What “The Salesman” Won and What America Could Have Lost

By Mary Grace Richardson, Co-editor

This week Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, making this the second Oscars victory for the Iranian filmmaker. Though Farhadi didn’t attend the ceremony, an Iranian-American woman graciously accepted the award in his place while also reminding viewers of Iran’s recent experience with the U.S. government’s crackdown on foreign travelers, also referred to as the Muslim Ban.

But to understand the meaning of the award, we also have to understand The Salesman itself. The film follows a high school teacher, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), who investigates an attack made on his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), in their shower and his determination to seek justice and vengeance against the perpetrator. Despite Emad’s initial plea that they report the incident to the police, she refuses. However, the trauma of the event gives her anxiety—she insists that Emad stand guard outside the door when she showers; she bursts into tears when she sees a man’s eyes that remind her of the intruder. In an attempt to provide closure for his wife regarding the incident, and, more deeply, to reject the frustration and helplessness he feels, Emad begins to independently search for the trespasser. Rana shakily but tangibly seems to recover, but as the story continues, we see that the harshest assault is on Emad’s self-worth and masculinity.

In "The Salesman," a husband and wife navigate the aftermath of her assault. Courtesy of New Zealand International Film Festival
In “The Salesman,” a husband and wife navigate the aftermath of her assault. Courtesy of New Zealand International Film Festival

This is an important and complicated story to tell, one deserving of the recognition it received. While viewers initially think the psychological and moral drama is about a woman’s fear in telling her story, the story twists into an account of how one man’s anger and marred self-image drive him to almost ruin what he supposedly most wants to protect: his marriage.

Reading a statement written by Farhadi, Texas-based engineer and businessperson Anousheh Ansari accepted the award on behalf of the director: “I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those from other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US. Dividing the world into the US and our enemies categories creates fear—a deceitful justification for aggression and war.”

This isn’t the first-time political statements have colored the awards ceremony. Ansari’s speech reminded film history buffs of Marlon Brando’s decision to not accept his award for Best Actor for his role in The Godfather at the 1973 Oscars. Instead, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, president of the of National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, to bring awareness to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television and movie reruns.” On behalf of Brando, Littlefeather also mentioned the recent clashes between Native American activists and law enforcement at Wounded Knee.

The Oscars has historically attempted to compartmentalize art and politics by apologizing for partisan views made in acceptance speeches. However, we see from these speeches that the basis of resonating art is personal experience and personal experience inarguably and deeply intertwines with politics. The Academy brings the most talented artists from across the country and the world, and not all of them view the Oscars as a runway or staged photo shoot. This event is the pinnacle platform for filmmakers to not just revel in their success, but to succinctly draw attention to issues that profoundly matter to them.

In this case, Farhadi’s award wasn’t just a win for those involved in the making of the film. It was a win for immigrants and a message to those who have supported Trump’s Muslim ban. America isn’t great because of the talent that originates from here, but because of the talent it acknowledges and welcomes from all over the world. From the words Ansari read, viewers couldn’t help but think about what our country will lose if we continue to target, exclude, and demonize other countries, and what the resulting damage incurred would look like. Will we drive away the talent to tell a beautiful story, such as that of Farhadi? Or will we deter Ansari’s pioneering business development and notable humanitarian efforts? For immigrants from the seven previously banned countries, Farhadi made sure that Americans saw their battle to not be ostracized and knew their struggle to make their dreams happen. This was not just a moment to celebrate what he made, but a moment to speak for those who have found themselves in similar circumstances.

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