Six years ago I attended a contemporary dance workshop, and while I’ve been dancing for most of my life, what struck me most was one improvisation that involved dancing as if you were the furniture in your room. When we had come up with a sequence of movements representing various wardrobes, nightstands, mirrors, beds and tables, we had to then dance it while interpreting the concept of fear.
I was thinking about this workshop as I watched Desert Dancer (2015) by Richard Raymond. The film is partly based on the life story of Iranian exile Afshin Ghaffarian (played by Reece Ritchie), who is wanted by the Basijor morality police in his homeland for organising a (forbidden) dance company and an (even more forbidden) performance in the desert south of Tehran, and filming a protest by the Green Movement during the 2009 contested presidential elections.
The group is made up of a ragtag bunch of students without any experience in dance and Afshin’s plan is for them to learn from Youtube videos, “to take control of our lives” in a place “that’s ours, [with] no rules.” Eventually, Afshin assumes the identity of one of the student actors travelling to Paris to perform a play and is granted asylum by the French government.
The first thing that I remark is the choice and use of English in the film, along with a range of accents by the various non-Iranian actors. Most of the main characters are played by actors from the UK, India, Malta, with one from Morocco (Mourad Zaoui) and another from Palestine (Makram Khoury). I’m not sure if they were coached to imitate Iranian accents, but the dialogue seems stilted and unnatural. The one Iranian actress that plays Afshin’s mother (Nazanian Boniadi) only appears in a brief scene. In an interview with The Guardian, she rightly points out how financing drives casting:
“They struggled to make the film [Desert Dancer] because it was about brown people, if we’re being literal. It’s hard to get a film that’s about kids in Iran and led by Reece Ritchie and Freida Pinto financed.”
I think that casting Iranian actors in Iranian roles is important, not only to raise the profile of actors who would normally not be able to gain top billing in bigger films but to also educate viewers on certain aspects of Iranian culture that is more easily embodied by them without needing extensive research or coaching (eg. mannerisms, accent, expressions, knowledge). In this case, the film becomes another instance of non-Iranians telling stories about Iran. The use of many short takes also gives the impression of rushing through the plot, limiting potential for character development.
“When I dance, I feel free. It’s like no one can take that away, it’s limitless.”
The opening sequences of the film, where Iran is described as “the birthplace of great poetry and the first charter of human rights,” raised my hopes that the film could give a glimpse of a new aspect of the underground Iranian dance scene. The excellent choice of modern dance excerpts shown in the film – including familiar names like Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Sylvie Guillem and Jiri Kylian – seems to promise that if all else failed, dance enthusiasts could at least enjoy a well-choreographed dance scene or two.
However, the film doesn’t rise above the simple theme of freedom versus restriction. The young Afshin is invited to an arts centre, where Iranians can listen to Western music, practise on musical instruments, act and dance. As he watches Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev dance, Afshin’s teacher Mehdi sums up the film perfectly:
The film presents the Iranian Islamic regime as saying you can’t paint, act, play music or dance, so the only way to truly live is to eventually escape to the free West – it’s a tale as old as time. These two opposites are hammered home to the viewer constantly, much more than necessary.
In comparison to the short takes, the film devotes several minutes to Elaheh’s audition, a rehearsal between her and Afshin, their performance in the desert, and Afshin’s confession-solo in Paris. The piece most worth watching is an improvised duet (repeated later in the final desert performance) between Elaheh and Afshin, where they use the palms of their hands to push and pull, and resist and submit to each other’s energies. The desert performance however, is spoiled by the presence of Ardavan (Tim Cullen). His movements lacked finesse and he represented all too clearly a Basij who was out to break up the Elaheh-Afshin dyad representing male and female, yang and yin, modesty and exposure, inner and outer Iran.
What I find interesting about this duet is that it suggests that issues surrounding “inner” Iran should be left to its people to work through by themselves. Having a Basij-like character come and decide how the duet should dance mirrors the actions of regimes or governments who decide how Muslim women should act and dress in order to be proper citizens.
At the end of my dance workshop six years ago, I asked the choreographer why he made us come up with movements imitating furniture instead of going straight for the concept. He explained that we often have preconceived notions of fear and how it should look in our minds and in our movements. As a result, we would have all been crouching in the corner and giving terrified looks as we used our hands to push away some frightful being – movements that he considered more suited to theatre than the interpretive and allegorical potential of dance. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Afshin’s final solo in Paris entailed: an almost literal re-enactment of having his voice, rights and freedom stifled; and being caught, beaten and nearly shot by the Basij.
“Why dance if no one can see us?”
In the opening scenes, Afshin’s mother (Nazanin Boniadi) pointedly gestures towards a group of Basij standing in a corner, as a gentle warning to him to not dance in public and this teaching point could not be clearer for the viewer: “They say dancing is forbidden. If you’re going to do it, you do it somewhere safe.”
It’s perhaps ironic that the only Iranian actress (who played a “hijab-wearing agent” in the US series Homeland) in a film about Iranians is given so little screentime.
The film brings up an interesting discussion about resistance. Under a restrictive regime, Afshin and his friends resist through secret rehearsals. The process is difficult, scary and sometimes violent. When Elaheh challenges them about the purpose of their rehearsals, they decide to perform in the desert, “where there is no regime, where no one can find us.”
Is performance always the purpose of dance? Is dance worthy or legitimate if no one sees it? In the same vein, do political protests (such as the one by the Iranian students) make a difference if there is no media coverage – especially international coverage?
As a biography of one Iranian dancer against the regime, targeted to a Western audience that may not know much about Iran, Desert Dancer works. But as a story about dance, Iranian art or a critical analysis of freedom and resistance – not so much.