their own movies.
But with the Obama adminstration signalling a willingness to restart talks, on some level, with the Iranian government, comparisons were immediately made to the kind of cultural diplomacy that preceded the opening of U.S.-Chinese relations in 1972.
Ganis was cautious about elevating their trip to the geopolitical level, but he said, “If we move diplomacy along a half an inch, boy, I will be happy about that.”
The Academy delegation met with no government officials, but Ganis called the trip “sensational” and said that he “found people welcoming and sincerely interested in seeing us.” He added that only sporadically did they encounter anyone with a political agenda, asking “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.”
“Looking at it from the point of view of what we set out to do, I feel completely satisfied that we accomplished our goals,” he said.
In sessions that lasted up to four hours, the Americans and Iranians exchanged ideas and problems. Ganis said, “Some were specific to working in Iran, some were specific to filmmakers in both countries, like raising money, getting actors to commit, the exact same concerns about budgets and schedules, all very similar to what we face here.”
There also was talk of hindrances faced by Iranian filmmakers in releasing their movies in their country, given that there are only 300 cinemas in Iran, “and the movies are looked at and ruled upon by their government.”
Ganis said, “They were surprised to hear that we had no government censorship whatsoever.”
The greatest headlines of the trip came when Javad Shamghadri, an adviser to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, told members of the media that the U.S. delegation should apologize to the Iranians for “30 years of insults and slanders,” citing the portrayal of the country in films like “300” and “the Wrestler.”
Reflecting the complicated structure of Iranian authorities, Ganis noted that Shamghadri was not “speaking for the government; he was advising the president.”
“I wasn’t surprised that it did come up, not specifically ‘The Wrestler’ and ‘300,’ but sort of in a negative sense of American material,” he said.
The Academy delegation did not apologize, but when asked about the comments, Ganis says his response was to say, “Your society is steeped in culture, and culture and art is always open to criticism. American movies are no different. Sometimes were do it right, sometimes we don’t do it right, but it is art.”
Ganis says he also told them, “We are not here to represent material. We are here to talk about film and filmmaking.”
Iranian culture has a rich cinematic tradition, but Ganis said that he was struck by the extent to which those he met were familiar with U.S. films — such as “Iron Man” — even though they were not even released in the country. Piracy is rampant in the country, and at one market, he found one film he produced, “Mr. Deeds,” with the title in Farsi, and bought it for $1.50.
One issue that also was talked about was a perplexing problem with qualifying Iranian movies for the Oscars, given that some Iranian movies are released in other countries but not in Iran itself.
Ganis added of the trip, “If we manage to make a small contribution, we will be happy.”