Mark Reviews Movies

Desert Dancer


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Richard Raymond

Cast: Reece Ritchie, Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, Bamshad Abedi-Amin, Simon Kassianides, Marma Corlett, Neet Mohan, Makram Khoury

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some drug material and violence)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 4/10/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 9, 2015

Desert Dancer is the dramatization of a life story that rarely doesn't feel like a dramatization. On those occasions when it doesn't, the movie displays unexpected life. For the most part, though, the details of the story feel inflated to the point that we wonder if anything other than the broad outline is true.

For all we know, given the less-than-prominent nature of the movie's subject, all of this could be accurate, although a cursory examination of the story of Afshin Ghaffarian reveals that the movie is not entirely factual. That, of course, doesn't matter, because Ghaffarian's story is his own. The movie's primary responsibility is to itself—to find truth in artifice and adaptation. It's folly to expect a fictionalized movie to remain 100 percent true to reality, even in the case of those based on a true story. They don't need to be accurate, but they do need to feel honest. Even if everything that happens in Desert Dancer actually happened to Ghaffarian the problem would still remain: The movie doesn't feel truthful.

The heart of Ghaffarian's story is of quiet rebellion against an oppressive regime that shows no sign of stopping. The heart of this movie is of telling us how important the actions of a single individual are in the face of that oppression. It's an optimistic outlook that is naïve in the bigger picture of the real world and comes across as superficial even within the movie's simplified version of Iran's theocratic subjugation.

There's an unfortunate lack of context in that regard. We get the basics of the nature of the Iranian government, from Basij—the "morality police"—roaming the streets to the official forbidding of dancing. The scope of oppression in Jon Croker's screenplay is limited only to those elements that affect the movie's central character. Ultimately, everyone and everything else are superfluous.

After a prologue showing his childhood interest in the arts and the vandalism of the arts school where he develops that interest, Afshin (Reece Ritchie) arrives at university in Tehran. He meets a group of like-minded people, including Ardavan (Tom Cullen), an artist whose contribution to the school's common area is censored, and Mehran (Bamshad Abedi-Amin), an engineering student who only dabbles in theater since his parents disapprove of such a pursuit. After Afshin becomes entranced by online videos of various forms of dance (seen on a computer that has cracked through the government firewall), the trio, along with Mona (Marama Corlett), decides to form an underground dance troupe.

None of them has any formal training, but Elaheh (Freida Pinto), who overhears their conversation about the group in a cafe, does, thanks to her mother, who was a professional dancer before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Elaheh joins the company and teaches them technique. Now, she tells Afshin, he just needs to find the heart to tell his story through dance.

That's a rough paraphrasing of an actual line of dialogue in Croker's script, but it's certainly in the same vein as the actual statement—painfully on-the-nose and sentimental. There's another, as Afshin determines that the troupe's first semi-public performance will tackle government oppression, that sounds as if Croker, realizing the biographical elements of the first act seem somewhat directionless, is simply putting too fine a point on the movie's thesis: "That will be our story."

That story of governmental tyranny is primarily relegated to the background, and when it comes to forefront, it's portrayed through heavy-handed manipulation. There's a possible betrayal, which becomes a deceptive sequence of cross-cutting between the performance and the apparent approach of the Basij. There's a brief depiction of the protests that resulted after the 2009 presidential election, although the movie doesn't bother to offer much context to it, instead opting to put Afshin in danger as quickly as possible. The movie's climactic act of protest, on a stage in France, is essentially the equivalent of a character's Big Speech (The movie actually intercuts shots of Afshin's earlier beating at the hands of the Basij with his dance that depicts it, as if somehow we might miss the point), complete with the roaring approval of an audience.

The movie is much subtler and more effective in its occasional dance scenes, which can be just as spot-on as some of the dialogue but at least have the benefit of presentation. If the movie feels rather by-the-numbers in terms of plotting and characterization, the dance sequences are freeing respites from conventional storytelling.

Elaheh's audition for the company is especially striking in this regard. It's a scene that has nothing to do with the story and that offers no story of its own. Director Richard Raymond simply allows her performance to unfold as an act of genuine artistic expression—a moment of temporary freedom for her and for the movie itself. The others—a dance in the desert and the aforementioned protest on stage—are a bit clunkier, since they have story points to make, but they still work.

These scenes are the only times when the heart of Ghaffarian's story—personal expression conveyed against authoritarian rule—feels authentic. The rest of Desert Dancer feels like an artificial and shorthanded telling of this story.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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