“Desert Dancer” (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Reece Ritchie, Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, Marama Corlett, Neet Mohan, Bamshad Abedi-Amin, Makram Khoury, Nazanin Boniadi, Simon Kassianides, Gabriel Senior, Fadoua Lahlou, Inen Nuiga. Director: Richard Raymond. Screenplay: Jon Croker. Story: The life story of Afshin Ghaffarian. Web site. Trailer.
Some forces simply won’t be denied. The power of creation, for example, is so persistently potent and relentlessly determined that it’s nearly impossible to hold it back. It seeks expression, no matter what impediments may stand in its way. That fact becomes all too apparent – particularly to those who would restrict it – in the new fact-based biopic, “Desert Dancer.”
Being artistically inclined in a country run by a regime that discourages – even punishes – certain forms of self-expression can be frustrating at best, dangerous at worst. Coming to terms with such circumstances proved a hard lesson for Iranian-born dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, who, in his youth (Gabriel Senior), had to reconcile his love for his art form with a reality in which this activity was banned by a fundamentalist government that considered it immoral. Concerned about her son’s welfare, Afshin’s mother (Nazanin Boniadi) warned him of the consequences for defiance of this dictate, citing the strong-arm tactics of the Basij, the country’s often-brutal volunteer militia responsible for suppressing rebellious activities and dissident gatherings under orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But, despite the danger, Afshin had difficulty containing his enthusiasm; clearly he needed a safe outlet to practice his artistry.
Before long, Afshin made his way to the Saba Art Center, a sanctuary for budding creatives of all types run by a kindly, avuncular mentor, Mehdi (Makram Khoury). Within the center’s walls, young artists could be themselves, zealously shepherded under Mehdi’s devoted tutelage and fierce protection. It was here that Afshin’s talents began to blossom. It was also here that he learned about the art and life of his idol, famed Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nuryev, a virtuoso performer who, like the impressionable neophyte, grappled with political oppression issues of his own under the Soviet system. With the benefit of such inspiration, Afshin vowed to carry on with his art, which he
sought to develop while enrolled as a university student in Tehran.
At the time a now-older Afshin (Reece Ritchie) attended college, Iran was undergoing some turbulent internal political changes. With the 2009 Iranian presidential election approaching, many students and social activists took to the streets, protesting the hardline tactics of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and throwing their support behind the progressive initiatives of challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Under this aura of renewed hope, reformers began pushing established boundaries in many areas of life, from cultural to political to artistic.
For his part, Afshin decided to form an underground (i.e., illegal) dance company with fellow students Ardi (Tom Cullen), Mona (Marama Corlett) and Mehran (Bamshad Abedi-Amin). But, even with their newfound sense of empowerment, this band of artistic rebels nevertheless grew leery when they were unexpectedly approached by a mysterious stranger, Elaheh (Freida Pinto), at their makeshift clandestine studio. However, they quickly let down their guard when they learned that she was merely seeking an audition. She proceeded to mesmerize her tiny audience and immediately became a member of the troupe.
As the daughter of a former Iranian ballet star (Fadoua Lahlou), Elaheh had been dancing since she was a child (Inen Nuiga). Like her peers, she had to express herself exclusively in private, within the confines of her family home. But, having the benefit of a gifted instructor to teach her – her mother – Elaheh became a prodigy in her own right, and now she was ready to share what she learned with Afshin and company.
Thanks to Elaheh’s coaching, the company’s skills flourished. As a result, though, Afshin grew impatient with “performing” only in private. He wanted to dance before an audience, a notion his colleagues viewed as patently impossible. Nevertheless, Afshin was convinced there had to be a way, a conviction that led him to an innovative solution – conducting a performance in a remote desert location before a select and trusted crowd.
Organizing the event took meticulous planning, yet, even with such prudent care, the troupe still came under scrutiny, primarily from Mehran’s brother, Sattar (Simon Kassianides), a Basij operative. The consequences of such a performance, coupled with Afshin’s ongoing political activism, would cause circumstances to quickly spiral out of control, prompting him to take more drastic measures to protect his art – and his life. The prospect of having to flee his homeland to save himself suddenly became a real possibility.
As this film clearly illustrates, the power to create is a truly potent force, one that isn’t easily stifled, even in the face of severe opposition. This inherent birthright pervades our being and forever seeks expression, no matter what obstacles may block its path. This is especially true for a land like Iran, long famous for its poetic heritage (and, ironically enough, as the originator of one of the world’s first human rights codes, as noted in the film’s opening credits).
Afshin’s love of dance would similarly not be denied, even in the face of others fervently trying to squelch his enthusiasm. Through his many trials and tribulations, he firmly believed in the viability of his art and that its materialization would, in fact, come to fruition in one way or another. And, to that end, he found the means to make it possible.
In true conscious creation form, Afshin held true to the beliefs responsible for manifesting the outcome he envisioned. The results may not have always taken traditional forms, but they faithfully fulfilled the spirit of his intentions. In that regard, he actually elevated the art of dance to new heights, bringing the previously untried into being. By exploring such uncharted probabilities, he broadened artistic horizons both for himself and for those who
would follow his lead. But, then, as anyone who practices conscious creation understands, we each have an infinite range of options available to us at any given moment. Fortunately, Afshin realized this and brought it to bear through his craft.
Afshin drew inspiration on this point from Elaheh, who observed that dance can be anything one wants it to be, from a traditional ballet routine to the simple gesture of raising one’s fist in an act of defiance, a sentiment that echoes the infinite probabilities concept. Afshin abided by her wisdom and infused it in his dancing, using it to both express himself and to make a statement. This became most apparent in the political protest aspects of his art, an act of creativity that produced both a thing of beauty and drew attention to an issue in need of remediation.
So, if the power to create is something so cherished, one might legitimately ask, why would anyone manifest conditions that make its unfolding so incredibly difficult, such as those depicted here? Again, as noted above, all avenues of expression are equally valid and capable of materialization, including those under circumstances like those seen in this film. But why these particularly onerous conditions? There could be a variety of reasons.
Perhaps the principals in this story wanted to explore issues related to fighting for one’s creativity. Maybe they wanted to see how precious the gift of artistic license truly is. And, to that end, perhaps they wanted the experience of having to defend its right to existence under dire circumstances. Maybe the satisfaction that would come from succeeding at such an endeavor would yield a whole new appreciation for what is being sought, something inherently unattainable under “easier” conditions. Or maybe the reasons involve entirely different considerations. In any event, the scenario at work here is as viable and valid as any other, and its exploration is worthy of investigation, even if we
wouldn’t make the same choices or agree with the underlying purposes of such an undertaking.
Of course, being true to our creative vision, no matter what prevailing circumstances may accompany it, requires the development and utilization of certain personal qualities, all of which help support the beliefs we use for manifesting what we desire. Such efforts need to make use of traits like diligence, commitment, courage and integrity, elements that bolster the creative outcomes being birthed. These are all attributes that Afshin called upon in creating his dance routines. But such characteristics are crucial in yielding any hoped-for materialization, not just the kinds of grand expressions of creativity on display here. We should all bear these notions in mind when we set out to manifest our heart’s desires, no matter what form, scope or nature they might involve.
“Desert Dancer” is a reasonably well-made fact-based biopic. It features well-choreographed dance sequences, beautiful cinematography and capable performances (especially Pinto), though its direction is somewhat pedestrian at times, and its writing is rather heavy-handed on occasion. The picture also has as a strong tendency to play fast and loose with the facts of Ghaffarian’s life story, with dramatic license pushed to its limits, including a largely fictionalized ending (not unlike what happened in another film about Iran, “Argo” (2012)). What’s more, the film could have done a better job of exploring the story’s political backdrop, which is obviously significant but often reduced to vague, simplistic terms, especially in its examination of Iran’s pivotal 2009 presidential election (for a better exploration of these events, see “Rosewater” (2014) instead).
The act of creation is a force that pervades all of reality, one that refuses to be rebuffed, especially when infused with the energy and spirit of its collaborative advocates. Under such circumstances, it becomes almost like a juggernaut, unstoppable in its quest to seek expression and fulfillment. And those who stand in its way had better be prepared for what comes at them. What seems like something that can be easily dismissed or dissipated may prove to be anything but. Just ask Afshin Ghaffarian.
Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.