Dancing requires exceptional grace and balance, but mostly it demands creativity. To tell a story in words is difficult enough; to do the same using only the body is a task that stretches both physical and mental limits. Desert Dancer follows a group of Iranian students who form an underground dance company in Tehran, and it is not an especially graceful or balanced film. Richard Raymond’s directorial debut might have granted Western audiences another meaningful glimpse into Iranian life, much as Asghar Farhadi’s quietly powerful A Separation did four years ago. Instead, it reduces a complex political and cultural climate into the backdrop for an uneven exploration of the “big” themes of our times: freedom, censorship, the inevitable triumph of good over evil.
Raymond’s resolutely humanist perspective manipulates the Iranian Green Movement of 2009 into fodder for a Lifetime-style movie about Afshin Ghaffarian, a dancer exiled for practicing his art in a country notoriously hostile to artistic expression. Ghaffarian’s story is no doubt worth telling, and his determination to chase a dream even in the face of death cannot help but inspire. But this is not the film that Ghaffarian nor the Iranian people deserve.
As impressive as its dance sequences may be (we’ll get to those in a minute), Desert Dancer cannot overcome an intellectually lazy script that’s as subtle as an eye-high leg kick. “Our country is like two parallel worlds,” explains one of Afshin’s early art instructors. “There’s the one you see outside, and there’s this world behind closed doors.” So much for the theory of omission. Elsewhere, the film’s dialogue is equally condescending. Here’s how Afshin (played here by Reece Ritchie) convinces his friends to stage an illegal production in the desert outside Tehran: “We can go out to the desert, we can feel what it’s like to breathe … and that’s what this story is about.” The complete absence of creativity in these lines isn’t just insulting to the audience; it’s antithetical to dance itself, an art form that epitomizes the “show, don’t tell” principle of storytelling.
The actual dancing is Desert Dancer’s saving grace. Each sequence is shot beautifully in an expressionistic style that seems almost at odds with the rest of the film’s heavy-handedness. But the bulk of the credit goes to stars Ritchie and Freida Pinto, who worked their way through each strenuous sequence without body doubles. The elfish Ritchie sometimes looks as if he’s sliding through air, and his sheer commitment to each routine salvages an otherwise forgettable performance. Pinto, playing trained dancer and part-time heroin addict Elaheh, is remarkable. She steals her very first scene with an extended dance sequence executed in near silence. The absence of music lets us listen in on her respirations in what feels almost like an invasion of privacy. It’s an inspired directorial choice in a film that doesn’t have many, giving us a much better sense of the sensuality of dance and why it might make an Ayatollah uneasy.
It’s a shame that Desert Dancer tries to be so much more than it ought to be. The film’s dramatic tension lies in the ever-present danger that Afshin, Elaheh, and their friends will be discovered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s goon squad, already on the prowl for supporters of his election opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Uniformly dressed in white and heavily stubbled, these men spend their days kidnapping political dissidents or, when all else fails, simply beating them with clubs. The film makes no attempts to explain their ideology and gives them only a few crass lines between snarls; we are asked to simply accept them as evil incarnate. This might in fact be the case, but such reductionism strips the setting of any real credence. Close followers of the Green Movement will remember that it comprised a vast swath of Islamic and secular ideologies, so the film’s narrow focus on artistic censorship also proves problematic.
Toward the beginning of Desert Dancer, a young Afshin watches footage of the Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev performing in a ballet. We are to understand that his world is expanding before our eyes, but what’s most telling, it turns out, is that the footage is in black and white. Such is the world that Raymond has saddled his protagonist with — a world of black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, and one with little room for all the messiness of modern life.