“Don’t act like the hypocrite who thinks he can conceal his wiles by loudly quoting the Koran.”
—Hafez, Iranian Poet, whose simple message opens The Stoning of Soraya M.
Editor’s note: This interview contains some minor film spoilers.
A woman accused of adultery, sentenced to die by public stoning, waits breathlessly. She is guarded by men with guns so she won’t try to escape. In the village, her neighbors gather piles of rocks, pounding and clicking them together rhythmically as though they were the percussion session for an unholy funeral dirge band. Soraya, surrounded by women preemptively dressed in black, has one hour to say goodbye to her daughters before she is to be taken to the site of the execution. She no longer has any friends in the village and her male relatives will not acknowledge her. Paraded through the streets like a captured oddity on display in a circus side show, her hands are finally bound by rope and she is placed into a hole and covered with dirt up to her waist.
Each ghoulishly choreographed movement in this danse macabre is designed to strip the woman of her remaining dignity. Her father, husband and male children cast the first stones and berate her with unfathomable slurs as her former friends and neighbors, in a frenzy of unjust bloodlust, cheer them on. Over the course of the process, each will have an opportunity to hurl a sharp, heavy piece of stone at her head, until she is killed.
The Stoning of Soraya M.
Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, James Caviezel, Navid Negahban, David Diaan
(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 26 Jun 2009 (Limited release); 2008)
The above description merely hints at what it is like to sit front and center at an execution by stoning, and the intensity of watching even a re-enacted version of this death sentence is nearly unbearable. It is practically unconscionable to think that stoning, an ancient ritual, is still allowed in the world at all, but director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s new film The Stoning of Soraya M. transports the viewer to this dark, incomprehensible place, and sheds light on the politics that lead to the title character’s death.
Based on French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s novel of the same name, the film will force audiences to confront, perhaps for the first time, what it really means to be a witness to this kind of outdated capital punishment that is almost exclusively inflicted upon women (beheading, burning and whipping are among the others). Kudos must be given to the filmmakers for even getting this kind of film made in the first place, as it is one that deals primarily with international women’s rights issues in a conscious-raising, politically-relevant way—not exactly a bankable topic, in Hollywood terms. On paper, the odds were definitely stacked against such a dangerous subject.
The depiction of Soraya’s violent death onscreen is eerily reminiscent of the recent public death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman gunned down in the streets of Tehran who became a symbol for freedom the world over, when video of the moment of her death spread virally through media outlets and social networking almost instantaneously. The thought of someone dying in such a public, bloody way, surrounded by hatred, violence or fear hits a raw nerve. I didn’t want to be confronted with the disturbing imagery of Neda bleeding to death in the street either, but like Soraya, Neda is representative of something bigger that must be addressed. The images of Soraya’s and of Neda’s deaths are haunting, but they drive home a very specific, lasting point: the wrongful deaths of the innocent cannot be tolerated in Iran or anywhere else.
Soraya’s brave female lead Zahra breaks the cycle of violence and oppression in her village by having the courage to stand up for what she believes is right and by speaking the truth, even when her life is at stake. Zahra is a multidimensional, heroic female lead character, over the age of 50, and she also happens to be Iranian, with her lines delivered mostly in Farsi. It is a particular treat that this character exists at all in a business that prizes youth and whiteness in its women for the most part. It is even more rewarding that Zahra is played, with a bottomless well of gravitas, by Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Iranian-American actress who rose to prominence for her work as Nadi Behrani opposite Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly in House of Sand and Fog six years ago despite a lengthy career in Iranian films (including a collaboration with Abbas Kiarostami, The Report).
Aghdashloo has consistently deconstructed the myths and stereotypes perpetuated in Western entertainment towards women of Middle Eastern descent, by playing to the extremes and infusing them with soulfulness and first-hand knowledge. As an Iranian expatriate who left the country while fleeing the oppressive religious fundamentalist regime that took over in the late ‘70s, she is privy to a reserve of experiences that a typical Hollywood actress might lack. The performer has given voice to a dramatic cross-section of Middle Eastern womanhood: there was the above-mentioned, Oscar-nominated performance as sheltered immigrant mother Nadi; Turkish-Muslim terrorist Dina Araz on 24; Saddam Hussein’s first wife Sajira in the BBC-HBO production The House of Saddam (which might finally bring her a long-overdue Emmy nomination), and now a rural Muslim spinster whose niece becomes the object of a misogynist, deadly plot, who defies tradition and convention to fight back against injustice.
It is her first lead role in many years, and she plays Zahra with a fiery conviction that her director Nowrasteh likens to Gary Cooper’s stoicism in High Noon. “She is the character who truly has strength in her convictions, who becomes the would-be protector of the innocent,” Nowrasteh has said. “And, even if she cannot save Soraya, she provides a real sense of hope for the future.” The “Western” genre is an apt comparison in the case of The Stoning of Soraya M., which employs a barren setting, a classic struggle of good versus evil, and a sequence of brutal violence that is both necessary to the story and emotionally harrowing to witness.
In Soraya’s opening scene, Zahra cuts a sharp figure against the smoldering orange morning sun of Kupayeh in her black chador, as the stars fade back into the indigo dawn sky. The stark, mountainous geography is stunning, and the visual-geographical elements are essential to truthfully telling the story. Zahra runs down a river bank, to a pile of bones that has been freshly picked apart by dogs. Furiously, shot in mournful close-up, she washes the bones in the water as her eyes flicker with paranoia. By chance, a journalist (James Caviezel) happens into Zahra’s village the day after the execution, and from there, The Stoning of Soraya M. sets out to tell the story of a woman condemned to die, who did nothing wrong.
In flashbacks, Zahra’s wrath is let loose as she castigates the crooked town Mullah (an imposter once jailed for sex crimes), who is trying to trick her niece Soraya (the tremendous Mozhan Marno) into divorcing her evil husband Ali (Navid Negahban). The Mullah even has the audacity to suggest Soraya become his sigheh (or “temporary wife”), to keep her from being labeled a whore and cast from proper society. With a furious intensity, something within her liberated by acting in Persian opposite a supportive ensemble, Aghdashloo’s Zahra unleashes years worth of hurt, and the actress delivers her strongest performance to date. Aghdashloo achieves something very rare with Zahra; she succeeds in portraying a female experience that has not yet been documented for the screen.
When Soraya arrives at her breaking point, after being demeaned and physically assaulted for the final time, she reminds Ali of his duties, by law and by Allah, to her and their daughters, which sends him into a rage. Ali wants to take a new 14-year-old wife, and decides to assume the role of God to get his way. He murderously seals the decent, kind Soraya’s fate with a web of lies and manipulation. The women of The Stoning of Soraya M. must maneuver outside of the conventional gender codes in order to get their desired results, men run and control everything in their village. Despite being ruthlessly beaten, Zahra must tell Soraya to go back home, in order to avoid “neglect” charges. The women of their village deal with rampant sexism, violence, unfair division of labor, and an almost total lack of economic autonomy. Nahra is respected in the village, she works, she participates in her community and she doesn’t stand for nonsense, especially when it comes to her family. She is the film’s strong moral center, and is, thus, considered a threat by the men, who are used to women tolerating their bad behavior. Finally, there is a female character who is a devout Muslim, a hero, and a fighter, who is not in any way a cliché or stereotype.
Kindly, Aghdashloo gave me a call to discuss The Stoning of Soraya. The actress has long been on my list of women who I greatly admire for combining artistry with activism, and she looks to women like Indira Gandhi and Michelle Obama for cues (“she’s beautiful inside and out”, said Aghdashloo of the First Lady). There is no mistaking her distinctive voice: smoky, cool and full of candor; it welcomes and puts one at ease almost immediately: “It’s such a pleasure to talk to you, thank you. I feel like every time I get to speak with a prominent journalist like you, I am still carrying Zahra’s wish. She told a reporter to tell the world. So I’m telling you and you’re telling the world, and now the world knows.”