Desert Dancer is a mesmerizing journey to a forbidden culture

Photo Credit: Relativity Media

Photo Credit: Relativity Media

I was pleasantly reminded of the beauty of the Iranian landscape and language as I watched the beginning scene of Desert Dancer. Peppered with hard to read subtitles, the Persian language was music to my ears. I had to lean forward and pay closer attention so I wouldn’t miss any of its subtle nuances. I hate it when I go to movies with subtitles because you always miss something, either part of the conversation or part of the action or sometimes a little of both as your eyes speed back and forth trying to catch everything. The theater was so quiet you could hear a pin drop!

This movie reminded me of Rosewater. Both true stories took place during the harsh reign of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his 2009 reelection campaign against Green Party hopeful Mir-Hossein Moussavi.

The pleasantries of the past were starkly contrasted against the harsh, brutal realities of the day. The young Afshin Ghaffarian (Gabriel Senior) loved to dance. He scored some black market tapes and watched Dirty Dancing. He dances for his class in wild abandon until his teacher walks in. He is beaten for his unlawfulness and shamed. As he walks home his mother comforts him and whispers in his ear, not to stifle him but to caution him to dance where it’s safe.

I drink in the beauty of Saba School of the Arts where Afshin can be safe. The doors closed, the students and their teacher light up as if the shutting of the doors gave them life-giving breath. They are free to learn and to dance and to sing in the darkness.

Director Richard Raymond reels you in with poignant scenes. tweet

Fast forward to 2009, there is tension, you can feel it. How can it be wrong to sing and dance?  The Basij (the morality police) are everywhere. They terrorize Afshin (Reece Ritchie) and his misfit crew. I like that Reese is brave enough to start his own dance company. They must practice in secrecy, but they are careless. Will they get caught?

I love Elaheh played by Frieda Pinto! She’s enticingly beautiful with her long dark hair and seductive eyes! She overhears the group of friends talking of the dance group and burst in on their not-so-secret place. She asks if she can audition for the group then she proceeds to mesmerize as she sensually moves across the floor. She is poetry in motion, like a butterfly she moves effortlessly across the floor, her clothes billowing as if she is truly flying.

Afshin grows up and plays a very strong, yet naïve man. He supports Elaheh as she tries to kick her heroin habit. He drinks of her forbidden fruits as he shares her bed. He stands up for his friends Mona and Nasir as they are harassed by the Basij, and he is beaten for his loyalty. He plans and executes the most dangerous move … having a live performance in the desert. Oh my goodness, the most beautiful part of this movie is the live performance I call it the Hand Dance. Afshin and Elaheh shadow each other’s moves back and forth; they dance across the desert so close, yet not touching. They are one, lost in the moment ‘til they are spent. Will they be caught by the police and tortured?

The election comes and goes. The young people mostly college students have large rallies all over Iran protesting for their rights and the stolen victory. They are surrounded by the police and Afshin is kidnapped. The police are brutal. They openly beat men and women as they are running away. Afshin is captured and he is thrown into the back of a truck and driven away. They take everyone’s wallets. He is beaten mercilessly then a gun placed to his head. What will be his fate?

This true story is mesmerizing. Director Richard Raymond reels you in with poignant scenes like the college students attending an underground dance. Normally forbidden the men and women dance together with wild abandon, share forbidden kisses, smoke heroin and drink alcohol. Why do I think this film is amazing? Because these people, these young people, had to be so brave to take a chance at being beaten, stabbed, shot, jailed or killed simply because they wanted to have the freedom to express themselves by dancing. I truly loved getting lost in this movie. Afshin is a dancer who simply wanted to dance. He made the impossible possible by never giving up on his dream. I loved Desert Dancer and I think you will too!

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One Comment

  1. This review was very insightful. Subtitles usually leave me a bit underwhelmed, but from this review, I may have to give it another go. You really made the movie come alive in this article. Thank you.