Sensationalist Film Exploits Important Human Rights Issue in Iran

This was written by Elise Auerbach and originally published on Human Rights Now, the Amnesty International USA blog.

Ordinarily, human rights activists would be pleased when the rare major motion picture shining a light on human rights violations comes along. In fact, aside from documentaries, it is very unusual to see issues that Amnesty International has worked on appear on film. However, sometimes a film can so distort an important human rights issue, that it may do more harm than good to the cause.

Sadly, this is the case with the new movie opening this Friday, The Stoning of Soraya M, the purportedly true story of the brutal execution by stoning of an innocent Iranian village woman. For one thing, the film is marked by crude story-telling: the main character Soraya is merely a mutely suffering victim while her brutish husband, who falsely accuses her of adultery so that he can marry a teen-aged girl, is a cardboard caricature of evil and malice. More importantly, aside from the numerous inaccuracies and implausibilities, the climax of the film—a bloody and prolonged stoning scene with villagers mercilessly pelting the victim—is so sensationalized that the audience response is likely to be disgust and revulsion at Iranians themselves, who are portrayed as primitive and blood-thirsty savages.

The film is presented as an indictment of Iranian society as a whole, and the setting—a remote rural village of about 25 years ago—is presented as typical of contemporary Iran. In the film, the victim’s aunt (who though she is supposed to be an ignorant village woman, inexplicably speaks excellent English and smokes cigarettes with 1940s femme fatale flourishes) is eager to have the French-Iranian journalist, who stops in the village shortly after the incident, smuggle a tape of her relating the story out of the village. She states that she wants the whole world to know what happened there, presumably so that those on the outside (the west?) can rescue the benighted Iranian people from their barbaric practices.

In fact, Iranians themselves—and in particular Iranian women’s rights activists– have organized and carried out a vigorous campaign against the practice of stoning and have themselves been actively documenting the practice. Opposition to the practice occurs at the highest level of the Iranian legal system; the Head of the Iranian Judiciary announced a moratorium on stoning back in 2002 and it was reiterated in August 2008. Sadly, at least three people have been executed by stoning since then. Interestingly, all three were men.

By criticizing the film, I am not dismissing the importance of the issue. Amnesty International issued a major report on stoning in January 2008, in which it is described how this form of execution is prescribed for adultery—although in practice, it is usually adultery in conjunction with some other crime, such as being an accessory to the murder of a husband. Furthermore stonings are carried out in prison yards by government agents, not by members of the community.

Crucially, we must look at stoning in the overall context of executions in Iran. Stonings represent a tiny fraction of executions in that country. Iran executes more people than any other country in the world except for China. In 2008 it executed at least 346, the overwhelming majority of whom were executed by hanging, sometimes for politically motivated offenses, and often after flawed legal proceedings. But again, Iranians don’t need people from outside Iran telling them what is good for them because Iranians themselves have taken the lead in opposing executions in their country. The renowned Iranian human rights activist Emadeddin Baghi was recently awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals award, partially for his anti-death penalty activism.

I would urge those who really want to see important social issues in Iran critically examined should check out some of the great films made in Iran such as A Time for Drunken Horses, which deals with poverty among Iran’s Kurdish minority, The Day I Became a Woman and As Simple As That, about the frustrations experienced by women in Iran, and Santoori, which deals with drug addiction.

An accurate and thoughtful film about executions in Iran would be welcome, but we will still have to wait as the Stoning of Soraya M is not it.

  • RCHOUDH

    For this film to be coming in the heels of the recent election related protests in Iran will just help to cement in many foreigners’ minds the “viciousness” of Iranian (and Muslim) culture and society.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    I liked this review but there are a couple things I want to clear up, as somebody who has/is working with the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign in Iran…

    There have been 6 people who have been confirmed stoned to death in Iran since the moratorium in 2002. One of these is a woman. Here’s a list:

    Mahboubeh M.: May 7, 2006

    Abbas H.: May 7, 2006

    Jafar Kiani: July 5, 2007

    Hushang Khodadaeh, December 2008

    Unidentified Man: December 2008

    Unidentified Man: May 2009

    However, the VAST majority (as in 8 out of 9 or 10 out of 12, depending on the time) of individuals sentenced to stoning have been women. Its partly a success of the SSF Campaign that all of these women have either had their sentences commuted or have been released.

    Also, while Iran does not report as many community-driven stonings, there are stoning that occur by members of the community in Iraq, Pakistan and most recently Somalia.

    I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t really comment on that. But its interesting to note that one of the major strategies of the SSF campaign in Iran has been to document cases and show them with the world, paritcularly the international community and thus impose pressure on the Iranian government to ban the law of stoning. Although the case in the movie shows villagers doing it themselves, similar strategies have been used for human rights abuse committed by non-state actors.

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  • http://nataliaantonova.wordpress.com/ Natalia Antonova

    I can’t bring myself to watch this movie, though I’m wondering how can stoning be portrayed without horror and gruesomeness. It’s a horrific and gruesome execution, either way you look at it. Execution is brutal in general, but stoning, I think, was particularly desired to torture the victim. And make the community complicit in the torture. I see it as an age-old way to bond over someone else’s blood, various religious arguments for it notwithstanding.

    In the movie “Osama,” they showed the victims being buried and left the rest to your imagination, which I was grateful for because I can’t handle seeing violence like that. Do you think it would have been better if they did that in this movie? Considering that the subject is a stoning, I wonder if they could have done that, once they chose to travel down this road.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Great review. For me, a big warning sign was when they cast Jim Caviezel in the lead role instead of someone who was actually Iranian.

    I believe that stories like this do need to be told and I commend the reviewer for highlighting some more realistic films. Sadly, such films don’t get nearly as much publicity.

    What upsets me most is that this is yet another portrayal of Muslim men as wicked, heartless misogynists.

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  • http://am-iran.org aeb

    I have been waiting for somebody to articulate the debilitating problems with this film in such articulate and clear language. THANK YOU! I refuse to see this film but from everyone I have spoken to, and from the trailer I’ve seen, I’ve learned that these lines could not be more true:
    “For one thing, the film is marked by crude story-telling: the main character Soraya is merely a mutely suffering victim while her brutish husband, who falsely accuses her of adultery so that he can marry a teen-aged girl, is a cardboard caricature of evil and malice. More importantly, aside from the numerous inaccuracies and implausibilities, the climax of the film—a bloody and prolonged stoning scene with villagers mercilessly pelting the victim—is so sensationalized that the audience response is likely to be disgust and revulsion at Iranians themselves, who are portrayed as primitive and blood-thirsty savages.”

    And I agree with one of the commenters that Jim Caviezel’s role as lead is troublesome and was one of the first cues to me that this film would simply reinforce stereotypes of Iran as brutal and backwards.

    I am also troubled by the fact that the trailer is largely in English while the film itself is largely in Farsi. Kind of gives us an idea of who the film wants for its audience, which then gives us an idea of the film’s agenda…. thank you so much for a clear and concise critique!

  • taz

    i have not seen the film , but as usual america makes iranians to be ignorant ,violant people, who are all terrorits … that is so far from truth it hurts as an iranian i tellu .
    well then.. and also we do not believe in honor kilings… it hardly ever happens( but it shouldnt happen at all)..
    In the movie Crossing over stupid…f…in people portray us as savage people…stoning hardly ever happens in iran( but it shouldnt happen at all) … it is so wrong and over premative ..if u want to critisize u should but dont portray us all as that…

    I could also add why dont u look within ur own society ????

    my last point that it is savage to stone a man or a women and it should be stopped… but u cant put down a whoel race of people foir wrong doing of a few that come from there …

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]


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