Revolution in Iran: 'Soraya's' Message of Defiance an Underground Hit

While audiences in America flock to the escapist eye candy known as Avatar, it’s sobering to realize that in the real world, far away from James Cameron’s utopian dreamscape and the cozy cocoons of our multiplex theaters, another film’s message of defiance is helping to fuel revolution against a repressive regime.

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The Stoning of Soraya M., from writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh and Mpower Pictures, tells the true story of a woman in a remote Iranian village in the wake of the fundamentalist revolution of 1979, who is falsely accused of adultery and then stoned to death by a mob desperate to cleanse themselves of this rumored affront to their collective honor and to their religion. It’s not only a gripping story in its own right, but it also focuses a harsh spotlight on the shocking reality that stoning still exists in the Iranian penal code. The movie has been reviewed and written about many times on Big Hollywood, as well as listed among the site’s 10 best movies of 2009. (Look for it on DVD from Lion’s Gate in March)

Despite official condemnation of the film in Iran and a government clampdown on cell phone and Internet traffic as the country wrestles with revolution, word is getting out from sources close to the filmmakers that bootleg DVDs of The Stoning of Soraya M. are being shared secretly by Iranian citizens and shown in private homes in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and elsewhere. These sources must be kept anonymous, of course, since arrested protesters there have an unfortunate tendency to be allegedly raped and allegedly tortured, if not allegedly killed.

In one e-mail dated New Year’s Day, for example, a woman wrote that her “cousin was in a party last night and everybody was talking about [Nowrasteh’s] movie. They all liked it. The movie is all over.” Another woman’s message: “We send our greetings and we congratulate you on ‘Soraya.’ The word that we’re hearing is that if they find this film in anyone’s hands they will be jailed. People fear for their safety and are choked off from the outside world, telephone conversations are monitored…it’s bad.” And yet another source relates that “I was at the hairdresser yesterday and two women were talking about a movie called SANGSAR [Stoning] that they had seen and they like it a lot. I asked about it and they said the dvd is all over Tehran… It is a perfect time for the movie with the mess that is going on here.”

When the film was released in the States last summer, Iranian-American viewers in some communities stood at the end and proclaimed “Down with the regime! Death to the dictator!” Now viewers inside Iran are feeling a similar surge of defiance after watching it, and it has been stiffening their resolve as protesters clash with riot police and the paramilitary Basij on the streets in that “mess that is going on here.” Iranian citizens reportedly see Stoning as dramatic confirmation of why the demonstrations against apocalyptic madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cleric-in-crime, the Ayatollah Khamenei, are taking place – and why women are at the forefront of them, challenging the totalitarians in power just as Soraya’s fearless aunt Zahra confronted the village hypocrites in the film.

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Audiences elsewhere have responded to the unforgettable movie’s impact since its premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where Stoning won Runner-up for the Audience Choice Award. It also won Second Runner-up for the Cadillac People’s Choice Award, the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics’ Choice Award, and the Ghent Film Festival’s Canvas Audience Award. At the Satellite Awards, it was named one of 2009’s Top Ten Films and nominated for Best Drama, while its star Shohreh Aghdashloo won Best Actress in a Drama.

(And yet the Film Independent Spirit Awards, created to celebrate “unique, provocative” films, entirely ignored the movie – one for which the cast and crew literally put their lives and those of their relatives at risk by working on it, and one for which viewers in Iran now put their lives at risk by merely watching it. A movie doesn’t get more provocative than that – but I suppose Film Independent had to make room among its nominees for truly edgy fare like, say, (500) Days of Summer.)

Now The Stoning of Soraya M. is a secret hit in Iran. At a time when many film critics and viewers are feeling a thrill up their collective leg over Cameron’s technical mastery, Stoning‘s risky popularity is a reminder that the emotional core and storytelling power of such a film can embarrass the powers-that-be and embolden a brutalized populace to resist, even in the face of imprisonment and execution. Long after the vertigo – or depression, as the case may be – induced by the shiny spectacle of Avatar wears off, Stoning will likely be remembered for the part it is playing in history.

The real Soraya’s tale has come full circle. Her execution may have been a gut-wrenching tragedy from Iran’s previous revolution, which ushered in a fundamentalist theocracy; but thanks to filmmakers who dared to revive her story, Soraya is helping to empower a new revolution that might just steer Iranians toward freedom.

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