Iranian Culture Minister Mohammad Hosseini, center, talks with Javad… (Abedin Taherkenareh / European…)
TEHRAN — As moviegoers in the U.S. hustle to see Oscar contenders "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty" before the golden statuettes go out, the films are also hitting screens in Tehran — as examples of the “cultural assault” of the West.
“Why can Hollywood get away with assaulting Iran and Islam?” Nader Talebzade told reporters at the Azadi Hotel, where his "Hollywoodism and Cinema" conference kicked off Sunday.The success of "Argo," based on a 1980 CIA operation to spirit Americans out of Iran during a hostage crisis, shows that “promoting phobias of Islam and Iran is part of Hollywood’s plan,” he said.
For the third year in a row, Talebzade has invited Iranian analysts, film critics and Hollywood detractors from the U.S. to slam the “hidden or open agenda” of Western films to tarnish Iran and Islam. Over four days, roughly 1,000 attendees are expected to flock to the Tehran event, held during the annual Fajr International Film Festival.
In the hotel auditorium, attendees watched Ben Affleck playing a CIA specialist trying to trick Iranian officials into letting Americans out of Tehran, Sacha Baron Cohen as a farcical "Dictator," even the fantastical battles between Spartans and Persians in the action film "300."
Outside the screenings, panelists weighed in on "Hollywood and Depiction of Moral Values," "Portrayals of Jews in Hollywood," and "September 11 from Hollywood’s Angle: Psychological Elements, Public Deception," as a crew of interpreters simultaneously translated their words into Farsi, French and Arabic.
Foreigners peppered the crowd at the Tehran hotel, including the maverick former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, who defended the disputed Iranian nuclear energy program at the opening ceremony, and the French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who wed the convicted killer known as Carlos the Jackal. Conference organizers named 52 foreign attendees; a man renting out interpretation devices said 132 guests spoke languages other than Farsi.
This year, the Tehran event comes as one of the same films it targets, "Zero Dark Thirty," has weathered a torrent of controversy in the U.S. over whether its depiction of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden amounts to an endorsement.
“Hollywood is used to impose on people to think in a single way,” Art Olivier, the libertarian former mayor of the Los Angeles suburb of Bellflower, told The Times on the sidelines of the conference. “In ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ torture is used to protect American interests.”
Olivier said conference organizers footed the bill for his flight and hotel to help him attend.
Some conference speakers charged Hollywood with unfairly painting Iran as a nuclear threat; others argued against the cultural pollution caused by Western cinema.
“’Avatar’-ism and vampirism are subsets of Hollywoodism in the West -- and they are assaulting the world,” especially the Islamic world, theorist and film critic Hasan Abbasi said in a long speech Sunday. “This cultural assault should be confronted by Islamic and national cinema.”
Iran has a vibrant, internationally praised cinema of its own, spotlighted last year by its Oscar win for the family drama "A Separation." Some of its films fit smoothly with Iranian politics: At the Fajr film festival, organizers plugged a screening of "In the Name of Freedom," a documentary on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s latest election win, the Tehran Times reported.
But some its own filmmakers have clashed with Iranian authorities. Government censors and propaganda laws have prodded some Iranian filmmakers into exile and landed others behind bars. One conference speaker hinted at the dangerous powers of film.
Hollywood “has induced something in the minds and hearts of people that even the holy prophets such as Noah and Muhammad, peace be upon them, have failed to do,” Javad Shamaghdari, deputy cultural minister for cinema affairs, told conference attendees. “The bitter reality is … there is less and less inspiration taken from Noah and the holy prophets.”
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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.