While President Trump’s Muslim ban appears to have been scuttled by the courts (knock on wood), the damage has been done.
The film community has felt the weight of Trump’s ban. While this is certainly not comparable to the suffering of detained and separated families, there has been a big kerfuffle over whether Iranian filmmaker Asgar Farhadi, whose Salesman is up for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year, will be able to attend the awards ceremony. Banned from the U.S. by virtue of his nationality, and refusing any exceptions that would permit him to attend on principle, Farhadi isn’t coming (as of this writing, although maybe this will change with the courts blocking the ban).
Farhadi is certainly not the first filmmaker to fall afoul of the authorities, nor is he likely to be the last. With this in mind, let’s take a look at five excellent films and the banned filmmakers who directed them.
Title: The Naked City (1948)
Plot: When ex-model Jean Dexter is murdered in New York, aging cop Dan Muldoon and his rookie partner Jimmy Halloran (where would police movies be without rookies? And streetwise Irish cops, for that matter?) are assigned to the case. In a semi-documentary fashion inspired by Italian neorealism, Muldoon and Halloran wade through rivers of sleaze and depravity in their relentless pursuit of Dexter’s killers. The Naked City would prove to be an epoch-making entry in the burgeoning film noir style, of which its director was a skilled practitioner.
The banned filmmaker in question: American filmmaker Jules Dassin (whose name and subsequent French career have lead a number of people to assume he was French) barely had time to soak up the accolades won by The Naked City (in fact, he was able to direct just one more American film, 1950’s Night and the City) before finding himself blacklisted for his former ties to the Communist Party.
He did what a number of filmmakers in his situation did, and went off to Europe, where he pursued a fruitful career in France (Rififi, The Law) and Greece (Never on Sunday, Phaedra), collaborating extensively with Greek actress Melina Mercouri, whom he later married. With the passage of time, Dassin was able to renew his ties with American cinema, but the course of his career had been forever altered. He is not the last blacklisted filmmaker we’ll be seeing on this list.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon, Filmstruck.
Title: Night and Fog (1956)
Plot: In this disturbing short film, French filmmaker Alain Resnais conveys the horrors of the Holocaust through a mix of stock footage and contemporary shots of the sites of German death camps. While not the first documentary on the subject, Resnais’ film shocked (and still shocks) by its unflinching, horrific imagery, much of it not widely seen in the West before. Or since. We must warn readers: Night and Fog is the sort of thing one usually tries not to see.
The film’s original screenwriter, Jean Cayrol, became physically ill after too much exposure to the images, and was replaced midway through production by essay filmmaker Chris Marker. Having said all of this, it’s really the sort of film that one should see at least once, in order to be a morally responsible and informed adult. We should also bear in mind that there were people who tried to censor it.
Who would want to censor this? The French government, first off, which had two grievances: First, the film was too graphic, which, okay, one can understand that feeling, but one really shouldn’t try to sugarcoat the Holocaust. The second grievance was of a political nature: There is a single image in the film in which a guard at a French deportation camp can be seen wearing a kepi. A kepi is a kind of hat which, according to the French censor, is distinctly French. If the man in the picture is wearing a kepi, it conveys to the discerning viewer that he is a Frenchman.
Now, a number of French people were complicit in the Holocaust, but this wasn’t the sort of thing the French government felt comfortable admitting in 1956, when the focus of their WWII narratives was usually on the courageous actions of the French resistance. Resnais, convinced that this image was not at the heart of his story, consented to censor the kepi. The version of the film seen nowadays is typically uncensored. Also, when the film was shown at Cannes in 1956, the West German embassy briefly requested that it be withdrawn for making the Germans look bad, but this so incensed the French media that nothing came of it.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon, Filmstruck.
Title: La Truite (1982)
Plot: There comes a time when we all must leave the family trout farm. Or at least this is the thinking of Frédérique (Isabelle Huppert, winner of a Golden Globe this year, which augers well for her fortunes at the Oscars), who abandons the family fish farm to alternately use and be used by a series of dubious men, in an adventure that will take her from France to Japan and back to France again. Its meandering style and seeming grab-bag of genre tropes more than make up in weirdness whatever the film may lack in coherency, and they make it representative of its persecuted filmmaker, Joseph Losey.
The banned filmmaker in question: Joseph Losey could not have done more to get himself blacklisted had that been his primary goal. He traveled to the USSR, studied under Sergei Eistenstein, associated with communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, and finally joined the American Communist Party in 1946.
When called on to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, Losey fled the country for Europe, where he embarked upon one of the most wildly inconsistent careers in all of cinema. From idiosyncratic classics like Eve (1962) and The Go-Between (1971) to baffling fuck-ups like the Elizabeth Taylor-starring Boom! (1968) and the universally reviled The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), one can at least say of Losey that he rarely repeated himself and clearly wasn’t just in it for the money.
If La Truite wins you over, Filmstruck has a bunch of other Losey films up for a limited time (and having subscribed to Filmstruck for several months, I’m still not quite sure what that time limit is).
Where it’s streaming: Filmstruck.
Title: The Sacrifice (1986)
Plot: Swedish art critic Alexander (Erland Josephson) would seem to have it all: an adoring wife and son, glamorous friends, prestige, and a beautiful house on a desolately gorgeous island off the coast of Sweden. Imagine his horror when World War III breaks out and the island’s military base, which was built ostensibly to protect the islanders, all but guarantees the island will be a target for nuclear attack, dooming everyone. What would Alexander be willing to sacrifice to save his son, everybody else, and even civilization?
The banned filmmaker in question: Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky finally fell out with Soviet authorities after his 1978 film Stalker, and spent the few years left to him (he died of lung cancer shortly after completing The Sacrifice) seeking out suitable European locations to make movies. Tarkovsky was an admirer of the Swede Ingmar Bergman, and his penultimate film, Nostalghia, made use of Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist and leading man Erland Josephson.
For The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky intended to film on Fårö, the tiny island where Bergman lived and shot so many of his own films. However, governments were not quite done persecuting Tarkovsky, and the Swedish government objected to the Soviet exile spending so much time in close proximity to the island’s military base (which features prominently in the film’s plot) because, exile or not, he was still a Soviet citizen. So Tarkovsky relocated to nearby Gotland, which looks so cold and desolate that you’d never know it wasn’t Fårö.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: The Gardener (2012)
Plot: The Baha’i faith -- founded in Iran in the mid-19th century as an offshoot of Shia Islam and since evolved into its own thing -- has its headquarters in Haifa, Israel. Here you can find the Temple of the Bab, which has some of the loveliest gardens in the world, and it is here that exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his son (or the characters they play; this film, in typical Iranian fashion, so thoroughly blurs the line between documentary and fiction that it’s not clear which is which) have come to learn about the religion so reviled by the establishment in their native Iran. In gentle and poetic fashion, the Makhmalbafs meet Baha’is from around the world while negotiating their divergent views about religion and some of the difficulties in their own relationship.
The banned filmmaker in question: In 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won re-election in a contest many thought was rigged; the widespread protests that Iran witnessed thereafter were brutally quashed by the government, a crackdown in which a number of filmmakers were caught up.
Makhmalbaf, by this point residing in France, declared himself the overseas spokesman of Ahmadinejad’s rival Mir Hossein Mousavi, and has not been back to Iran since. So he didn’t have much to lose in making a film as surprisingly provocative as The Gardener. It is the first Iranian film to be made in Israel since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, in part because it is illegal in Iran for Iranians to travel to Israel. It is also frowned upon to speak as highly of the Baha’is as Makhmalbaf does here, as the Iranian establishment views them as heretics (and has since absurdly claimed that the Baha’is purchased a mansion for Makhmalbaf in France to pay him for “propagandizing” for them).
But it’s not just Iranian conservatives who were enraged by this film; Western liberals have also strenuously objected to Makhmalbaf’s having anything to do with Israel, believing as they do that he should “boycott, divest, and sanction” (BDS) Israel. Having offended everyone, Makhmalbad seems long past caring at this point.
Where it’s streaming: YouTube (legitimately; the producers of the film uploaded it themselves).