With Iran in the news, the timing of Desert Dancer couldn’t be better. The real-life story of a young man who started an underground dance troupe, despite dancing being forbidden in the Islamic republic, the film is also an extended look into how people live in Iran, and how they feel about it.
The human need for self-expression is at the heart of this film. What a strange thing, that as soon as you take away a people’s ability to express themselves, they suddenly have something to say. In the West, we can express ourselves all day long, but most of our art is trivial. But when people have to risk their lives to say something, all the force of their creativity lasers in on the essential.
Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie) starts life as a dance natural, like his mind and body are programmed for that destiny. As a child, he studies at an underground school, and when he goes to college in Tehran, he falls in with a group of like-minded students.
According to Desert Dancer, there’s a public Iran, with morality-enforcing thugs harassing people into conformity. And then there is the private Iran of drinking, dancing and secret nightclubs.
For a hedonist with no higher ambition, the ability to blow off steam in a private club would be enough. But Afshin is an artist and, even more difficult, an artist whose art can’t really exist without the sounding board of an audience.
He starts a clandestine dance company but very soon realizes that they will have nothing if they never get a chance to perform somewhere. On the other hand, if word gets out to the wrong people — and the wrong people are everywhere and have big ears — they could be imprisoned, tortured or killed.
In Desert Dancer, we see the impact of things we take for granted, as when Afshin gets hold of an unblocked Internet server and looks up dancers on YouTube. YouTube, in effect, becomes his choreographer. The preciousness of art, what that communication across time and space means in people’s lives, is something we never forget while watching Desert Dancer.
At one point, Afshin becomes rapt by the sight of black-and-white ballet footage of Rudolf Nureyev, and through Afshin, we experience the same fascination.
Freida Pinto co-stars as Elaheh, a gifted, troubled woman who joins Afshin’s company. Though the film is based on true events, one suspects that Elaheh is a creation of the screenplay. If so, screenwriter Jon Croker should be congratulated. Elaheh is the tortured soul of the country, the talented daughter of a ballerina whose career ended with the Islamic revolution. Pinto, whose roles have too often been antiseptic, is affecting as a woman whose passionate drive for life is matched by her impulse toward self-destruction.
Movies about people trying to start dance companies tend to be as formulaic as sports movies, but Desert Dancer escapes the usual drawbacks — corniness and bad dancing — by the urgency of the context. To watch it is to ask what you might do under similar circumstances. It’s to contemplate the tremendous fear at the core of government thugs everywhere, and it’s to wonder about Iran’s future.
In the end, it’s hard to know whether to see the Iran of Desert Dancer in optimistic or pessimistic terms. Young people, especially, want to be free, but the other side has all the power. Having YouTube on your side certainly helps, but an army and some tanks can come in handy, too.
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano
Director: Richard Raymond
Cast: Reece Ritchie, Freida Pinto
Rated: PG-13 (violence)
Running time: 98 min.