you’re an artist, we’ll beat you artistically.” Yes, this is what passes for
wit with the Basij, Iranian’s Islamist civilian paramilitary militia.
Ironically, Afshin Ghaffarian got off relatively easily when a Basij chief
spoke those words to him. Had he known Ghaffarian was actually a dancer, he
most likely would have beaten him to death (quick, let’s make a nuclear deal with
them). Ghaffarian and his friends were among the thousands brutalized by the
Basij during the 2009 election protests, but they simply wanted to put on a
public performance. Their brief moments of freedom are stirringly depicted in
Richard Raymond’s based-on-fact bio-picture, Desert Dancer (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
all odds, Ghaffarian received clandestine arts education during his elementary
years from a courageous teacher. He was a relatively experienced actor by the
time he reached college, but his was always fascinated by the strictly
forbidden discipline of dance. Of course, youtube is duly blocked in Iran, but
when he went online through a friend’s work-around access, he discovered a
wealth of performances from the likes of Nureyev and Gene Kelly. Soon he convinces
a handful of friends to join his proposed underground dance troupe. Everyone is
understandable uneasy when the mysterious Elaheh invites herself into the
group, but she turns out to be okay. She also has real technique, having been
secretly trained by her former ballerina mother.
to perform in front of a live audience, Ghaffarian and Elaheh will stage an
intimate recital for a handful of carefully invited friends in a secluded desert
location. Unfortunately, their friend Mehran’s older brother is a junior Basij
commander, who is determined to ferret out Ghaffarian’s small ensemble. When
another member is severely beaten by the Basij for his reformist allegiances,
it puts further stress on the group. Soon Ghaffarian also finds himself be ruthlessly
worked over in an unmarked Basij van. However, his fate will take a dramatic
turn on the third act.
the real life Ghaffarian has stressed the film’s thin layer of
fictionalization, Raymond and screenwriter Jon Croker are scrupulously faithful
to the tenor and circumstances surrounding the ill-fated 2009 Green Movement,
as well as the general difficulties of being artistically inclined while living
under a repressive regime. Desert is
also closely akin to Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer (which won the Astaire Award for best film choreography) for
the manner in which it portrays the powerful expressiveness of dance, while
also using it as a symbol for freedom. In fact, Akram Khan’s choreography is
unusually distinctive and Astaire Award-worthy, incorporating elements of
ballet and modern interpretive dance.
their estimable credit, co-leads Reece Ritchie and Freida Pinto clearly trained
hard for their roles, because they do Khan’s steps justice. Frankly, when they
are standing still, their romantic chemistry is just so-so, but when they move
together, they heat up the screen. There are ably supported by a fine ensemble,
particularly including the deeply humanistic performances of Makram Khoury, as
Ghaffarian’s old teacher Mehdi, and Bamshad Abedi-Amin as the quietly courageous
Mehran. It is also nice to see Nazanin Boniadi, albeit ever so briefly, in a
near cameo as Ghaffarian’s progressive mother, Parisa.
vividly captures the ominous atmosphere of the
2009 crackdown, as well as the liberating power of dance. In his feature
directorial debut, Raymond maintains a tense, paranoid vibe, but also exhibits
an intuitive sense for when to go for the emotional jugular. It is an inspiring
story that is undiminished by the real life Ghaffarian’s recently more
circumspect rhetoric. Enthusiastically recommended, Desert Dancer opens this Friday (4/10) in New York, at the Landmark
Sunshine and the Loews Lincoln Square.
Labels: Afshin Ghaffarian, Dance on film, Iran, Nazanin Boniadi