Iranian Afshin Ghaffarian risks his life to dance in Richard Raymond’s first feature, Desert Dancer.
The British director’s treatment of Ghaffarian’s story is an extraordinary journey involving freedom of dance and expression seen not only against the background of the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 but also in light of recent developments: the imprisonment on June 7 of Iranian filmmaker and feminist Mahnaz Mohammadi.
How did you come across Afshin’s story?
I came across his story in January 2010, buried on page seven of the Sunday Times. The story of a young man who dreamed of becoming a dancer – but in Iran, where people have recently been arrested for dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy”. He learned to dance by forming an underground dance company with his friends in university, using proxy servers to hack into Youtube and watch the great ones: Graham, Baryshnikov, Bausch. They wanted to put up a performance and the only place they could think of was 100 miles outside of the city in the middle of the desert. Afshin was later caught up in the 2009 Green Movement protest, beaten brutally, escaped and won his freedom on stage in Paris.
I became fascinated by him. I found him in Paris and spoke to him. He had just arrived; he was a refugee. I spent many months getting to know him, earning his trust... Myself and the writer, Jon Croker, we sat down with him in June 2010 and filmed roughly eight or nine hours of interview. That’s what we based our screenplay on.
Why did you decide to insert him into the movie at the very end?
We wanted to break the fourth wall. We wanted the real person to look right at the audience and to basically just say, “This is my story.” I asked Afshin when he did that shot just to remember his friends and remember his story. It breaks the fiction and hopefully makes the audience want to find out more about life in Iran and about the plight of the Iranian people.
You were not allowed to film in Iran – how did you deal with this?
We had to recreate Iran in Casablanca, in Morocco. That was difficult because authenticity is so important. The production design team, the costume team and the way we shot the film had to really pay attention and get the finest detail right: the way they wear headscarves or the types of food.
How was the dynamic on set?
It was fearless and it was fun. Because of all the training we did together, everyone built up a really big rapport. They laughed, they smelled, they sweated. All the barriers were broken down and real friendships and connections formed over the months of dance training. That translates on screen as well, which is great.
This was a four-year process…
It just took a long time to raise the money to make the film because I am a first-time director. We were going to people to pitch like: hey, this is a film set in Iran, it’s about human rights, freedom of expression, it hasn’t got any world-famous stars in it, apart from Freida, and you know, can I have some money? So everybody said no. Freida was trekking all around Los Angeles trying to raise the money. It took some very unique individuals with passion and a belief in human rights to come on board. Their reward is that it’s been a wonderful success story.
What about audiences in Iran?
We are going to dub it in Farsi soon, and we are just going to give it to them on DVD. Obviously as a filmmaker I am highly against piracy, but in this case it would be fine.
Desert Dancer opens in Berlin cinemas on July 3. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.
Originally published in issue #129, July/August 2014.