We've all watched the events of the past few days in Iran following that nation's elections. Now, a new movie here at home is set to open later this month which will serve as a powerful reminder of exactly what sort of repression they rebel against.
Despite the movie industry's uncanny ability to tell a few powerful, true stories really well year in and year out (2008's Milk, for example), for me, personally, there are few films which are moving in a way that leaves me thinking about them for days afterward. It's that Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List sort of way, when you feel proud and fulfilled for merely having seen it, but also a little emotionally drained from a few scenes which were particularly hard to watch.
I'm quite certain I have just seen another such movie, an extraordinary film titled The Stoning of Soraya M. It is simply one of the most gripping films I've ever watched but. Certainly, it is a story that needs to be told since the barbaric practice of stoning still occurs in our world today -- mostly to women, and mostly in the Middle East.
Knowing this was a true story from 1980's-era Iran based on an international best-seller by the late French journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam, I expected a somewhat partisan, right-leaning film, one at least serving as an overt condemnation of Sharia law, perhaps even strongly enough to be viewed as an affront to Islam itself.
Instead, no such partisan message was apparent in Soraya, which opens June 26th. In fact, the movie -- in which, of course, the defining outcome is known in advance -- was a surprisingly convincing tale of heroism, on both the part of the journalist, Sahebjam, but especially on the part of Soraya's brave aunt, Zahra.
Played by Academy Award® nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (The House of Sand and Fog) in another remarkable performance, the victim's aunt not only displays an inspiring bravery in trying to stand up to the men conspiring against Soraya, but through her own personal strength the character contrasts beautifully against the film's true message: the unequal position of weakness women in such systems find themselves in.
Overall, The Stoning of Soraya M was so well directed that I found some suspense in its development, as I found myself hoping beyond hope that somehow Soraya would be spared from the fate implied in the title.
Meanwhile, adding a strong secondary message about the danger of mob rule were the film's male actors. I have to say the part of Hashem, the widower pushed by the movie's villains into serving as the necessary 2nd witness, was portrayed with a slightly clunky performance. Yet, the two lead villains -- the plotting husband Ali (Navid Negahban) and the lawless mullah who assisted him in condemning Soraya (Ali Pourtash) -- delivered first-rate performances. Never have I so thoroughly despised a movie villain as I did Soraya's husband.
And you will, too, because it's a story about the most profound injustice being carried out against a helpless victim, one who is so plainly innocent.
That innocence, by the way, is portrayed beautifully by actress Mozhan Marno, who as Soraya won't accept her aunt's warnings; she believes instead that nothing so cruel could actually happen to her, even from a husband who so clearly despises her. And in watching the stoning sequence, it is indeed hard to imagine the practice still occurs in our world today.
While the stoning is not easy to watch, the director did a good job of downplaying the graphic nature of the scene while still conveying the fact that such punishment is specifically meant as torture -- rocks must be small enough so as not to deliver death too swiftly, and the process can apparently take many hours to complete. Certainly, the scene had to be shown to do justice to all those victims who have suffered this fate and to accurately portray the immense brutality of this despicable form of punishment.
And that suspense I referred to above? It revolved around what ultimately makes the film so watchable and ultimately uplifting, actually: the process by which this true story reached all of us from a small, remote Iranian village.
Yet the courage it took to get this story out to the world does little good if this film is missed.
Sure, programs like Amnesty International's Campaign to End Stoning are helpful in shedding light on this gruesome practice, but the fact that stoning still occurs today is proof that too few understand its barbarity or frequency.
See the movie when it comes out on June 26th and you'll understand. Women must see it, and keep in mind that by Iran's constitution the life of a female is worth half that of a male. Gays must see it, remembering the horrible repression of homosexuals in such systems -- not just those who have met the fate of stoning. Indeed, for anyone who claims to care about the most basic of human rights, this film is a must.
It just so happens that along with a powerful message which will move you like few others, you'll see a magnificent movie which you'll find impossible to believe was made for less than $5 million. The Stoning of Soraya M is simply one of the most remarkable movies you'll ever lay eyes on, one which should unite audiences of all political persuasions in a simple, human cause.
As the brave Zarha says, "The world must know."