Asghar Farhadi, director of Iranian film "A Separation", poses with his award for Best Foreign Language film (Mike Blake/Reuters)

With news dominated by Iran’s nuclear program, sanctions and talk of war, it is rare for the world to get a peek into the lives of normal middle-class Iranians, but the success of “A Separation” offers a different picture.

Director Asghar Farhadi, who in January also won a Golden Globe for his fifth movie, underlined the tensions in Iranian society during his acceptance speech for winning the Oscar for best foreign film on Sunday.

“At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us, and I imagine them to be very happy,” said Farhadi. “At the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”

He added: “I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

His carefully chosen words even won him praise from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s film czar, Javad Shamaghdari, who on Saturday had compared the Oscars to an “unimportant film festival in some backwater town.” But on Monday, Shamaghdari lauded the Iranian Oscar win, saying that “American judgment bowed for Iranian culture,” the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported.

The government’s spin notwithstanding, the movie’s success has been embraced by the country’s vast but politically silenced middle class. For them, the Oscar victory represents a rare moment of optimism in a year of increasing tensions with the West, including tighter sanctions that have driven up prices and weakened the national currency.

Above all, they are happy for once not to be stereotyped as extremists by both Iranian state television and Western media.

“The very fact that the life of us Iranians is displayed to the world makes me happy,” said Mina Jourakhzadeh, 27, a teacher. “This movie might not change the minds of politicians, but least it can change the idea foreign people have about us.”

But some stressed that the movie also portrayed their desperation, a feeling of being boxed in by both Iran’s state ideology and Western pressure.

“Like the characters in the movie, I see no future,” said Leila Shariati, 33, a government employee. “Even if there is no war, we will still be in a difficult situation.”

“A Separation” centers around the unraveling marriage of Nader and Simin, a couple in their 40s. It highlights the daily accommodations that people need to make in Iran to cope with suffocating laws and traditions. Their story is told against the backdrop of a quickly changing society governed by Islamic clerics, but where emigration, depression and an uncertain future have created separate realities.

Former president Mohammad Khatami, who tried to reform Iran’s increasingly rigid political system during his tenure from1997 to 2005 , was the only high-level figure to publicly congratulate Farhadi for Iran’s first Oscar.

Khatami, who was elected twice with support from millions of women and youths, once promoted a “dialogue of civilisations” to start solving Iran’s problems with the West. But now he is marginalized, and some fear it is only a matter of time before he is placed under house arrest, like other politicians who promoted reforms.

“Cinema,” the ex-president wrote to Farhadi in a public letter, “helps humanity to overcome aggression [and to be] able to bring hearts closer to each other.”

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