The true and extraordinary story of dancer Ashfin Ghaffarian and his audacious escape from Iran is the tale being told in this curiously uninvolving biopic, which comes from director Richard Raymond and writer Jon Croker.
Set in Iran around the time of the 2009 presidential elections the film deals with how Ashfin Ghaffarian, a self-taught dancer, and a group of his University friends who oppose the cultural oppression of the religious police by forming an underground dance troupe. The only performance space open to them, far from the crowds of the towns, cities and prying eyes of the religious police, is deep in the desert.
The film does successfully depict the sudden realisation that there is a wide world of culture being kept from the people, and the hungry desire those people denied expression have for more art, dance, music and theatre. In fact for challenging work of all kinds. The moment Ashfin discovers a computer which is working with an IP proxy, without the Iranian firewall, and spends precious minutes watching dancers of several disciplines captured on YouTube is very touching. Videos of Michael Jackson, Pina Bausch, Rudolf Nureyev, Gene Kelly, suddenly at his fingertips. The realisation that there is a wider world of dance. The very stuff that stirs his soul.
The dance in the film is the product of award winning choreographer Akram Khan. Khan is world renowned for his experience with dance; he choreographed the London Olympics opening ceremony and makes a great deal of the expressive abilities of stars Reece Ritchie and Frieda Pinto, who are beautifully talented.
The film is entirely in English. Clearly intended for a Western audience who might not know much about the day today life in Iran, the film is refreshingly open about showing the everyday life in the country. A life which, on the very surface at least, seems mundane and ordinary. People going to work, going shopping, it’s not so different at all. But it remains uninvolving in the way it depicts the contrast. Clearly there is oppression and consequently a near constant low-level of fear, but it doesn’t seem enough is made of this. It’s almost shrugged off.
What the film has more difficulty with, is the thriller aspect to the story. There should be more urgency to proceedings, more tension, more worrying about whether things are going to work out okay. Unfortunately the pacing is way off. Moments which should be edge-of-the-seat seem wasted, and although as an audience we are willing Ashfin on, we never really doubt that he’s not going to make it.
Desert Dancer is a beautifully shot film about the artistic imperative, and honours those oppressed. The telling of the story explains clearly how creativity will burst out, come what may. But it could be more exciting. With that slight tightening and change of focus this good film would become an excellent one.
Desert Dancer is out now on DVD.