As the Oscars approach, one topic which has seen almost as much coverage as the nominations themselves is how Donald Trump's Immigration Ban will affect the awards show. Here we investigate exactly what that means for filmmakers and the world's pre-eminent film awards ceremony.
Anyone who’s determined not to hide their head in the sand this side of the U.S. general election (escapism has its allure right now) will probably have heard about Donald Trump’s “travel ban”; a measure which not only contradicts those ideals enshrined in American culture and inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, and sets an unconstitutional religious test in violation with the first amendment’s freedom of religion, but also has some major implications for the arts.
What is the ban?
Given the fact that the ban is, indeed, unconstitutional, federal judge James Robart has since ruled that the ban is suspended “on a nationwide basis,” meaning government officials have had to stop enforcing it and travellers can start entering the country again. The state department has since re-issued many of the visas that Trump’s ban invalidated, and airlines have begun to allow things to return to normal (or at least as normal as we can expect, given the current Presidency).
The ban meant that Syrian refugees were to be refused entry to the U.S. for 120 days. It also suspended entry by all nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) for 90 days (yep, even the Green Card holders). All this was attributed to “protecting the nation from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals.” Essentially, as long as you were born in one of these countries, you’re probably a terrorist. For now, refugees and nationals from the seven countries are safe, as long as the ban is being fiercely debated. But if Trump gets his way and the ban is reinforced (he’s a powerful man, after all), then there’s a whole lot at stake – especially for the arts.
Of course, Trump has been up to his usual Tweeting, calling the ruling “ridiculous” and promising that it would be swiftly overturned.
As judges have issued contradictory rulings about the travel ban, the argument is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court: Watch this space.
The ban – unsurprisingly – caused massive upheaval throughout the States and it continues. Thousands of colleges, hospitals and tech companies are in disarray at the prospect losing their employees; Iraqi men and Syrian women are floating in limbo, denied the right to board their flights home; arbitrary detentions and questioning are happening just about anywhere power-hungry policemen with inferiority complexes can make them happen. Disturbing, but not altogether unexpected.
Being a filmmaker today means something very different than it did just a few weeks ago. Professionals of the film and television genre must resist the normalization of prejudice if they want to act for an America that serves all of its citizens through the creative medium.
How has the ban affected the Oscars?
Oscar-nominee Asghar Farhadi – whose film The Salesman is nominated for Best Foreign Language film – is just one of the individuals who has been immediately affected by the ban. Although the Department of Homeland Security announced that some individuals whom they deem to pose “no serious threat” to the U.S. have been granted entry on a case-by-case basis, Farhadi has told them where to stick it.
Himself an Iranian filmmaker – and director of 2011’s Oscar-winning film from Iran, A Separation – Farhadi publically announced that he will not attend the 2017 Oscars ceremony, even if he were offered an exemption to Trump’s ban, explaining that any possible exception for him would involve “ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me.” We can get behind that.
A Syrian woman who is the subject of a different Oscar-nominated film has also been barred from travelling to the U.S. Watani: My Homeland, which tells the true story of a Syrian family forced to flee Aleppo for sanctuary in Germany, has been nominated in the Documentary Short category. The movie’s star, Hala Kamil, is a woman who has previously visited America as a guest of the United Nations. Now, she’s not allowed to enter the country.
Watani’s director, Marcel Mettelsiefen, took a different approach from Farhadi, saying that boycotting the Oscars was not the right thing to do. “If you want to do a political statement, do it on stage,” he said.
Then there’s The White Helmets – the Oscar-nominated documentary from director Orlando von Einsiedel, which chronicles the anti-Assad volunteer corps who have have saved more than 60,000 lives in Syria – a feat that put them in contention for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The makers of this particular film have had to abandon plans to fly in two of the film’s protagonists for February’s award ceremony.
The film’s producer, Joanna Natasegara, called Trump’s ban “abhorrent.” She and Einsiedel had planned to take White Helmets’ leader Raed Salah and cinematographer Khaled Khateeb to the Academy Awards, but have since had to re-think. Saleh himself expressed his disgust at Trump’s refugee ban, saying that “a country’s greatness is measured not by its weapons or warplanes, but by how it helps those in times of desperate need.”
Is this the end for the Oscars?
So, it’s not just individuals and families who have been impacted by the ban – it’s also the arts. But what, exactly, does Trump’s ban mean for the world’s most prestigious film awards ceremony, the Oscars?
Back in 2015, journalist April Reign was watching the Oscar nominations announcement on TV. Struck by the lack of ethnic diversity among the names called, she took to Twitter to voice her disapproval.
Her hashtag – #OscarsSoWhite – caught on straight away and, ever since, the Academy has furiously been trying to shake off its image of entrenched racism. As the diversity group Writers of Colour has highlighted in the previous 85 or so years of the Oscars, nominated producers were 98% white, writers were 98% white, actors and actresses were 88% white. Those who vote in the Oscars – industry insiders and longtime film professionals – are 94% white…
And thanks to Trump’s ingenious new measure, the Oscars just got even whiter. Could this be the final nail in the coffin for the credibility of the Academy Awards?
The organizers behind the Oscars have been quick to comment on Trump’s travel ban, calling it “extremely troubling” for filmmakers. The Academy has also released a statement saying that they “seek to transcend borders and speak to audiences around the world, regardless of national, ethnic, or religious differences.”
Yet, ironically, prejudice is only solidified, and enforced, through institutions like this one. This year’s Oscars, like every year, will be overlooking some fantastic pieces of 2016 cinema, including Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation – both once tipped for many awards.
What does the ban mean for film and TV in general?
It’ll take until February 26 – and beyond – to understand the scope of Trump’s travel ban for an already pretty racist Academy Awards. But, broadening our scope, what does it all mean for the future of U.S. film and TV in general?
This important question is probably best answered with another question: Whose voices do we miss out on hearing if film, increasingly, becomes the domain of the privileged and powerful? And, how much is Trump’s regime going to squash freedom of speech, freedom of the arts? How soon, if history repeats itself, will artists come under assault by his government?
Part of the difficulty of Trump’s political relationship to the arts is the president’s general lack of interest in the arts himself. Despite his deep ties to the entertainment and TV industry through franchises like The Apprentice and Miss Universe, Agent Orange has exhibited little interest in cultural events over the years apart from attending the odd Broadway show. The Republican Party in general aren’t known for their support of the arts, either. For generations, the GOPs have been seen attempting to defund the arts, humanities and public broadcasting.
From experience, great art emerges from the marginalized and the angry. Right now, many of us are licking our wounds, allowing ourselves to feel the pain. But it’d be a missed opportunity for the likes of Farhadi, Mettelsiefen, and Von Einsiedel to simply go about business as usual, ignoring the way the travel ban contributes to a shocking infringement of their personal and cultural freedoms and – more generally – the fundamental threat to human rights…
We’ve all been thwacked over the head by a flaming sack of pussy-grabbing tangerine; if the ban doesn’t move you to act, then get the hell out of the way.
How can filmmakers subvert the ban?
As Trump seeks to demonize refugees and Muslim people in general, films such as Watani, telling the human story of refugees, become ever more important. We must reconnect with the common humanity of the refugee experience, remembering that the founding story of America is dependent upon people who have fled war and poverty in search of a better life. Films like Watani and The White Helmets – with their narratives that foster empathy and compassion – are the films that are sorely needed during this contentious time of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Whatever Trump’s travel ban means for the Oscars, it is now the responsibility of filmmakers to seek out the subjects who are overlooked because of their racial and ethnic backgrounds. Film and television have become powerful vehicles for communication, culture and education. They are reflections of society, both present and past. Sometimes they capture society, sometimes they lead it. Telling the stories of the stigmatized is one of the most effective ways that artists can subvert the ban, taking matters into their own hands.
Filmmakers, in a guttural cry of communication and expression, must simply dare to persevere, to keep on keeping on; to participate, criticize, analyze. Artists, please do not isolate, hide, retreat. Instead, speak through your work, however softly. Numbers add up to a voice, and voices add up to power.
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