Once, the Cannes Film Festival placed an empty chair on the stage during the opening night to convey its displeasure over the absent Iranian auteur, Jafar Panahi - who was not allowed to travel by the clergy Government in Tehran. The festival conveyed, in no uncertain terms, that it missed having Panahi around. On Monday, at the Oscar nominees’ luncheon in Los Angeles, one could not but take note of the empty chairs in the room. These chairs reminded attendees that helmers like Iran’s Asghar Farhadi -- whose The Salesman is in the running for the Best Foreign Language Oscar -- were absent. They were unlikely to fly down for the big night on February 26, because of US President Donald Trump’s travel ban on residents from several primarily Islamic nations. One of them is Iran.
The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, deeply unhappy over the latest political development, averred: “There is a struggle globally today over artistic freedom that feels more urgent than at any time since the 1950s. Art has no borders. Art has no language and doesn’t belong to a single faith. Just as our work does not stop at borders, borders cannot be allowed to stop any of us.”
(We in India should know this only too well. India and Pakistan take turns to proscribe each other’s movies, the latest being the Shahrukh Khan-starrer, Raees. While allowing Hrithik Roshan’s Kaabil to be screened, Pakistan has stopped Raees, because it is felt that the film shows Muslims in bad light.)
Thanks to Trump’s decision, which though seems to be kept in abeyance following a judicial ruling, the Foreign Language Oscars have shot into the limelight this year. Normally, they are the least talked about in the Oscars event. And Farhadi’s The Salesman, appears to be the favourite - and not really because it is the best of the five nominees.
One has often seen politics playing an important role in the verdict of a jury. In 2004, Michael Moore’s documentary lambasting President Bush, Fahrenheit 9/11, won the Palm d ‘ Or at Cannes. It did not deserve to win, but that year’s president of the Cannes jury, Quentin Tarantino, was such a Bush hater that he must have made sure that Moore got the trophy.
So, it may not come as a big surprise if Farhadi clinches the Best Foreign Language Oscar on February 26. Farhadi - who gave us that fantastic work called A Separation on a squabbling couple - takes us back again to domestic disharmony in The Salesman. Here, a husband and wife, both actors in the theatrical production of The Death of A Salesman, find jealousy and suspicion creeping into their lives after an unsavoury incident in their new flat. A stranger walks into the apartment assuming that the old tenant, probably a prostitute, still lives there. And the wife lets him in the mistaken belief that it is her husband coming in.
The Salesman is not this writer’s favourite. What is, is Germany’s Toni Erdmann -- a hilarious, but hauntingly touching work about a father’s desperate attempts to help his daughter loosen up a bit, take her work a little less seriously and to spend a little time with him. And what all he does to get close to his girl, and this includes him dressing up like a bear, to make her laugh. And finally, as he sits forlornly on a Park bench, tired and defeated, the daughter races up to him and gives him a bear hug!
Another of this writer’s favourite among the five nominees is the Danish movie, Land of Mine. World War II has been beaten to pulp on the screen, and so it could not have been easy for director Martin Zandvliet to make yet another on the subject. But he scores with his compellingly fresh story and approach. He presents in his Land of Mine a bit of war history that is true but not well known, and possibly never been made into a film. On a path travelled a million times or more, Zandvliet discovers or rediscovers a tragic episode and lights it up with beautiful sensitivity and feeling. One cannot miss the humanism that the helmer portrays through his taut narrative in the months when almost the entire world hated the Nazis and the Germans. After the war ended in May 1945, German prisoners of war in Denmark were given a deadly assignment. They were ordered to clear the Danish coast of the two million land mines which the German army had planted in the mistaken belief that this would be where the Allied invasion would take place. Most of the prisoners were teenage boys, recruited in the last days of Hitler’s march, and totally unprepared for what was apparently a suicidal mission.
The fourth nominee, Australia’s Tanna, is some sort of Romeo and Juliet story. Set on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific, the movie is inspired by the true story of a man and woman who decide to get married against their parents’ wishes. Tanna highlights the society’s quirky beliefs and customs.
Finally, Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, based on Fredrik Backman’s best-selling novel with the same title, is a lovely portrait of a man who is mourning for his wife, and the film has the power to tug at the heart strings of all those who may have been in a similar state or known someone in the same frame of mind.
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