Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 105 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is about an Iranian dancer attempting to pursue dance under the oppressive government, which is the biggest threat in the film; there are beatings, interrogations, stabbings, and other violence pursued by the government’s moral police, young people smoking heroin and a drug-withdrawal scene, some kissing, some cursing, and some negative language about women.
‘Desert Dancer’ should be more than a version of ‘Footloose’ set in Iran, but the biopic of Afshin Ghaffarian can never get the balance between activism and choreography quite right.
By Roxana Hadadi
Movies that distill entire political movements and histories of countries into only an hour or two can be profoundly simplistic, and so “Desert Dancer” has an almost-insurmountable challenge from the beginning. By the end, the film makes some strides forward into being more than just Iranian dissent, “Footloose”-style, but it takes some time. The biopic about Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian wants to be a mixture of rousing activism and enthralling choreography, and while it gets elements of each thing right, the film doesn’t truly gel into a cohesive, insightful whole.
The film focuses on Ghaffarian, a now-28-year-old Iranian dancer who received international notice in 2009 with a performance in Germany that tapped into political dissent at the time, in the days after the questionable election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency of Iran. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the independent reformist candidate, had received a huge swell of attention from the country’s majority-youth population, and when he (allegedly) lost with only 33 percent of the vote, Iran erupted into marches and demonstrations that later ended in violence. Ghaffarian’s performance in Germany, which ended with his chanting “Where is my vote?” was a distillation of the young population’s confusion and anger.
A few scenes in “Desert Dancer” reach that level of frenzy and emotion, but for the most part, the movie’s pacing is off. It begins with Ghaffarian’s childhood growing up in the ultra-religious town of Mashad, where his dancing in school (picked up from a smuggled copy of “Dirty Dancing”), has his mother worried about him. She warns him of the Basijj, the Iranian government’s paramilitary group that acted as the “moral police,” beating and even killing those they thought were sinning against the country’s Islamic law, but Afhin can’t be deterred. Once an administrator at school notices his interest in the arts, he begins attending Saba Arts Center, where his schoolteacher drops the pretense of strict religiosity and instead teaches children about music, theater, and other modes of expression. For Afshin, it’s a life-changing experience—cementing that he couldn’t imagine his life without dance.
Fast-forward some years later to when Afshin (Reece Ritchie, of “Hercules”) is a freshman enrolled at the University of Tehran, where he befriends some similarly minded students, including the gregarious joker Ardavan (Tom Cullen), the kind Mona (Marama Corlett, of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Maleficent”), engineering student Mehran (Bamshad Abedi-Amin), and the mysterious, beautiful Elaheh (Freida Pinto, of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”). As the 2009 elections are coming up, people are growing more political, but the threat of Basijj is omnipresent—they harass university students, they kidnap them, and sometimes they kill them. Nevertheless, Afshin decides to start an underground dance company with his friends, distilled in this exchange: “You want us to start a dance group?” “I want us to take control of our lives!”
So, they start practicing, and it’s clear that Afshin and Elaheh are not only the best dancers in the group, but are also drawn to each other; despite Elaheh’s heroin use, her tragic family life, and how often she pushes Afshin away, he can’t help but be around her. And as the group decides to perform in the desert, “where there’s no regime, where no one can find us,” they think they’re making a profound statement—but they have no idea the Basijj is circling in.
“Desert Dancer” is a film split into segments, and they’re somewhat interchangeable: discussion about the upcoming presidential election, argument about the purpose of dancing, longing gazes between Elaheh and Afshin as they dancing, harassment by the Basijj, reorganize and repeat. The film takes on an expectedness that drags down its pacing, so even though there are some beautiful dance sequences sprinkled throughout—Pinto especially shines in a physically demanding role that she trained weeks for—by the time any scene ends, you can guess what’s going to come right after. That kind of structuring slows down the film immeasurably.
It’s also distracting how the script and dialogue seem to be half-made for Iranian audiences, half-not; it’s unsurprising that the characters speak English, but why would the University of Tehran have a sign with “university dormitory” written in both Farsi and English? Why would Iranian students watch YouTube videos in English? There is obviously the audience to consider, but in those moments the film particularly feels like “Footloose” set in Iran instead of a film about actually that country. At the same time, though, first-time director Richard Raymond and screenwriter Jon Croker (of “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death”) include elements about Iranian culture that prove they did some homework, like government employees checking women’s headscarves before they enter the university and an Iranian insult that is translated into English quite well. Practically no one except for the few Iranian actors have proper accents, but at least they don’t have British ones, like so many films in the Middle East seem to default on for their characters. It’s the small victories that matter.
The most important question for “Desert Dancer,” though, is whether it inspires, and the dance performances are certainly underscored with noticeable political themes. For as much as the script is reductively written and the film’s treatment of Elaheh as a device to inspire Afshin is irritating, the final moments of the film are unforgettable—and in that way, then, “Desert Dancer” accomplishes exactly what it wanted.
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