By HANNAH BROWN
Cyrus Nowrasteh is soft-spoken and polite, not the qualities you would expect from a man who has directed The Stoning of Soraya M., one of the most disturbing and controversial movies you will ever see.
In the country recently to promote his film, which just opened here, he spoke to reporters after a screening. Even though he had just arrived that day from Los Angeles, he was filled with energy and eager to talk. But he wasn't surprised when a reporter asked for a brief break to recover before starting the interview.
The film, based on a book by Iranian-French journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, tells the true story of the stoning death of a woman in a rural area of Iran in the mid-1980s.
"I was profoundly moved by it on a dramatic level and on an emotional level," said Nowrasteh, who was born in Colorado to Iranian parents and lived in Iran for several years as a child. "I showed it to my wife [Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh], and she responded just as strongly."
The two then collaborated on a screenplay that took several years to get off the ground. It wasn't an easy sell, even for an experienced screenwriter and director such as Nowrasteh (his screenwriting credits include The Path to 9/11 and The Day Reagan Was Shot), both because of the violent subject matter, the non-Hollywood setting, the fact that Nowrasteh insisted that film be made in Farsi and could be seen by some as anti-Iranian or anti-Muslim bias. But eventually the financing fell into place.
The film opens when an Iranian reporter (Jim Caviezel) based in France has car trouble as he passes through a quiet Iranian village. Sure, the mechanic can fix his car, but it will take a couple of hours. As he waits, he is approached by a haunted-looking woman, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The House of Sand and Fog), who tells him she has a story she must tell him urgently. The men in the village order her to stay away from him, but she manages to meet with him and the story she tells is both horrifying and shocking.
Her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marno), was murdered the day before by the men in her village. In their justice system, she was found guilty of adultery and was given the punishment: death by stoning. This would be awful enough, if it were true. But Zahra tells a far more complicated story. Soraya's husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), wanted to divorce her and marry a 14-year-old girl (he gets the girl's parents' permission for the match because her father has been accused of a crime and Ali promises to get him out of jail). But Soraya must agree to a not-very-generous offer of support for her and her four children that Ali proposes and she refuses. The mullah (Ali Pourtash) comes to her, trying to bully her into taking it, and offers another incentive - she can become his mistress by a loophole called temporary marriage and he will help support her.
She is disgusted by this and tells off the cleric. Her enraged husband now has the support of the local religious authority, and they persuade the mayor that she must be found guilty of a crime. Since she is helping out the recently widowed local mechanic, the father of a disabled boy, they press the mechanic into confessing to an affair with her. He knows it is wrong - but they threaten to take away his son and place him in a poorly run state mental hospital.
Now the die is cast. No appeal is possible, and no one listens to her. The last third of the film is an excruciating account of the stoning. She is buried up to the waist, and all the village boys are enlisted to find stones that are big enough to hurt her but not so big that they will kill her quickly. Soraya's father and her sons are encouraged, virtually ordered, to hurl some of the first stones. Of course, her husband is the most eager participant. The sequence takes about 20 minutes but it feels like hours, or days. Nowrasteh does not spare us an instant of Soraya's agony.
"I wanted people to respond to it as powerful drama," he said. "I wanted audiences to become aware of what stoning is. I don't elongate the experience. Everything you see, including the circus troupe coming along during the stoning and then playing music as it goes on, is from the account in the book. All the men in the village really were cheering as they stoned her. My responsibility is to tell this story as honestly and truthfully as I can."
What is most fascinating in the film are the details of how ordinary men become complicit in the ghastly murder of a blameless woman whom they have known their entire lives. "It's very much about mob rule. The husband is ruthless, but the mayor is conflicted... There is plenty of questioning going on, but there's no moment when someone steps up and says, 'We're not going to do this.'"
But he emphasized that in the film, Zahra, the victim's aunt, fights for her niece. "She's passionate about seeking justice, but she doesn't have power," said the director. At one point, as the men in the village try to stop the journalist from leaving with a tape of his interview with Zahra about the killing, she taunts them, saying, "If everything was according to Islam, why are you worried that word will get out?"
ANOTHER INTERESTING point about the film is that it took a filmmaker living outside of Iran to make a movie about one of that country's worst problems, although Iran has a healthy filmmaking industry. Iranian films, such as those of Abbass Kiarostami, who won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Taste of Cherry, tend to fall into the art film category. This 1997 film, for example, tells the story of a lonely man who decides to commit suicide and tries to find someone who will agree to bury him afterward. While on some level the film may be seen as a veiled critique of Iranian society, the veil is rather thick.
Other Iranian films have been art-house hits all over the world, but they keep their focus narrow, looking at the fate of poverty-stricken families and often featuring adorable children, such as Children of Heaven (1997) a well-made, critically acclaimed film about a girl who loses her shoes and whose family can't afford another pair.
These films could have been made anywhere in the world, however, which is true for the vast majority of Iranian films that are shown abroad. The 2002 film I Am Taraneh, I Am Fifteen Years Old, does criticize some of the narrow options for women. But the issue of the grotesque human-rights abuses against women (and, often, against men accused of homosexuality), including and especially stoning, which, until 2002, was sanctioned by the country's legal code and continues to this day according to many reports, has been conspicuously absent on screen.
"That's the elephant in the room," said Nowrasteh, and noted that cast members got messages from family and friends in Iran about stonings that had taken place during filming. "Until you address that, you're not addressing what's really going on in that country."
He acknowledged that there have been "very good films made in Iran. I support the filmmakers, they're doing good work. But I think some self-criticism of a society is a healthy thing."
He acknowledges, however, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a film like Soraya M. to be made in Iran. At the same time, he is very much aware of an international double standard: Calls are made to boycott Israeli films although human-rights issues are front and center in much of Israeli cinema, but Iranian films are "lauded and genuflected over" although they almost never allude to human-rights abuses.
"Filmmakers and film festivals bend over backward to show how open they are to the Muslim experience," said Nowrasteh. He has found a disturbing lack of willingness to address Iranian human-rights abuses in the filmmaking community because of "fears that it will feed into a negative stereotype of Muslims." But many Iranian-born Muslims living outside the country have seen the film in the US, Canada and Europe and "their reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Many people said to me, 'That's why I left.'"
Certainly, he had no trouble casting the movie with Iranian actors (who by and large no longer work in Iran), except for Mozhan Marno, who was born in the US to Iranian parents. It wasn't easy finding an actress with the right mixture of strength and vulnerability to play Soraya, who would also be believable as an uneducated village woman. "But when I saw her, I knew," he said.
Shohreh Aghdashloo was eager to play the role of the aunt, and both actresses have been rewarded with Satellite Award nominations (these awards are similar to the Golden Globes). The Stoning of Soraya M. also got a Satellite Award nomination for Best Picture and it was included as one of the year's 10 best films. The film also won the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Nowrasteh hopes that "people will become activated as a result of seeing this film." Speaking about the protests following the disputed Iranian elections earlier this year, Nowrasteh said he was impressed by "the numbers of women marching. Older women, younger women, they were all out there. And they're out there because of what's going on in this story. They're going out there to march for change."
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