Monday, February 27, 2012

Border Crossing

The Oscars have come and gone, with the usual blend of excitement and disappointment. The standing ovations—for Octavia Spencer in The Help and Meryl Streep, felt sincere and well-earned. But the one that moved me the most was the burst of applause for A Separation as best foreign film. Not only because it was a fine movie, but because of how clearly it marks the divide between the government-to-government view of Iran and the people-to-people connection.

It was six years ago teaching an Orff summer course in Salzburg that I first met a group of women from Iran and I was fascinated. They were warm, witty, intelligent, supremely musical and—may I say?—drop-dead gorgeous. In subsequent years, I worked in more depth with many of them and last year, with some men as well. My first impression only deepened and it intrigued me that a country with such difficult and strange politics produced people of such a high caliber. How could this be? And then I think of my Canadian friends who sometimes seem surprised to discover that I seem to be a functioning, decent human being with a passable intelligence who lives in a country that produced the current Republican primaries. So though there is a connection between a culture and its government, we have to remind ourselves to separate out the people and the politicians.

One of my new friends from Iran wrote last night while watching the Oscars. She wrote:

“After all the bad images around the world, it is amazingly and weirdly a big deal for us to be known with a great movie and not with an awful diplomatic behavior! Isn't it amazing how powerful the language of Art can be?!? Isn't it wonderful how easy it can pass the borders and talks to everyone?!? And it doesn't need any Visa!!!”

Beautifully said. Years back, I wrote an article titled “Art as a Force for Social Change”
following this same line of thought. An excerpt:

“Mass culture depends upon statistics, stereotypes, averages, both making people too much alike and too much different. By contrast, the soul as revealed by art is always both one of a kind in its particulars and universal in its qualities. A good novel or film explodes the convenient lie that the people not living in our neighborhood are strange and wholly other. By hearing their story, we cannot dismiss them as less than huyman, an exotic tribe or collateral damage. When a Richard Wright or Adundhati Roy or John Steinbeck present characters that live and breath, exult and grieve, rise above human foibles or fall from grace—in short, people like us—they offer a powerful antidote to the 6 o’clock news.”

That news these days is showing all the disturbing views of Iran and indeed, they are real. But why not combine that with the reminders of the people living authentic lives and invite us to create a bridge of conversation across borders? My friend continued:

“Here comes the foreign language category........."A Separation" we won! The first Oscar in history! And I'm crying!!!! :))) It's just weird to explain how you start putting all your hope, which has been turned down so many years in so many ways, in a 120-minutes movie, to scream your name somewhere in the world to be heard. It's just impossible to describe how I -and 90% of Iranian people, specially my generation- feel right now.”

Keep that 90% in mind as the news feeds us the images that portray “enemy.” (And let’s hope my Iranian—and Canadian and Brazilian and Spanish and South African and beyond friends—keep intelligent and compassionate Americans in mind as they watch the circus of Newt, Mit, Rick and Ron apply for the job of ringmaster.) In the real world of artists, we’re not immune to prejudice, pig-headedness, bitter rivalry (there’s a bit of The Black Swan in every performing group), but in the world of imagination that feeds us daily, we aim to touch the heart that beats the same in every breast. Anything that reminds us of our shared humanity is an antidote to the politics of separation. Thanks to Asghar Farhadi for reminding us and to the Academy for honoring him.

PS And though it’s ironic that I’m suggesting artists be sent to the negotiating tables at conflicts worldwide and a movie titled The Artist won Best Picture, I need to say (without whining!) that I was disappointed that The Help didn’t win. I loved the first film and celebrate its bold, imaginative leap expertly done, but The Help was that rare film that kept me in my seat long after the credits rolled. Yet another reminder that we needn’t look to demonize Iran for violating human rights given our own backyard history and such a beautiful, powerful statement about the humanity bound and tied down in racism’s straightjacket screaming to be seen and set free. 

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