Iranians have increasingly become a mainstay in Hollywood, but they aren’t exactly pleased with the attention. From the portrayal of the beloved Persian emperor Cyrus the Great as a blood-thirsty charlatan in the movie “300” to the shallow Iranian-American characters in Bravo’s modern-day “Shahs of Sunset,” many Iranians have had enough with the backwards depictions of their country and culture.
As an Iranian Jew who left the country during the Islamic Revolution, there is another film I will be watching for when I tune into the Academy Awards on Sunday.
When the movie “Argo” came into theaters, I felt compelled to see it but dreaded stepping into the theater for two reasons: I was terrified of confronting my own painful memories of the Iranian Revolution, but more importantly, I didn’t want to sit through another negative portrayal of Iranians in the media.
It turns out I was correct on both fronts.
“Argo” was so good that it made me squirm in my seat. The largely accurate account of events — based on declassified government documents and firsthand accounts from people involved — stirred long-repressed memories of my anguished flight from Tehran.
However factual, “Argo” also aroused a sense of anger in me, not for anything it got wrong (and there were some sensationalist fabrications), but for what it was: yet another apparent indictment of the Iranian people as thuggish, fanatical and stupid. In dramatically recreating this story, one that most Iranians consider a stain on Iran’s place in the international community, “Argo” is only the latest in a string of movies and television shows that paint all Iranians in a negative light.
American policymakers and the American public need to understand that Iranians themselves have been held hostage by the current regime, which has trampled their social freedom, imperiled economic opportunities and tarnished Iran’s glorious history.
Following the release of “Argo,” Farsi language blogs were saturated by many young Iranians — and Iranian Americans — who questioned the wisdom of yet another negative depiction of Iranians in the media. More than 30 years after a revolution that their parents’ generation activated, they want the world to know that they were not born at the time of the hostage crisis, did not take part in the revolution and do not condone the inexcusable actions of the current regime.
They know all too well that revolutions are not pretty and are rarely known for bringing Chanel-clad, Proust-loving people out onto the streets. Angry mobs are a staple of any country undergoing unprecedented transformation — we witness it today in Egypt, Libya and Syria. In 1979, Iran was one of them.
They have also learned first-hand that revolutions rarely finish how they start. This is especially true for the Iranian Revolution, when, seemingly overnight, students, women, clerics, the bazaaris and many of the upper-class came together to dethrone the Shah, only to be violently suppressed by a fearsome cleric who looked like he landed from another era, declaring any modicum of modernity as un-Islamic and a Moharebeh — a crime against God and punishable by death.
Despite more than 30 years of hard-line rule, many of the Iranian people have remained staunchly pro-American, in stark contrast to most of the other countries in the Middle East. It is worth remembering that Iranians poured into streets to hold a candlelight vigil on Sept. 11, 2001. Arabs in neighboring countries also gathered in the streets and squares, but they were celebrating.
Unless the American administration can find a way to empower and engage Iranian civil society, the Islamic regime will grow stronger. Though the Iranian government remains beyond reach, the Iranian people are not, and we shouldn’t continue to alienate them.
And that is precisely what happens when Hollywood serves up its usual fare.
“Argo” makes the viewer wonder why America hasn’t bombed the country whose men look like they haven’t showered in weeks, are prone to angry outbursts and want nothing more than America’s destruction. Without acknowledging the suffering of the Iranians themselves or giving credit to those who perished in the struggle for democracy and the protection of democratic ideals, the film offers another wholesale rebuff of the Iranian people.
And this time, the stakes are too high to give Hollywood another pass.
Moinian is a native Iranian who immigrated to the United States with her family after the country’s revolution. She recently co-produced the PBS movie “The Iranian Americans” and is a previous consultant at the Council on Foreign Relations.