Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi twice walked off with an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category this decade, first in 2012 and again in 2016.
Now the country is hoping for similar success from Narges Abyar, whose “Nafas” (Breath) is in the running.
Abyar is primarily a writer, but the 2004 film “Turtles Can Fly” directed by compatriot Bahman Ghobadi inspired her to film her own books.
“At the beginning I did everything purely instinctively, because I did not have any academic film training,” the 46-year-old says, expressing surprise at the success her films have enjoyed.
“Nafas” is now proving that she has evolved as a director.
The film tells the story of the girl Bahar, her asthmatic father who is bringing her up on his own, her deeply religious grandmother and her three brothers and sisters. The family is dirt poor, their lives overshadowed by the country’s politics around 1980. They live through the changes following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the beginning of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
“Bahar tries to deal with all of this in her own fantasy world,” Abyar says. Her greatest fear is that, having already lost her mother, she could also lose her sick father and she spends her time making sure that he is still breathing.
“This is what gives the film its title of ‘Breath’ which represents life, fear and hope,” Abyar says.
As the film ends, Bahar’s father is still alive, but she herself is killed in a bombardment by the Iraqi army.
Iranian hardliners, for whom the war is known as the “Holy Defence”, took a dim view of the decision by the state-run Farabi Cinema Foundation to nominate this anti-war film for the Oscars. There was also opposition to aspects of the film that are perceived as critical of Islam.
Bahar hates going to Koran school and skips her religious classes. And although her grandmother punishes her for this, even beating her, she refuses to return to the Koran school.
“The film shows precisely what our enemies in the West want to see,” the ultraconservative cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda said.
Mohammed Reza Naghdi, cultural commissioner for the Revolutionary Guard, takes a similar view.
“The West is already disseminating enough negative propaganda against us, so we shouldn’t be spending our taxes on films of this kind,” he said.
As a woman in the Iranian film industry, Abyar is well used to pressure and criticism of her viewpoints is not new to her.
While defending the country is legitimate, “war always brings destruction in its wake,” she believes.
The solution and the message should always be peace. She is also against people being forced to practise their religion and in particular she is against the politicisation of Islam.
“I am myself a practising Muslim and stand by my beliefs, but that is something that should be entirely personal for everyone,” she says.
She first heard of her nomination by phone from Mohammad Hossein Ghasemi, her husband and her producer, dancing around at home rejoicing “like a child” at the news.
A friend used her mobile phone to record her reaction, “I had to ask her to delete the video, because I looked so silly,” Abyar says.
Her hopes are for “Nafas” to make it into the top five, although she realises this will be difficult, given the other outstanding films this year.
Should she get into the top group, Abyar will travel to Los Angeles with her husband, wearing her accustomed headscarf and traditional dress to the Oscars.
“That’s part of me and my culture. I’m not going to change for the Oscars,” she says.