On Sunday afternoon, shortly before The Salesman won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, thousands of people gathered in Trafalgar Square to watch the film’s UK premiere at a free screening. The premiere was organised on the same night as the Oscars as a counterpoint to Donald Trump’s travel ban that would have seen the film’s illustrious director barred from attending the ceremony. As it happened, despite Trump’s ban being stuck in legal limbo, Asghar Farhadi decided to remain in Iran anyway as a protest.
The premiere was a protest too. On a cold, rainy afternoon in central London, a huge crowd from across the world came together as an act of celebratory defiance against Trump’s hate-filled policy. Sadiq Khan, Mike Leigh and others spoke rousingly in favour of an open London, the importance of immigration and the power of film to create empathy. If ever a man needed empathy, it would be Trump. For its sheer cavernous absence in his every word and action, combined with the absolutely critical need for any world leader to possess it in spades.
Forget for a second – if you can – that any revised version of Trump’s travel ban would cleave families in two, cause the death of refugees, and leave thousands of people in a constant state of fear. Forget even that, as a policy, it’s not only morally shameful but moronically short-sighted, certain to entrench anger and escalate violence almost immediately and for decades to come. Forget the policy, for the policy isn’t the problem. If it’s not this policy that raises an infinite rage, then it will surely be another. The problem is the man.
Donald Trump is an execrable human being, a loathsome, cruel, vindictive egomaniac without a visible shred of human decency. He preys on the weak for his own shallow gain, caring for nothing but his own image and power. He will say or do whatever it takes to feed the gaping insecurities that riddle every fibre of his being. He will lie, bully, abuse and destroy in order to win. He will do it so often that he will think he can shape morality and reality in his own image, that anything is justifiable in the service of his brand. The only reason I fall short of calling him pure evil is because he lacks the competence or awareness: he is – for all his canny bluster – deeply deeply stupid. But make no mistake, his actions are evil, in their intent if not their effect, rooted in a rotten solipsism, a complete disconnection from and disregard for humanity.
We need film because film is a vanguard for empathy. Films encourage us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to consider all sides of a story, to understand different beliefs, opinions, cultures and worldviews. Films form intimate connections, forging communion where confusion or misunderstanding would otherwise exist. They force us to forego judgement, to change our minds, to see ourselves where we once saw others.
The Salesman strives for all this and is a worthy winner of the Oscar – regardless of whether the vote was creatively or politically driven. Intriguing and wonderfully poised, it offers a fascinating glimpse into life in modern Iran. It shows a world very like ours, even as the infrastructure decays and good people struggle to survive. It speaks of universal issues with a uniquely Persian outlook: family honour, male pride, female guilt. Scripted and shot with compelling realism, it moves like a documentary, even as it ratchets up the tension. The last half hour is a masterclass of believable suspense. Riveting, even sitting on the uncomfortable stone ground of a windy Trafalgar Square.
The Salesman tells the story of a couple who struggle to deal with the repercussions of an assault in their own home. The characters move and talk like the people we know: they are real and the same. Sometimes painful, sometimes funny, always truthful – this is film as a spotlight on being. Film as a means for growing and tending to burgeoning empathy – the thing that will ensure that all Trump stands for will fail.
You can say that this article is hypocritical, that I lack empathy and compassion for Trump himself. And maybe you would be correct, though even film has its limits. Still, if I had any hope at all that Trump could still learn, that he had even the tiniest spark of humility or desire for self-improvement, I would shepherd him quietly to a small, independent cinema, buy him some popcorn and pray.
And I’d try very, very hard not to poison the popcorn – my best attempt at compassion for that awful man.