In a new series called “My Journey to the Oscars,” Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard.
Asghar Farhadi, a two-time international Oscar winner for “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” is in the running for a third time with “A Hero,” which marks the Iranian auteur’s return to shooting in his country.
It’s a drama about a man named Rahim (Amir Jadidi) who, while on furlough after being imprisoned for debt, returns a lost handbag full of gold coins. This apparently heroic act spirals out of control due to social media, which plays an important part in the pic as it exposes the pitfalls of media manipulation in Iran but also, by extension, the world.
Congratulations! What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar, after already winning this prize twice before?
The fact that the movie made it up to this stage creates curiosity for audiences to watch the film. It expands the film’s audience around the world.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far?
The hardest part is traveling a lot, traveling to different countries. Some of the trips are very short. You have to hop around from one country to another. But, all in all, getting feedback from audiences that are watching the film all over the world is great. It’s great that you get a chance to talk to different audiences around the world and find out how they relate to the film.
Social media plays an important part in the narrative of “A Hero.” Is this an aspect of the film that you think can help it connect with global audiences?
Yes, one of the subplots of the film involves social media. And in all the countries that I’ve been to, this is one of the topics people talk about. Which goes to show that social media is part of everybody’s life these days.
Although you are shortlisted in the international feature category, the best picture category has historically been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international films are siloed in U.S. media and film criticism? If so, are there ways to improve this process when it comes to awards season?
Basically, because there is an increased number of international members of the Oscar committee these days, the focus on international movies is increasing. Every year, the number of international [Academy] members who get to vote for the Oscars is growing. This is gradually bringing more focus on international films. Another sign of progress is that the name of the category has changed from “foreign” to “international.” All of this helps to shift attention towards non-American films. And I’m very happy that there is plenty of curiosity around them.
When trying to get “consumer” Western audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie. In other words, reviewers often chastise “foreign” films for being too long. But when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say they could go longer if they wanted to. Do you find that fair?
I feel that more important than the length of a film is the film’s quality. If a movie is interesting, we don’t think about its length. Sometimes we watch even a short film — 15 or 20 minutes — and it feels longer. To make sure a film connects with an audience I don’t think its length is necessarily the most important aspect. It’s the story that tells you how much time you need to put it on the screen. Although, in general, audiences like fast-paced movies, I still don’t believe you can say the length of a film is the only factor that tells us if the movie will connect with the audience or not.
The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. Of course, thanks to you, Iran has a good “batting average.” Still, do you feel that more diversity from all countries globally should be encouraged? If so, how?
I feel like this is something that is happening right now. And there are many countries that are working towards this. And I believe that over the next few years the “international” category will become one of the pillars of the Oscars. This helps raise the quality of films higher and higher. But aside from what country a film comes from, I think the quality of the film will determine whether a film will remain in film history or not.
You are representing your country, Iran, to an American awards body (although there are voters who are international). Over the years, this has put you in situations that have nothing to do with your movies. In 2017, you decided not to attend the Oscars ceremony to protest against President Donald Trump’s visa ban for citizens from Iran and other predominantly Muslim countries. How do you feel about being put in tough positions as that representative?
More than anything else, I consider myself a filmmaker. And I try to focus on the films that I make. In the past, things have indeed happened outside the world of the film. But I always try to make sure film isn’t overshadowed by these things and that people watch my films without any preconceptions. But I have to say that I am also a citizen and when things happen, I react as a citizen. If these events make people in my country happy, it makes me happy as well. I experienced this after winning two Oscars. People in Iran were very happy. And this has been one of the gifts of my life; one of the happiest moments in my life.