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White Helmets film and Iran's 'The Salesman' win Oscars

White Helmet members are blocked from Oscars by Trump's travel ban, while 'The Salesman' director Farhadi chooses to boycott
'The White Helmets' producer Joanna Natasegara and director Orlando von Einsiedel accept Oscars for Best Documentary Short Subject (AFP)

A film about Syria's White Helmets - rescuers who risk their lives to help save civilians caught in the country's devastating war - took home the Oscar for best documentary short on Sunday. 

The Netflix-produced documentary, called simply The White Helmets, was directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, and bested another short about the Syrian conflict, Watani: My Homeland.

But members of the group including the cinematographer who shot much of the footage, Khaled Khatib, were not allowed to enter the US for the Oscars. 

Group members said on Twitter that they had waited for three days at the airport but were not permitted to board a flight.

The US Customs and Border Protection service said only that they did not have valid documents. 

The ordeal comes as US President Donald Trump sharply curtails visas for Syrians as well as citizens of six other Muslim-majority countries.

Raed Saleh, leader of the rescue group, also was not able to attend but said in a statement that the White Helmets had saved the lives of more than 82,000 civilians.

"I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life, to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world," he said in a statement read by the director.

"It's very easy for these guys to feel forgotten. This war has been going on for six years. If everyone could just stand up and remind them that we all care, [then] this war ends as quickly as possible."

Khatib tweeted: "While we follow the Oscars, the Syrian regime has launched chlorine gas attacks in Harasta, injuring civilians."

The White Helmets emerged in 2013, working to rescue civilians in rebel-held areas during the nearly six-year war. 

Before fighting broke out, the volunteers had everyday jobs - bakers, painters and even students. Since 2013, the group says it has attracted more than 3,000 volunteers.

It is named for the distinctive white hard hats worn by its volunteers and has gained international renown for its daring rescues, often filmed and circulated on social media.

The group's motto, "To save one life is to save all of humanity," is drawn from a verse of the Quran, although the rescuers insist they treat all victims, regardless of religion.

Iran's 'The Salesman' wins; Farhadi boycotts

Iranian film The Salesman won the Oscar for best foreign language film, but director Asghar Farhadi skipped the Hollywood gala in protest of Trump’s travel ban.

Farhadi initially said he would head to Hollywood for Oscars night, where his film - the story of two actors whose relationship turns sour during a performance of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman - earned a statuette.

But after citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries were denied entry last month to the United States, he decided there were too many "ifs and buts" about whether he would be allowed to enter the country.

Instead, thousands of people watched The Salesman for free in London's Trafalgar Square.

In a statement read at the Oscars in his name, Farhadi said he was staying away in solidarity as people had been "disrespected" by Trump's policy, which is currently on hold after a decision by a federal appeals court.

"Dividing the world into the US and 'our enemies' categories creates fear - a deceitful justification for aggression and war," he said in the statement read at the Hollywood gala by the Iranian-born US engineer and astronaut Anousheh Ansari.

"These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression.

"Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others - an empathy which we need today more than ever."

At the age of just 44, Farhadi has established himself as Iran's most acclaimed director, touching people around the globe with stories that resonate beyond borders.

This was his second film to win an Oscar in the foreign language film category, following the 2012 victory for A Separation - a stark, powerful family drama about Iran's fractured social classes, which also picked up a Golden Globe.

Coming at another dark time in relations between the United States and Iran, when international sanctions were at their peak, Farhadi's 2012 speech was lauded back home for putting Iranian art, culture and history above politics.

But this time, politics trumped art. 

His statement in January blasted the rising mood of "fanaticism and extremism" and compared Trump to hardliners in his own country. 

"Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behaviour by narrow-minded individuals," he wrote.

His lead actress, Taraneh Alidoosti, also boycotted the event, calling Trump's visa ban "racist".

The Salesman also found success at last year's Cannes film festival, with Farhadi winning best screenplay and his star Shahab Hosseini named best actor.

It was his second official festival selection after his French-language film The Past in 2013, which won the ecumenical jury prize.

The structure of Farhadi's scripts "is always complex but fluid," cinema writer Beatrice de Mondenard said at the time.

"He seeks to show the difficulties inherent in relationships between people, the choices faced by everyone, choices which make us question our values and our convictions." 

The US State Department on Monday issued and then deleted a congratulatory message to Farhadi.

According to screenshots, the State Department's Persian language Twitter account, @USAdarFarsi, posted the message around 1 am EST. The tweet was then deleted, although it is unclear exactly when.

"A congratulatory tweet was posted," a State Department spokeswoman said. "We later removed the post to avoid any misperception that the USG (US government) endorsed the comments made in (Farhadi's) acceptance speech."

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