The reverberations from the U.S. State Department's refusal to issue a visa for the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami to attend the 40th New York Film Festival continue to be felt.
This morning, following the festival's press screening of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's new film "The Man Without a Past," festival director Richard Peña took the stage to read a statement from Kaurismäki saying he would not attend the festival he calls "one of the world's best" because of the treatment of Kiarostami. "Not with anger (which has never brought anything good)," the statement begins, "but with deep sorrow ... I, too, am forced to cancel my participation." Kaurismäki goes on, "If international cultural exchange is prevented, what is left? The exchange of arms?"
Kaurismäki's deadpan humor is present in the statement; he invites Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Finland so the two of them can walk in the woods and pick mushrooms. "That might calm him down," he writes. There is also, in the statement, a modicum of silliness. After saying that if the Bush administration doesn't want an Iranian, they won't have any use for a Finn, Kaurismäki says, "We do not even have the oil."
It's absurd to still have to point out to the world community (and to a large section of the American left) that in the city that hosts the film festival alone, 3,000 people were murdered on Sept. 11, 2001. And they weren't killed because of oil, or because al-Qaida gives a damn about Palestinians, or because Americans have kept Muslims living in grinding poverty. You can hate, as Kaurismäki does and as I do, the way John Ashcroft has spearheaded the Bush administration's attempt to destroy civil liberties, and you can be appalled at Bush's determination to wage war in Iraq without providing a shred of evidence that the United States is at risk, without resorting to the use of "oil" as the cheap punch line it has become.
But Kaurismäki raises a crucial point that should concern all Americans who worry about our profile in the world (and especially in the Middle East) at a time of war. As he asks, "If international cultural exchange is prevented, what is next?" The refusal to grant Abbas Kiarostami a visa should appall all Americans, not just because of the slight to a director whom many in the world film community of critics and directors consider one of the greatest now working, but because it calls into question how much the Bush administration knows about the Middle East, and how committed it is to encouraging the ideas and values of democracy, which is what will ultimately determine the success of the war on terror and our own future safety.
In his new book "Longitudes and Attitudes," the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman repeatedly makes the case that the story of contemporary Iran is of the struggle between a largely pro-democracy population and the clerical rulers who are doing everything they can to stop democratic reform. When the U.S. Embassy reopened as a museum of the Islamist revolution, there was so little public interest that it folded in a year. Iran was the only Middle East country that held a candlelight vigil for the victims of Sept. 11. On the subject of Iranian cinema, Friedman writes, "The most popular Iranian films today are those that mock the hypocrisy of the theocracy." The Iranian films that American audiences have been able to see, like Jafir Panahi's "The Circle," a withering depiction of the persecution of women under fundamentalist Islamist rule, have hardly been examples of firebrand anti-Western sentiment. Certainly, Kiarostami's own poeticized, often oblique dramas cannot be characterized that way.
Bush has shown himself to be more interested in branding Iran as part of his axis of evil instead of doing what he can to improve relations with a country that could be a bastion of pro-democratic feeling in a region where we need all the goodwill we can get. Does the president or anyone in his administration even know who Abbas Kiarostami is? Or was his nationality alone enough to deny him a visa?
The war on terror is not just going to be won on the ground, but also by encouraging cultural figures and intellectuals and the people sick of theocratic rule, sick of putting up with increasing levels of poverty while their populations swell and their leaders get richer. And to reach those people means having the capability to make distinctions that are apparently beyond that of the administration. If, three days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush can stand at the National Cathedral with Muzzamil Siddiqi, a man who said that Islamic law would have to determine whether capital punishment was a fitting fate for Salman Rushdie, why can't his administration allow Abbas Kiarostami into the country?
The most withering part of Kaurismäki's statement is his final line: "Somewhere, someone said that every man is created equal." It would appear that this is a truth that the Bush administration finds only self-evident in reverse: All Middle Easterners are a threat. The stakes for America right now are too high for us to allow our leaders to make us rubes in the eyes of the world.