“I didn’t know the power of dance,” said director Richard Raymond, whose film Desert Dancer opens the 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival this Tuesday, January 27. “I discovered this story and connected to it very strongly and felt that it should be told.”
The film is centered on Afshin Ghaffarian, an Iranian university student who forms a dance troupe despite the fact that public dancing is prohibited in his country. Actually, many forms of artistic expression are considered criminal in Iran, but that doesn’t prevent a flourishing underground scene where young folks buck the stringent rules imposed by the government. “Iran is extremely modernized, Tehran especially,” said Raymond. “It’s not like northern Afghanistan or Iraq. If you were just transported there, you would think you were anywhere in Europe or America; everyone is extremely educated, everyone is extremely modern. Seventy percent of the country is under the age of 35, but they’ve grown up in a country where there are two worlds — the one behind closed doors and the world outside.”
Raymond read about Ghaffarian, who now resides in Paris, in a 2010 Sunday Times article and contacted him. The deeper the director delved, the keener he was to bring the tale to the screen. “We spent about six months where we talked and just got to know one another,” recalled Raymond. “It’s very well publicized, the struggles of the Iranian youth, but in particular dance. There’s no word for dance in Iran. I was particularly moved by Afshin’s story, but my first reaction was, well, Footloose in Iran?”
Desert Dancer is nothing akin to Footloose, however. In the fictional American film, the characters square off against a town preacher. The real-life people depicted in Dancer risk beatings, imprisonment, and even death if they’re discovered. Dancer also uses choreography to tell the story. If there were no sound and all the audience saw were the dances, the message, politics, and the emotions would still be resoundingly clear. “The language of the film is dance,” said Raymond. “The whole story — and all the characters’ stories — are all quite clearly put out there within the dance.”
For the cast, Raymond enlisted actors with no dance backgrounds, including Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto and British actors Reece Richie and Tom Cullen. “What makes the audience connect to the film is that [the stars] are not dancers. If they were brilliant, if their moves were flawless, it would be something totally different. That none of actors had danced a day in their lives was a good representation of the truth of what the characters in Iran were going through. These are characters who learn to dance on YouTube.”
The film’s choreography is phenomenal in its ability to illicit poignant responses, thanks in large part to the work of choreographer Akram Khan. “I was very inspired by the fact that [Afshin] could take dance and use it as a storytelling narrative,” said Raymond. “I wanted to bring Akram Khan and Afshin’s work together and create something that had never been seen before.”
Desert Dancer allows a fascinating peek into a culture that most Westerners believe is worlds apart from their own. In doing so, it reveals the differences but also the similarities — especially when it comes to the human desire for artistic expression. “There’s love and happiness all over the world,” said Raymond. “The way we look at Iran isn’t as simple as, ‘Oh, they live in such a barbaric society.’ They don’t. But they are oppressed. What’s heroic about the youth of Iran is they’re positive people, and they have found a wonderful way to get around this oppression. Ghaffarian’s story is just one of many of how they exist and express themselves regardless of the repercussions if they were discovered.”
Desert Dancer makes its U.S. premiere at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.) on Tuesday, January 27, at 8 p.m. as part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Opening Night. For tickets and info, visit sbiff.org.