April 21 2016
Powerful and beautifully made, ‘Desert Dancer’ tells the true story about a young Iranian who wants the freedom to dance…
By Suman Bhuchar
DIRECTOR Richard Raymond spoke to www.asianculturevulture.com about why he had to tell this story.
“I was reading in The Sunday Times in January 2010, and there was a tiny little article about Afshin Ghaffarian and I couldn’t believe that it was forbidden to dance in a country artistically rich as Iran.
“It was an awakening to me that the heroes of Iran are its youth who keep artistic expression alive in dangerous conditions.”
Raymond was so taken by this story that he went to Paris, where Ghaffarian is now based along with his screenplay writer, Jon Croker to meet the Iranian and hear his incredible life story.
Born in Iran, Ghaffarian always wanted to dance, and the only way he could do it was by secretly watching great performances on YouTube and then learning by secretly dancing along and copying the moves.
Although Ghaffarian had no formal dance training, he managed to form a troupe, made up of fellow college students and they decided to organise a public performance of their work, which they had to do covertly and in the desert.
Set against the backdrop of the 2009 elections in the country, this film tells the story of this dedicated young man trying to forge an identity in a restrictive atmosphere. (You can read more about him in the attached link below.)
“It was too much to take in one day and we wanted to share this story as many people don’t know that dance is forbidden in Iran,” Raymond explained.
People live complex lifestyles and there is a world outside and a world inside, and people are forced to do many things in secret.
The story of Afshin (Reece Ritchie) and his friends is the story of awakening of young people waking and creating their own dance, he explains.
Raymond then set about the long and arduous task of raising finance and putting together a cast of international actors to make a film that would reach a global audience as well as appeal to the Diaspora Iranian community.
“The most important thing was to achieve an international cast so that the story could be accessible to all.
“As such, you can tell the story to the whole world, because this audience wouldn’t normally go and see an Iranian dance film.”
Today, he is full of praise for his talented group of ensemble cast that sees Reece Ritchie appear as the lead protagonist; Freida Pinto as his dance partner, Elaheh and Tom Cullen (of “Downton Abbey” fame) as his friend, Ardi.
Makram J Khoury, one of the celebrated Arab Israeli actors from the Middle East, gives a fine performance as the mentor teacher who sets the young boy onto an artistic trajectory, while the film features a bedrock of Iranian origin acting talent based in the West in the forms of Davood Ghadami (best known for his role as ‘Kush’ in the UK for soap, Eastenders) and Nazanin Boniadi (who had a leading role in global US-made TV smash, “Homeland”).
Some people, though, couldn’t get over the fact that Pinto was playing an Iranian, said Raymond, but no one said anything about Reece because he looks like Afshin.
“I was casting the best actor, I was not casting ethnicity,” Raymond stated.
“Elaheh, the character played by Freida Pinto, her story is all true – she died of a heroin overdose and this reaffirmed the need tell her story.
“The actors (Pinto especially) rehearsed and danced for twelve months, six days a week working through injuries, she went on a transformation both emotionally and physically. There were no body doubles.”
Ritchie captured the sensibility of Afshin perfectly – and was able to do so because has a martial arts background and knows how to use his body; while Cullen connected to the story through physical performance and used his body in a masculine dominating manner.
Raymond explained that he chose Akram Khan (the Kathak supremo who choreographed Britain’s Olympic Games Ceremony), to choreograph the dance scenes because when “I saw his work, it’s visual and subtle story-telling, I wanted the truth to be in the dance to the calibre of his performances.”
The film is estimated to have cost around £3.5m to make and and was financed independently.
“I can’t talk about what’s happening next because I am superstitious,” he demurred.
“Film has been my overriding passion my entire life. I walked into Pinewood Studios twenty years ago made friends with the security guard and got work experience in films such as Blake Edward’s ‘Son of Pink Panther’ to Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Desert Dancer’ is my debut as director.”
The film is on release in the UK from April 22…
More on Afshin Ghaffarian http://reformances.com/en/