Published June 24, 2015 by Jackie

Last night I went to the movies with my friends. Not any old movies, it’s that time of year when the city buzzes with visitors to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and we went to see two films, both at the Odeon complex on Lothian Rd.

We’ve not been there in ages, we tend to go to Filmhouse and Cameo for movies, and Omni for the occasional mainstream blockbuster, but I’d certainly consider the Odeon in future. In fact it had been so long since my friend was there, she walked on up Lothian Rd past what was once the entrance, now a pizza place, and didn’t know how to get in to the cinema.

I’d not really looked at the EIFF programme for this year, my friend had texted from the cinema on Sunday, while they were there and could buy the tickets, did we want to see this film? It’s about an Iranian dancer… heck yes, that’s all we need to say yes! Hadn’t we just been to Glasgow the day before specifically for 4 dance-related short films as part of the Cottier Project, at the Grosvenor in the West End. A nine-hour round trip if you include the time we spent having lunch before and coffee after, and about 3 hours on CityLink coaches. So of course we’d jump at the chance for something showing locally! Oh and yeah, while you’re buying, tickets for Ben Kingsley’s latest film won’t go amiss either…

L was late… what’s new? L is always late! L is an artist and works from home, and never experiences city centre rush-hour traffic, so she regularly gets caught out like this. I work quite close, so could walk and was there early, M was taking a dance class and had to rush up from the Grassmarket!

We got into the screen with just a couple of minutes to spare, and were lucky enough to find the last 3 seats together, way up the back row, and settled down. And then were greeted by an announcement that the film director was here, and would take a Q&A session afterwards. I feel a bit awkward about things like this ~ we were seeing another movie 20 minutes after this one ended, and what if we just hated the film and wanted out? We were kinda stuck up the back!

So, here’s the blurb…

Desert Dancer, the ultimate dance for freedom…
Afshin has always loved to dance, but in his home country of Iran it is illegal. From dance classes as a boy to undercover dance clubs, Afshin has repeatedly defied society’s laws in order to pursue his passion. In the light of mounting pressure from the government, how long can Afshin and his friends continue to perform in secret? Based on the inspirational true story of choreographer Afshin Ghaffarian.

Firstly, I was surprised to discover that this wasn’t a documentary. Secondly, not a subtitle in sight! This was a drama, based on a true story, in English. And you know, not every political story has to be told in an earnest, political manner. Once the movie settled in to Afshin’s life as a student at university, and we started to see some powerful, expressive dance, I warmed towards this. Sometimes, telling a story from a different angle makes you stop and think.

I knew about the repressive regime in Iran, but not the reality of day-to-day life for ordinary people who dare to be different. I’ve seen different police uniforms in Cairo, tourist police, traffice police, diplomatic security, and as part of a group have been assigned an equally sized group of tourist police to follow our vehicle at all times on a day-trip, or discovered that the quiet guy at the front of the bus is our policeman, but this is all strictly from the tourist angle. Egypt is and continues to be a police state.

But to have morality police watching your every move is unimaginable for the average westerner, to have them threaten you, beat you up, demand you to shop your friends to them, beat you up for refusing. We don’t have a clue, with our first-world-complaints.

Several familiar faces appeared in the movie, Frieda Pinto from Slumdog, and Tom Cullen, who I couldn’t place until this morning, when imdb reminded me he was in Downton. and a couple of others too.

But what shines in this movie is the dancing, and now I understand why… It was choreographed by Akram Khan, and he’d won the Astaire award for this movie. I saw Akram perform last year in the International Festival, his final piece in Gnosis, inspired by the Mahabharata, where the queen is burned to death in a forest fire, is one of the most electric and incredible pieces of dance I have ever seen.

At the end of the movie, Afshin dances on the stage in Paris, having taken a friend’s place in an acting troupe, and there to claim political asylum. That final dance re-enacted the beatings he had taken from the morality police in Tehran, and as the movie cut between a reprise of the beatings, and the dance, you almost expected blood to spatter across the stage. It was powerful stuff.

After the movie, director Richie Raymond explained the making of movie more to us, the stories that had been reworked or cut altogether; how Frieda Pinto took dance classes 8 hours a day for a whole year, Reece Richie and his moonwalking competitions, and his doppelganger likeness to Afshin Ghaffarian, and how they had changed the film ending when, heartbreakingly, the real Elaheh (played by Frieda Pinto in the movie) had died of a heroin overdose in Tehran just a few months ago.

This was actually Richie Raymond’s first movie; it was 93 minutes long, filmed in Morocco, London and Paris, and was astounding for a first movie. As the EIFF interviewer said, most first movies feature a cast of two and are filmed in a bedroom. I predict great things for Richie Raymond, and will seek out his future movies.

After finding out that the movie was pretty much crowd-funded by a few hundred people in the UK, made in the UK and Morocco, the only country NOT to pick up the distribution rights is the UK. Shame on them, they said a movie about repression, a movie about Iran, a movie about dance, and heaven forbid, a movie about all three, not a chance of funding that…. To then say ‘It’s for women, and women don’t go to the cinema’, shame on them again! While I refuse to add the hashtags #everydaysexism or #vagenda to my tweets, don’t think I don’t agree with them!

If only I could recommend you catch the next screening, but this only screened twice at the Festival. Richie urged us to tweet and demand this is picked up and distributed in the UK. Desert Dancer was also part of the EIFF Audience Award, we all gave this five stars, so I hope it’s about the percentage of viewers who give this top marks, not the number of bums on seats…

Oh and Mr Kingsley’s movie, The Driving Lesson, was perfectly charming, and probably deserved more stars than we gave, but we all want Desert Dancer to win. I hope it does!


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