The Salesman at Trafalgar Square

The Oscars have come and passed, but the ceremony – required viewing, that thing everyone does each year because they have to do it – was more memorable this year than ever.

Moonlight, a feature film about a black gay man growing up in the US, won Best Picture after the presenters accidentally rewarded La La Land, a musical romance story between two (white) jazz musicians. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman won Best Foreign Film, but the director himself wasn’t at the ceremony to receive his award.

Prevented from attending the Oscars by Trump’s entry ban, Farhadi decided to boycott the awards show altogether in protest even after the ban was temporarily suspended.

The Academy Awards then reflected the cultural, political, and turbulent times we lived in, and possibly set the agenda for the rest of 2017, which is looking to be quite an exciting time.

If everything is overwhelming and difficult to deal with, maybe some good art can come out of it.

The woman taking a picture at Trafalgar Square
A woman takes a picture at Trafalgar Square as Londoners congregate to watch a free public screening of The Salesman.

After all, for a film like Moonlight to win at all, or for two black actors to be awarded simultaneously at the Oscars, or for racism in Hollywood to be openly acknowledged after #OscarsSoWhite (social media does win, after all), there’s a feeling none of this would have been possible if there wasn’t something at stake here.

Mike Leigh and the crowd at Trafalgar Square
The film screening was preceded by comments about the event and the importance of protesting hate and discrimination. Presenters included filmmaker Mike Leigh, model Lily Cole, and Mayor Sadiq Khan.

And film art is more than just cursory navel-gazing, or a ceremony one goes through each year, but a representation and transformation of the society we live in.

The line at Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square teemed with hundreds of Londoners, who gathered to watch The Salesman.

London, no philistine city when it comes to cinema, and cinephilia, for that matter, hosted a free film screening of Farhadi’s film, The Salesman, in Trafalgar Square. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, spoke at the screening, and rallied against Trump’s racism, saying “Trump can’t ban me!”

Sadiq Khan at Trafalgar Square
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London and Muslim son of an immigrant bus driver, declared, “Trump can’t ban me!”

But most importantly, Khan insisted, “London is open.”

A city of migrants and refugees, London teems with diversity, which is more characteristic of it now today than the Queen’s palace or afternoon tea. The fact its mayor is a British-Pakistani son of a bus driver is not incidental, but a sharp and accurate representation of the city. (Khan won by a landslide too.)

The crowd at Trafalgar Square
Mayor Sadiq Khan said the film screening was part of the city’s effort to show London was open, and said there wasn’t a better place to hold the screening than “the historic Trafalgar Square.”

Other noted speakers and organizers of the event included Lily Cole, the former face of Maybelline, who spoke of how one of her best friends growing up was Muslim, and Mike Leigh, the seasoned London-based filmmaker, who spoke of the humanity, struggle, and empathy exhibited in Farhadi’s films.

Mike Leigh and the presenters at Trafalgar Square
Mike Leigh called Farhadi “one of the greatest filmmakers” in the tradition of Iranian cinema, citing Farhadi’s previous Oscar-winning film, A Separation. He added the travel ban was unjust and Farhadi’s strength lay in incurring empathy with the human experience – the very purpose of film itself.

But what impressed me the most was the energy of the audience, which included British-Iranians, proud of their country and the filmmaker putting it on the big screen, and people from all backgrounds and nationalities, gathering to enjoy a good film and free event. It is the meaning of cinema put into practice – seeing and experiencing the stories of people, who are different from you, but with whom you can connect and empathize through a shared sense of humanity.

Narges Assadi at Trafalgar Square
Narges Assadi, a British-Iranian, clapped and chanted “Iran, Iran” at the film screening.

Believing it was just another film screening, and excited because it was free, I had no idea I was going to a protest premiere. But the journalist and photographer in me jumped at the chance to film and photograph the event.

I hope you enjoy the selected photo and video, and experience for yourself a real-life protest premiere in a city that loves its immigrants, and loves its film.

Taraneh Alidoosti onscreen at Trafalgar Square