Richard Raymond’s Desert Dancer tells the true story of Afshin Ghaffarian – portrayed by a wide-eyed Reece Ritchie (Hercules) – an Iranian dancer who dared to form an underground dance company with his friends while living within a socio-political climate of oppression and artistic censorship. While art and dancing were not strictly illegal in Iran in 2009, artists faced the judgment of the government’s “morality police,” an entity which would often condemn innovative forms of art to be vulgar or exhibitionist, leading Afshin’s dance team to exist clandestinely. The film attempts both to tell a story of individual human triumph and to offer a look at the vibrant-yet-insulated artistic culture within Iran, but is never more than partially successful due to the audience’s disconnection between the film’s larger message and Afshin’s personal character arc.
Dance is where the film shines and accomplishes the majority of its message. Desert Dancer has three distinct dance sequences which take up a large chunk of running time. The second of these takes place in the desert outside of Tehran for a word-of-mouth audience. To Afshin, the “desert dance” is meant to represent the stifling of an entire generation’s freedom of expression.
This sequence, along with the other two, stands alone as a triumph in Raymond’s direction and thematic execution, with the helping hand of Akram Kahn’s choreography. The performance exhibits a form of modern dance that crosses paths with theater, as the dance tells a clear story of Iran’s cultural repression. The dancers’ bodies form words, emotions and sounds of struggle against the desert environment. Seen in isolation, the dance successfully represents the cultural message. It loses potency, though, under the influence of Afshin’s personal journey. What begins as an artistic passion for Afshin soon becomes a receptacle for the representation of artistic freedom, a responsibility too heavy for a character mostly unburdened by these issues.
The majority of the plot occurs in 2009, when Afshin is in his early twenties and attending the University of Tehran. He quickly befriends several students whose artistic tendencies have them rubbing up against disapproval or censorship from society, faculty, and even their own families. Inspired mostly by his friends’ (not his own) struggles for expression and his love for dance, Afshin creates the underground dance team. Soon after, the mysterious Elaheh (Slumdog Millionaire’s Frieda Pinto) shows up. She reveals herself to be an experienced technical dancer taught in secret by her late mother. Elaheh also follows in her mother’s tortured footsteps with a severe and inhibiting heroin addiction (drugs were filtered through the populace as a means of government control).
Afshin’s group finds ways to bypass banned YouTube videos and other internet sources in order to learn more of their craft. As Afshin introduces the team to his love of dance, his friends expose him to political rallying for the reformist “Green Movement.” When their candidate Mir Houssein Mousavi loses the election, the group is forced to carry on secret dance practices. This failed political election also partly becomes the inspiration for Afshin’s “desert dance.” However, Afshin doesn’t dedicate nearly as much time or passion to the political realm as he does to dance. He piggybacks off his good friend Ardavan’s (Tom Cullen, Downton Abbey) political affiliations, and only indirectly meets with related opposition when an acquaintance of his is jumped after a rally (or when he has to inconveniently access Michael Jackson videos through a third party VPN).
Ritchie’s portrayal of Afshin manages to reveal the character’s inner joy, resilient spirit, and passion for dance, but, because Afshin’s socio-political struggle is downplayed compared to those around him, this display of resiliency doesn’t feel properly utilized. The film’s message—what we are also meant to believe is Afshin’s message—tells more of his teammates’ stories and struggles than his own, particularly Pinto’s Elaheh.
Elaheh’s arc and developed interiority sets her up as an ideal representative of the dance’s meaning. Pinto’s ability to give Elaheh depth by playing the diverging emotions of suffering and endurance also makes her performance the clear stand-out. While Elaheh’s passion for dance and expression matches, if not surpasses, Afshin’s, her heroin dependence overpowers it. Afshin’s eventual love for her and his attempt to “heal” her finally seems to give him a personal connection to the dance’s message, but the link is indirectly filtered through another. If it wasn’t for her inability to face down her demons, Elaheh would best parallel the desperation and momentary victory of the dance. Unfortunately, her tragic story darkens the film’s desired tone of hope, speaking louder than either Afshin’s personal or socially rebellious triumph.
Soon after the “desert dance,” Afshin finally meets with direct socio-political hostility in a physical altercation with political conservatives—a momentous character-developing event that arrives a bit too little too late. Consequently, Afshin flees to Paris, where he is given an opportunity to finally perform in public and properly tell his personal story of artistic suppression. This final dance is another moment of powerful storytelling, as Afshin inserts himself and his own personal struggle into the performance. His most defining characteristic—his passion for dance—receives a platform here somewhat separate of the film’s larger goals. This sequence finally brings roundedness to Afshin’s character arc and reveals a personal triumph of will, but in a setting and with an effect distanced from the “desert dance.”
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Desert Dancer, while relating an inspiring true story and providing an abundant view into the artistic world of Iran’s youth, attempts to do so through the perspective of a disconnected main character. Afshin’s slowly materializing personal achievement makes him an empty vessel for artistic hope for the majority of the film. Elaheh’s story of pain and suppression also pulls focus and affects a message of disenchantment. The real-life Afshin Ghaffarian, who stands before the camera in the last moments of the film, manages to tell, in just a handful of facial expressions, the story of pain and eventual triumph of will that the film’s adaptation faltered in presenting. As Afshin fled Iran to safely pursue dance, he left behind a culture still facing in his absence the everyday obstacles of drugs, political storms, and artistic suppression—an unfortunate reality that pervades Desert Dancer’s overall message.