At the risk of starting an international incident, let’s just try to get this straight: a key adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who reportedly has called the Holocaust a “myth” and claimed there are no homosexuals in his country, is accusing Hollywood of distorting reality.
The official is demanding an apology from a team of visiting movie industry figures – including Annette Bening – charging that depictions of Iranians in “The Wrestler,” “300,” and other Western films are “insulting” to his country.
Javad Shamaqdari, Ahmadinejad’s cultural adviser, told The Associated Press that Iranian film industry officials shouldn’t meet with Bening, actress Alfre Woodard and the rest of the nine-member Hollywood delegation without first eliciting a mea culpa.
Shamaqdari criticized the stylized battle flick “300” for its decidedly controversial depiction of decadent Persians in the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae. The 2006 film was interpreted by some critics as a thinly veiled pro-U.S. commentary on Iraq war. Shamaqdari also slammed a scene in “The Wrestler” where Mickey Rourke’s grappler character goes up against an old foe called The Ayatollah, and breaks a pole bearing an Iranian flag.
This kerfuffle, of course, is about a lot more than movies. Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran have been virtually non-existent since the 1979-1980 hostage crisis. President Obama has taken hits from some for saying he’s open to talking with Iran, which was branded a member of the “Axis of Evil” by his White House predecessor.
The Hollywood delegation’s visit to Tehran marks a step in the journey toward diplomacy with a country that may be developing nuclear weapons and whose president, Ahmadinejad, reportedly has said Israel should be “wiped off the map.”
Still, a blanket “I’m sorry” shouldn’t be a pre-condition for a cultural exchange, particularly in Iran, where censorship is commonplace. Shamaqdari might actually have a point about “300,” though his take on “The Wrestler” suggests Iran is still an irony-free zone. Either way, let him come and openly debate the Hollywood folks, while leaving his demands home.
The Hollywood delegation, which held filmmaking seminars during the trip, should be promoting one universal value: freedom of artistic expression. Let people see the work and decide for themselves – no apologies necessary.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.