10 April 2015 – In New York on Wednesday night, the director and stars of Desert Dancer, a film about the life and experiences of Afshin Ghaffarian, joined United Nations representatives and the public for a special screening ahead of the film's opening today at the AMC Lowe's Lincoln Square theater and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York.
Unable to perform publicly as a dancer in his native country and concerned about the potential repercussions of his political allegiances, Mr. Ghaffarian sought asylum in France in 2009, and there began the process of his remarkable story now travelling to movie screens around the world.
The screening, which was organized by Event4Good and Sunshine Sachs PR, the production company's publicists, included a question and answer session after the closing credits rolled, and Leonardo Castilho, a UN Human Rights Officer specializing in economic, social and cultural rights, participated alongside director, Richard Raymond, and the film's two stars, Reece Ritchie and Freida Pinto.
“We normally say there are political, economic and social rights – we're talking about the right to education. We're talking about the right to participate in cultural life,” said Mr. Castilho during the discussion. “The movie and arts and culture in general – make a very important contribution through storytelling – through raising awareness.”
He stressed the importance of such productions, as outlets for creativity and for free speech.
“At the UN, we write a lot of reports, we have a lot of that kind of work, but some of these movies have so big an impact in the public in general in changing mindsets – and that's a very big challenge that we still have ahead of us,” Mr. Casthillo said.
Desert Dancer is the story of an artist struggling to express himself creatively but, rather than writers' block holding him back, he lives in an environment that is hostile to his passion.
The film, which is set in Iran, describes how Afshin, a self-taught dancer, finds himself compelled into rebellion against Government's laws, and inspiring a group of friends to risk imprisonment by attending a secret dance group where they learn, rehearse and prepare for an eventual performance, taking some extreme risks to fulfill their desire to pursue activities taken for granted elsewhere.
It also describes the toll that the denial of artistic freedom takes on the individuals involved and their friendships and even family ties, and it explores some of the knock-on effects in society as a whole.
At the screening, the UN News Centre sat down with the cast to get their views on the film and the issues it deals with.
“This guy risked his life to be a dancer,” said Reece Ritchie, the actor who portrays Afshin. “I'm playing a guy who grew up in a country where he couldn't just go and get dance lessons. You know, he learned from books and YouTube.”
Mr. Ritchie says Afshin's passion and commitment to his craft, despite the constraints and many risks, are what inspired him to devote to the role.
“He needed to move. It was almost innate in him actually,” he says referring to several hours of interviews with Afshin that he and director Richard Raymond conducted in Afshin's adopted home in Paris. “As a kid he would stand in line at morning prayers, and he told me he would just move his foot in the sand and he didn't know why he was doing it but he just had this innate urge to move. And he was doing turns and twists and he didn't realize what that was – this voice starting to build inside him that was actually pushing back against having to stand in a line.”
Mr. Ritchie was also struck by Afshin's personality, displaying traits typically associated with artists in freer societies. Preparing to take his group and an audience on a high-risk trip to the desert, Afshin said that despite extensive, secretive, careful planning, on the day of the performance, one vital ingredient was missing. There was no one to drive the bus into the desert.
“I said, 'Well, who drove the bus?' and Afshin said 'Ah, just some guy,'” Mr. Ritchie recalls. “He's an artist. He's prepared up until a point. He's got his little bit of chaos which I found really interesting.”
It is also through a mistake that Afshin and the group meet Elaheh, a talented dancer and tortured soul, who joins when she follows the group to their private rehearsal space after overhearing them talking in a café.
Elaheh is played by Freida Pinto, famous for roles in Slumdog Millionaire, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Miral, among others, and she says she found her character to be a compelling and dynamic one.
“It's been three years and I still think about her every day,” she says. “As you start prepping and playing a character, a part of them becomes you. You wake up thinking you're Elaheh. You go home thinking you're Elaheh. You brush your teeth how you think Elaheh brushes her teeth.”
Elaheh has immense dancing talent and ability, fostered by intensive training from her mother, who had been a dancer with the Iranian National Ballet until her life was turned upside down when the Ballet was disbanded. To fill the void, she trained Elaheh, her daughter, and turned to heroin.
Elaheh, who is tortured by her mother's death, is compelled to dance with the same passion shown by Afshin and her arrival in the group builds the impetus needed for the group to move forward with their training. Underneath, however, Elaheh tries to hide a secret. She has followed her mother's footsteps into drug addiction.
“At almost every big moment,” says Ms. Pinto, “The moment where Naser is stabbed – she can't deal with it so she turns away. The 'hand dance' – she turns away. Just before the desert dance – she turns away.”
At each of these significant moments, Ms. Pinto's character turns to heroin, the last and most significant of these moments coming after Afshin has invested time and huge energy in helping her quit cold turkey. Just before their desert dance, Afshin finds Elaheh hiding, taking the drug again.
“That happened,” says director, Richard Raymond about the film's depiction of Afshin discovering Elaheh getting high. “Moment for moment. Second for second. Beat for beat. Exactly like that. Just before the desert dance, Afshin found her taking heroin and they danced with him feeling so upset and betrayed.”
Raymond is keenly aware that his film deals with a human rights issue in one particular country, Iran, but he is very keen that his contribution to the debate on free expression in the country not be viewed as a political attack.
“The Iranian people have seen too many films attacking their country,” he says. “We were all so adamant throughout the script-writing, the filmmaking, and finally, through the edit, to make sure the focus of the film was a positive portrayal about the people of Iran and not to make it political film in any way.”
Far more important than the political angle to the film – for Mr. Raymond and for the film's two stars – were the personal stories and the dance element. Afshin's is a story of an artist's fight to express himself. His barrier is a Government law but Mr. Ritchie, Mr. Raymond and Ms. Pinto agree that all artists face constraints, some self-imposed, and a fight to fulfill their desires and potential as artists.
“If I had had to fight as hard as he did, I'd probably be shouting it from the rooftops and making myself out to be some kind of hero but he just saw it as a necessity. I really admired that,” says Mr. Ritchie, backed up by Ms. Pinto, who describes her family life growing up where she says she could “dream whatever dream I wanted to dream” and follow whatever path she wished to follow.
“Elaheh's oppression of expression is a lot more personal as well,” she says. “It comes from a very damaged mother-daughter relationship, so she's also in her own mental trap… her only escape – what she thinks is her only escape – is a drug.”
Despite her weakness, Ms. Pinto feels Elaheh is a strong person, something she says is of major importance to her when selecting the roles she wants to play.
“For me it's just about strong women characters. And strong women characters are usually inevitably taking on somebody who's really big…or taking on someone who's very powerful and it happens to be what I love doing.”
While she says she doesn't plan deliberately to pick such seemingly socially conscious roles, she acknowledges that many of her past roles, as well as this most recent one, include strong social conscience.
“I just realize that that is something that has been happening without me putting any extra effort into it,” she says. “So I guess somewhere, deep down, that's what I gravitate towards.”
Ms. Pinto's social conscience and the draw she feels towards compelling female characters has also led to previous work with the UN, issuing a call to action alongside the Secretary-General and the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim related to the 'Girl Rising' project, as well as providing a voice and working as a producer for a Hindi language version of the project's documentary about the powerfully positive effects of educating girls.
She stresses the importance of films like Desert Dancer and says she hopes it performs well enough to convince producers and independent studio heads that they should be backing and producing such films.
“We need to invest more in film projects like this,” she says, with Mr. Ritchie also chiming with his own hopes, which are that the film might coax viewers into thinking about their own talents.
“I hope it provokes people to question what their passions are,” he says. “And also what they're willing to do to pursue them.”