An Education

A Separation” is a cinematic masterpiece that captures the difficulty of living a simple in the modern world. Everybody acts on good faith and reasons yet cannot stop causing troubles to each other along the way. We as the audience feel as if we are in the same house with the protagonists, observing their shout match in real time as they descend into bottomless spirals. By giving an ambiguous ending, the movie even makes us think hard and long after we left the theater (or laptop).

It is also a movie that teaches us about the contemporary life in Iran, especially the difficulty of balancing religious affairs and modern habits. Adhering to the “rules” or not form the central plot and twists, thus satisfying our snobbish (and shallow) desire to understand what life is like in Iran—in two hours.

The first set of reasons are why we think A Separation is a great film. The second set of reasons are why it earned numerous awards, including an Oscar, and thus why we, the foreigners, have the chance to see the movie. The success of A Separation is not a coincidence or pure luck. Being an “educational” film seems to be essential if a non-Hollywood film wants to gain a large number of audience outside its home territory.

Behind A Separation, hundreds and thousands of Iranian films, some of them no doubt masterpieces, are left unattended by foreign viewers. They might be great romantic/adventure/family films, but they may not teach foreign audiences how the “system” works in Iran, because who needs to be “educated” anyhow if you are an Iranian? I got to admit that I am not interested in seeing them either. I still need a “reason” to watch world films. Behind my pretentious mask of a fan of independent films, I still watch Transformers 3. In a theater. In 3D. With coke and popcorn and hotdog.

I was talking with a Spanish movie director friend of mine, who is living and filming in Taipei. He wanted to take his films to the next step: critically and commercially viable. I thought of his past films. They are laced with good humors and paced with care, and even encompass philosophical issues. They clearly outclass other films in the same budget range, and I too believe he is ready to jump to the limelight of a bigger stage. But there is one catch. Despite having a Spanish director and writer, his films are Taiwanese: spoken in Mandarin with Taiwanese actors in Taiwanese landscape. There are no “foreign” elements except maybe for some quirky elements only the Taiwanese audience might find out from the director’s non-Taiwanese thinking and worldview.

In other words, the chances of his films getting international recognition aren’t great. But he also has a golden opportunity in his hands if he decides to dig into the “foreigner meets Taiwanese” genre, which few films have stepped in, due to the expected backlash (foreign men with Taiwanese wives/girlfriends is still a touchy subject). Being a foreigner, he can (1) use his own experience (2) be relatively free from unspoken “censorship” due to his foreign and independent status and (3) gain much greater chance of exposure in and out of Taiwan.

The catch, again, is that he is not into shooting Foreign-boy/girl-meets-Taiwanese-girl/boy story. If he decides to do it, he needs to learn how to make a film partially separate from his real passion, or at least learn how to create a genuine passion out of a given material. He is not alone: Millions of non-mainstream artists over the world might be struggling with this issue. In order to gain international recognition, it looks easier to use their own ethnicity as a first step, hoping they can get back to their real passion after the money/praise/celebrity status arrives.

I cannot address this issue with a straight face as an audience either. I would probably pay more attention to Taiwanese-aboriginal paintings from an aspiring Taiwanese painter than, say, his futuristic works. What might the answer be?