Friday Apr 17th, 2015
Can you imagine a world without dance? This is what director Richard Raymond shows us in his debut full length film about the compelling true story of Afshin Ghaffarian, a self taught Iranian dancer who revolts against an oppressive state by doing the one thing he loves—dancing. The story is set in Tehran, Iran, and takes us on an awe-inspiring journey of the internal struggle of finding your own voice in a place where it’s considered illegal to express yourself, including through dance. As part of the YoungArts Salon Series, I had the chance to see this film, Desert Dancer, this past Sunday at a very special VIP screening followed by an intimate Q & A with director Richard Raymond and executive producer Sarah Arison (of our YoungArts family), which was moderated by Hans Morgenstern, a Miami based film critic.
The film’s debut couldn’t come in a timelier manner. Recent attacks on people’s freedom of expression have been prevalent throughout all walks of life, and after viewing Desert Dancer, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking of all these events. Earlier this year, the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in France was viciously attacked, leaving twelve dead. This is a magazine that stood for something so sacred in the art world – the ability to express current happenings through cartoons, words, and a good old–fashion sense of humor. And in the YA Salon, Richard and Sarah both brought another attack on freedom of expression to our attention: Last year seven young Iranians were arrested simply for dancing to Pharrell Williams’ beloved song “Happy” in public (it was this news that struck a chord with Sarah Arison, who has been working with us here at YoungArts and spent her whole life among the art world, and after a conversation with Richard Raymond on the subject the two decided to take on the task of translating Afshin’s amazing story to film).
I find it’s in our human nature, at our very core, to have the want or need to express ourselves – to put our thoughts, moods, and feelings into something more tangible, be it a song, a dance, a poem, or even a shameless selfie. So Afshin, played by Reece Ritchie in Desert Dancer, decides to start an underground dance group with his friends even though it could risk their lives because of that desire to express. In a scene where Afshin and Elaheh, played by Freido Pinto, put their own feelings into dance, we see the pain of being unable to express through movement, to touch the person you fall in love with, and to have to conform to the oppression. It’s an intensity that lifted off the screen and sent pure emotion down my spine. (Spoiler alert: I cried. Multiple times.)
But, people are fighting back. They perform. They make films. They dance, sing, love, cry, create. All over France and in other regions around the world, people stood up and shouted “Je Suis Charlie,” after the shooting at that magazine’s headquarters in Paris. And ironically, or to-be-expected in my point of view, Afshin actually wound up in Paris after his struggles in Iran, and at the end of the film we see Afshin walking towards the camera along the Seine. Paris is such a symbol of freedom of expression and art, to me: from the buildings (which are works of art in their own right), to the Moulin Rouge, to book carts along the Seine, to even the painters on the street in Montmartre… But we all need to take a moment and appreciate our ability to create, to dance, to sing. If you’re reading this, go see the film. Open your eyes and take a look at how something so beautiful could grow out of something threatening or controlling. As Richard Raymond said at the YA Salon, the citizens of Iran do create art underneath the veil of oppression. But speaking up about this oppression or the need for freedom of expression is vital. Standing up with them will give them courage to do it themselves, just as I and many others shouted, “Je Suis Charlie,” and just as Afshin’s friends encouraged him to dance, to stand up, and raise his voice.
Katie Breuil is the External Relations Coordinator at YoungArts. She drinks copious amounts of coffee and really likes her cats.