the provincial Iranian foothills, an astronomy club sets up a portable
telescope outside a skeletal observatory, abandoned halfway through the
construction process. Meanwhile, it is full speed ahead for Iran’s nuclear
reactors. Such are the scientific
priorities in today’s Iran. For a
teenage girl harboring astronomical dreams, the cultural climate is even
trickier. Documentary filmmaker Berit
Madsen quietly observes her subject plugging away in Sepideh Reaching for the Stars (trailer here), which screens
during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
has profound personal significance for Sepideh Hooshyar. It is a form of
meditation and a way to commune with the spirit of her beloved late father. As an intelligent student blessed with an
independent streak, she has been tapped as a leader of her extracurricular
astronomy club. Naturally, her patriarchal deadbeat uncles do not think very
much of young women practicing astronomy. For reasons of greed and pettiness,
they have jeopardized the financial position of Hooshyar’s mother. Still, the young woman is not inclined to
kowtow to anybody.
Hooshyar never directly addresses any political or ideological controversies,
it would still be fair to describe her as a free-thinker. Throughout the film, she addresses her diary
entries to her muse, Albert Einstein, and takes inspiration from her idol,
Iranian American astronaut Anousheh Ansari (whom she erroneously considers the “first
woman in space”).
most viewers understand Iran is far from a progressive society, but there are
scenes of unabashed misogyny in Sepideh
that will drop their jaws and boil their blood. Clearly, young Hooshyar is nearly
always the smartest person in the room, but her government, society, and
extended family all seem determined to squander her talents.
her fly-on-the-wall style, Madsen’s never offers any commentary or context, but
it is transparently evident where these attitudes come from. The men and
assorted female authority figures are all swimming in Islamist rhetoric. Filmed in a rather flat, colorless HD, Sepideh is not particularly cinematic
looking, but there are real stakes to the drama that unfolds.
In many ways, Sepideh could be considered a fitting documentary companion to
Haifaa Al Monsour’s narrative feature, Wadjda. It is a timely film, but a deeply personal
story. Highly recommended, Sepideh Reaching for the Stars screens
again tomorrow (1/21), Thursday (1/23), and Friday (1/24) in Park City, as part
of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Labels: Documentary, Iran, Sundance '14