Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Hollywood Meets Tehran

When there’s an international crisis, I know I’d prefer to have Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard on my side – strong women with a reflective presence. I'm not kidding. So it’s good to see that they’ve gone one step further than just talking about peace or acting in movies that make people feel good about themselves. Right now, they’re actually in Iran, along with some other senior members of the Academy, as part of what might be considered one of the highest level cultural exchange programs since Ronnie and Mikhail went for a walk by the Ellioaa River.

You may think I’m joking, but I’m not: we’ve been so used over the past few years to being told that the way to be good citizens is to be suspicious of the rest of the world and go to the mall that the notion of an artistic exchange between Hollywood and Tehran seems nothing short of, well, nothing short of the kind of thing people who want to nurture the bonds that are formed through aesthetic experience would do.

Hopefully – and presumably – the Academy people realise that the exchange should work both ways - Iranian film-makers have produced some of the most indelible and humane cinematic images of the past twenty years – Makhmalbaf’s ‘Blackboards’ nurturing the parallels between vagabond teachers and the birds that swoop above them on their treacherous journey through the mountains (see the astonishing image above for a taster of why there's almost nothing more evocative you could choose to watch tonight), another teacher in ‘09/11/01’ drawing a circle in the dust to represent the clock that allows her pupils to take a minute’s silence in honour of the dead in the Twin Towers, the various attempts by the protagonist to make and receive cell phone calls in a place where they don’t belong in Kiarostami’s ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’.

Predictably, the nation’s cultural captains have used the visit as an opportunity to denounce what they see as the decadence of US movies – I suppose I can understand people taking offence at the portrayal of Iranian forebears as barbaric in ‘300’ – though I was offended by that film’s vision of humanity itself as nothing more than a warrior species, whose bloodlust is not just to be celebrated, but seen as the better part of strength. But those images did not begin (nor will they end) with '300' (despite the fact that the myth of redemptive violence may have first been written down in that part of the world - have a look at The Epic of Gilgamesh).

And, come on, guys, if you’re going to be offended by the ‘Ayatollah’ character in ‘The Wrestler’ first spare a thought for spandex wearers, peroxide tinters, and stapler afficianados everywhere: the film is riffing on what got US wrestling fans riled in the 80s: are you seriously suggesting that having a guy dress up as an Iranian religious figure who gets his flag broken in a toy fight is less disturbing than burning an effigy of a US President? Could we not just agree that we’re all in this satire game together; and sometimes it goes too far?

But this is all bluster when compared to what I’d most like to see come out of the LA tourists’ visit to Iran: just as there is more to US cinema than cutting and burning, there's more to Iranian culture than the images evoked by President Ahmadenijad's public pronouncements. There’s a profound humanity to cinematic work that has emerged from Iran – whatever else happens as a result of Hollywood plus Tehran, hopefully some more of it will be seen.