In an historic visit to one of America’s most entrenched adversaries, a delegation of Hollywood dignitaries led by the president of the motion picture academy Sid Ganis is in Tehran on Saturday and Sunday for a cultural exchange.
The delegation was led by Ganis and included actors Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard, Frank Pierson, the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and producers William Horberg and Tom Pollock.
The delegation received approval from the State Department for the cultural exchange, which came barely a month after President Obama – who promised to reach out to U.S. enemies like Iran — took office.
Bening and Woodard donned the Islamic headscarf to tour the city, and Bening expressed hope that the visit would be the start of a new dialogue between Washington and Tehran.
"I hope that we can be a bridge to open a dialogue," she said, which was clearly the aim of the visit. The origin of the trip remained obscure, but a White House spokesman denied any direct connection to the administration.
But the trip took a tense turn when the Iranian News Agency reported that the art adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedenejad said that Hollywood must apologize for "insults and slanders" about Iranians in films.
"(Iranian) cinema officials will only have the right to have official sessions with… Hollywood movie makers when they apologize to the Iranians for their 30 years of insults and slanders," Javad Shamaghdari said.
He added: "The Iranian people and our revolution has been repeatedly unjustly attacked by Hollywood," he said, citing ‘300’ and recent Oscar nominated movie ‘The Wrestler’ as among offending films.
The Hollywood blockbuster hit ‘300’, about the Greek and Persian wars, angered Iranians in 2007 for its portrayal of their historic ancestors as bloodthirsty.
Similarly ‘The Wrestler’ was heavily criticised for a scene of breaking and tearing of the Iranian flag by the picture’s star, Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke, the news agency reported.
"We will believe (US President Barack) Obama’s policy of change when we see change in Hollywood too, and if Hollywood wants to correct its behaviour towards Iranian people and Islamic culture then they have to officially apologize," Shamaghdari added.
Another indication of how difficult cultural exchange can be came with the not-unusual news reported on Sunday that Iran was charging "29 Zionist officials" — Israeli elected officials — with war crimes for their actions in the Gaza Strip.
Regardless, the delegation is an unusual cultural opening toward Iran, and comes in the context of Obama’s promises during the campaign to start a dialogue with the country which has been a traditional enemy of the United States and its allies.
Ganis’s wife, Nancy Hult Ganis, said in an email that the State Department had approved a small delegation from Hollywood “for cultural purposes only.”
But AMPAS spokeswoman Leslie Unger told the AFP that the visit was a "completely private initiative for educational and creative exchange and with no political agenda."
Any visit to Iran would need approval from the State Department because the United States has no diplomatic relations with that country, and maintains sanctions against it.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in an email that the report that the group was sent by the administration was “not true.”
Hult Ganis said that her husband and other Hollywood figures had been greeted warmly, and showed their films ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ and also ‘Cool Hand Luke.’
The Tehran Times reported that other bold-faced Hollywood names were there for a seminar, writing on Saturday:
"Actress Alfre Woodard “Follow Me Home” (1996), Special Events Programmer and Exhibitions Curator Ellen Harrington, as well as Tom Pollock, the former Universal Pictures chairman, will also be attending the seminars" at a cinema studies house in the capital.
The group also will visit the Film Museum of Iran, a college of cinema, and several cinematic locations, the paper said.
Iran specialist Reza Aslan, who advised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Iran during her presidential bid, said the initiative seemed odd, and could "backfire — maybe not backfire, but could fail to have a real positive impact."
Aslan, author of the upcoming "How to Win a Cosmic War," said the move could unintentionally prop up Ahmadenijad, who faces elections in June.
Though Iranians do watch Hollywood movies, "they don’t see Hollywood celebrities as actual, real people," he said. "What’s the interaction with Annette Bening, unless she’s there to perform a play? They’re just walking around in a bubble for however long they’re there. I can’t imagine how this could have meaningful impact."
Aslan said sending a badminton team would probably be more useful.
"I suppose any kind of interaction in and of itself could be good thing," he said. "But there are certainly more impactful ways of going about it."