With A Separation winning Best Foreign Film at the Oscars last night and the Iranian government subsequently struggling to work out how it should deal with this, I’m reminded of an anecdote in Joseph Nye’s book on Soft Power.
Apparently at the peak of the Cold War when 12 Angry Men came out, the Hungarian Communist regime took the unusual step of allowing their subjects to see this one American film. We can only assume that they thought Lumet’s masterpiece was a convenient portrayal of the perils of deliberative democracy and collective decision making, given the bigotry and dogmatic approaches most men in the film carry (let’s leave the triumph of reason to one side). Surprisingly, however, this apparently backfired quite catastrophically. According to Cuckoo’s Nest director Milos Forman, the reaction of Hungarians wasn’t to laugh at the American system. It was to think: ‘wow; what it must say of a country that it can make a film like this about itself‘.
Somewhat similarly, I wonder what Iranians will think when they hear that their alleged arch-enemy is capable of so openly appreciating their nation’s art. Small acts like that can speak volumes about the power of liberal societies. How odd that one of America’s greatest foreign policy assets might be Hollywood, which can change hearts and minds in a way drones and sanctions never could.