When Motion Pictures and Foreign Policy Collide

By: Maija Ehlinger

Perhaps you celebrated the Eighty-Fifth Academy Awards in grand style, taking in the Hollywood & Highland spectacle from the night.  This year’s films dazzled moviegoers the world over; transporting audiences back to moments of historical legend, into present-day terror cells, and even into the chaotic and vividly stimulating mind of an Indian immigrant.

But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has a reach that extends passed the Red Carpet of this February’s awards.  Filmmakers from across the globe now make up the Academy, bringing new perspectives, new audiences, and new styles to the ever-evolving world of cinematic art.  This year’s list of nominees and winners again proved that the art and craft of filmmaking is breaking down borders and creating a vibrant dialogue about current events in a way that the mainstream media cannot.

The storyline of this year’s big winner, Argo, itself exhibited how a film crew – albeit a fake one- can change foreign relations.  But the content of the film itself was not all that spurred current debate; Iran’s reaction to both the film as well as the Academy Award presentation provides yet another look into the complicated relationship between Iran’s Supreme Leader and Western countries.

Argo’s Oscar wins come at an interesting time in international politics. Just days after the award ceremony, the ‘5+1’ group finished another round of negotiations, this time in Kazakhstan, attempting to find common group over Iran’s uranium plant in Fordo.[1] In a moment of tentative optimism, chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili declared that the talks were fruitful, and perhaps less ‘Western-centric’ than before, suggesting that there is a chance for softening tensions with major world powers over the issue of uranium buildup.

However, such optimism might be more fleeting than the Kazakhstan talks might suggest, as other domestic developments threaten to further the schism between Iran and the West.  The bipartisan legislation ‘Nuclear Iran Prevention Act’, spearheaded by Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), might be on the horizon in Washington, which would attempt to suppress more Iranian businesses and block Iranian bank assets currently held in euros.[2]

What is a time of celebration for the Hollywood community may also be a perfect opportunity to reflect on how art and media can influence perceptions and foreign relations.  While Argo introduced a wider audience to the once-classified story behind the 1970s Hostage Crisis, Iran’s Fars News wasted no time to protest the film, claiming it was an “anti-Iran Film…produced by the Zionist company Warner Bros.”[3]

Using film as a platform for history is not a new concept. Saving Private Ryan reintroduced the world to personal struggles of war and military ethos, and it became a film revered the world over for giving new insight into the dynamics of World War II. Erik Barnouw’s 1970 documentary Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945, redefined how documentarians used archived footage, while bringing audiences closer to the realities of atomic power.[4] In a different way, Al Gore’s and David Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth provided a brief climate history while helping to contextualize the global warming debate that blurs the lines between domestic and foreign policy measures.

Filmmakers have the unique opportunity to create, adapt, or illuminate a story from history and bring it to a wider audience.  And this year’s best picture embraced the chance full force. Exposing a new generation to the intricate story behind US-Iranian affairs during the twentieth century opens up the opportunity for new dialogue and debate between the two countries.

Recent films have a tendency to excite, inform, and proliferate ideas and emotions in ways rarely duplicated by other art forms.  In a time when so much emphasis is put on biases found in news outlets, it is equally important to remember that feature films, whether stemming from original or adapted scripts, can influence more than just American entertainment. In our interconnected, media-centric world, filmmakers’ perspectives have the ability to shape public discussion, and therefore their ideas must withstand the critique of more than just The Academy.


[1] Steven Erlanger, As Negotiators Ease Demands on Iran, More Nuclear Talks Are Set.  New York Times, February 28, 2013.

[2] Rick Gladston, “Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan Measure to Toughen Iranian Sanctions,” New York Times, February 28, 2013.

[4] USA Today, The 11 most earth-shattering documentaries of all time.  14 October, 2010. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2010-10-15-topdocs15_ST_N.htm

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