‘Desert Dancer’ lacks cultural authenticity

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Perhaps no story resonates with drama lovers more than revolutionary tales about fighting for freedom. We seem to always root for the underdogs, especially when it comes to youth in revolt against systems of oppression.

“Desert Dancer” is an underdog story based on the life of Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie), a former University of Tehran student who started an underground dance crew and had to flee his home after finding himself in trouble with the Basij — Iran’s parliamentary volunteer militia — during the 2009 election protests.

Dance is illegal in Iran. Thus, Afshin and his crew decide to gather underground and physically express their frustrations about oppression and censorship. But as time passes and the group meets in secret, they feel compelled to dance for a live audience. They feel it shouldn’t be kept a secret any longer. Both he and his love interest Elaheh (Freida Pinto) explore one another’s dance styles and learn the roots of each other’s insurgency.

As an Iranian, I was excited to see a film about contemporary Iran and its underground dance culture on American big screens. And, at times, “Desert Dancer” delivered. Yet apart from the dance scenes, the film is an overall disappointment. The acting was at times painful to watch — mostly a result of dumbed-down character development.

In scenes of Afshin’s first forays into university life, his friends teach him what the Basij is. Realistically, anyone growing up in in Iran knows about the Basij. Their presence is a part of daily life. It’s unthinkable that his character would be so naive.

It is apparent that director Richard Raymond wanted to include a context for the film’s plot, introducing unaware viewers to the concept of the Basij. Yet by doing so in this way, Afshin’s character becomes implausible and laughably ignorant.

While I appreciate that the film tries to present Iran, and Tehran in particular, in a socio-political context, it also conforms to harmful cliches surrounding Iranian culture while glorifying the West. It establishes binaries between a culture of freedom, the United States, and a culture of austere conservatism, Iran.

Viewers are confronted with the image of an evil regime (in stark contrast with the “free West”), rather than the multifaceted people living under it. Whereas some Iranians feel imprisoned by strict laws, others hold no qualms. Individual experiences are just that — individual.

Yet visually speaking, the stunning cinematography highlights the dance scenes and choreography. In these sequences, dancers unleash their tendency to self-censor through poetic movement. The beauty and pain expressed in dance sequences are by far the film’s greatest success.

The film also centers on the tension between the Basij and protesters. The characters makes apparent the public frustration with police brutality, execution and imprisonment. The Basij, however, are depicted as overdramatically evil to the point where it is nearly comical. Truthfully, the acting can be so over-the-top that Basij characters become reminiscent of Disney villains.

When it comes to violent protest scenes, they are jarring, reminding some viewers of figures allegedly killed by the Basij such as Neda Agha-Soltan.

Hence, when the final scene in the movie comes, its impact is overwhelming. The desperation for freedom of expression in Afshin’s final dance is heart-wrenching and gorgeous. The final scene is enthralling. Viewers become transfixed by the way Afshin, through contemporary dance, plays two roles at once: the oppressed and the oppressor.

Elaheh’s dance scenes in particular give goosebumps. From the scene in which she auditions to become a part of Afshin’s dance crew to the climactic desert dance after which the film is named, she shines.

But when all is said and done, the film hardly depicts Iran, and the many cultures it houses, with accuracy. Instead, “Desert Dancer” depicts tired tropes of Iranian life under the Islamic regime, reinforcing the stereotype that Iran and Islam are inherently conservative and oppressive.

‘Desert Dancer’ is now playing in Berkeley. 

Contact Jeila Saidi at [email protected]