Cyrus Nowrasteh
The acclaimed Iranian director talks about The Stoning of Soraya M.

27 November 2010

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Choosing a film can be a baffling business these days – the choice appears endless, and with ever more inventive ways of bringing stories to the big screen it can all become somewhat bewildering.  Whether it’s 3D experiences, IMAX screens, A-Lister stars that you’ve read about having affairs during filming, next instalments of never-ending franchises, there are innumerable ways beyond mere posters and trailers that we are tempted off our sofas and into the cinema these days.  And yet, when it comes down to it, what do we really want from our films?

“I want the audience to respond on an emotional level.”  I couldn’t agree more.

I was fortunate to meet the eloquent and sensitive director Cyrus Nowrasteh to talk about his film The Stoning of Soraya M which, for all its potential for controversy has in fact garnered none.  Despite this film concerning itself with the illegal stoning of a woman in Iran by her own community, the majority of whom are devout Muslims, Nowrasteh has not suffered any backlash, and the film has been screened in countries as diverse as the US, Scandinavia and Turkey.

“We’re not going after the religion or any of that.  We’re focused on how things get twisted and abused by opportunists.”

Surprisingly then, countries where one would expect the bravery of Nowrasteh’s film to be welcomed and rewarded have so far refused to distribute it.  Among them Italy, Germany despite the film winning awards at the Berlin Film Festival, and France where the writer of the book upon which the film is based lived and worked.

Conversely, the film is being smuggled into Iran, in a reversal of the many tales of Iranian filmmakers risking their lives in the past to smuggle reels of film out to European Festivals in order to have their voices heard.  Of course, the Iranian government may not be the greatest fans of this film, but Nowrasteh continues to receive positive support for his work wherever it is shown.

It appears that, rather depressingly, we are coming to a point in Europe where even an act as fundamentally abhorrent and inhumane as stoning has become an issue immersed in discussions about culture and religion, which can be nothing less than fatally dangerous.  After all, the right and wrong of stoning is not about being politically correct.

And yet, this film is not an “issue” film.  Nowrasteh tells me that, “fundamentally what attracted to me to the project was that I read the book.  I was moved by it.  It’s that simple.  It’s powerful, emotional, human, gripping stuff and that’s what you want to make movies about.”  So that is what he has produced – a tale that is so breathtakingly moving, stunningly powerful and incredibly inspiring that it simply demands to be seen.  There should be no underestimation of what dangers have been risked for this film to be made, and Nowrasteh is quick to admit its existence is a miracle.

But the risks are seemingly worth it, with organisations including Amnesty International, Free Sakineh, and Moral Courage in the US using the film to address issues they have long campaigned on.

Meanwhile, Nowrasteh turns to his upcoming project – a collaboration with Anne Rice on the adaptation of her book “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” about Jesus as a 7 year old child.

There may be those who avoid this film because of its subject matter, and there may be others who, like the counties yet to distribute it, may assume it will be too controversial for their tastes, however, from it’s title onwards, Nowrasteh’s aim for the film is clear: “I felt we had a responsibility to be honest with people to say what the movie’s about.”  And it is truth that remains at the heart of Nowrasteh’s film.