“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film will force audiences to confront, perhaps for the first time, what it really means to be a witness to this kind of outdated capital punishment that is almost exclusively inflicted upon women (beheading, burning and whipping are among the others).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.”
Is it important for you to combine acting with activism?
Is it important for you to combine acting with activism?
Shohreh Aghdashloo: Well, yes, after all, it has become important to me. I have lived and worked in Iran, in the Middle East, in Europe and in the US. Having seen all kinds of people, from all walks of life, living with them, and having witnessed these injustices going on around the world, including in my home country Iran, it turned me into an actress with a mission, whether I like it or not. And mostly, I am enjoying it because as an actor I am beyond the stage of worrying about fame and fortune and beyond the stage of making a name for myself. I’m standing at a point in my career where I would rather do meaningful and educating films rather than just entertaining films, I would say.
I have to admit that before taking on this assignment, I had a lot of misconceptions about the ritual of “stoning”, in general. This film was a huge eye-opener for me on the subject. Why do you think this type of punishment is selected still?
Unfortunately, it’s been with humanity since the beginning. Throughout history it’s been a part of all religions: Judaism, Christianity, other religions, other nations have gotten rid of it. But unfortunately, people who are abusing Islam to manipulate people, they are still using a punishment that was going on in Muhammad’s time. Actually, it’s not a part of Islam, it’s just a cultural matter, because it’s not in the Koran, it’s not mentioned in Islam’s holy book, it’s only been mentioned in the stories told at Muhammad’s time or after him. It’s more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. But those who are manipulating the religion are obviously still using it for the main fact that fear works better than anything else. The other day my daughter was asking me ‘why aren’t the women of Iran standing up for their rights?’ I kept telling her ‘do not underestimate the power of fear’. The stoning is a form of barbaric punishment, an ancient punishment, made to make people fear.
Is it fair to say that stoning is mainly a punishment for women?
Men and women both. I have seen a real one on tape. It came out of Iran in the early ‘90s and it involves two young men, 18 and 19, and they are being stoned for being homosexuals, for having a so-called “inappropriate” relationship. Usually, they stone women with the men they have been caught with together. In Soraya’s case, they don’t do it to the man because he has a retarded son and because he himself is almost retarded, that’s why they don’t touch him, and of course, they know they’re lying. They know that they need this man to lie. Otherwise, they would stone both.
I liked this quote from your director: “Our cast and crew are brave people who put their lives and careers on the line to make sure this movie would be seen.” The Stoning of Soraya M. looks at women’s rights, and capital punishment, among other volatile topics. What do you think are the dangers of making a politically-charged film, filled with complex moral issues, such as this?
Well, it’s mostly the fear. Again, it is the fear of the unknown, which is the worst fear on the face of the earth. But at the end of the day, to commit myself to something meaningful, I am not afraid of this. At the end of the day, when I think about that woman who was sitting in her cell, waiting to be stoned, I would rather go with that woman than my life, or my career, or my Iranian image. I’m not saying that I’m not afraid, I’m saying that it’s worth it.
Iran is a country where there are many different kinds of women, ranging from very modern in the city to rural working class women as in the film. What do you the biggest Western misconceptions about Iranian women are?
That Iranian women will give up. They don’t. They never do. They are really strong women with strong willpower. Forty percent of the protestors on the streets of the cities of Iran are women. They’re naming it a “women’s revolution”. Many “Zahras” are running on the streets of Iran now, including Mr. Mousavi’s wife named Zahra. They won’t give up.
I once heard Ingmar Bergman’s great actress Harriet Andersson talk about her fears of making any movies that required her to speak in a language other than her own. What are the differences for you acting in Persian and English?
First of all, it’s interesting you say “Ingmar Bergman” – My husband and I have a theater company, and we have our own group, who I jokingly call my “Ingmar Bergman” group. I love, love his work. His actors – oh my God. They’re incredible. The best method actors in the whole world!
It was really an opportunity for me to speak in Farsi, after 30 years, in the movie. None of us had done this before—neither me, nor the incredible Iranian cast who joined me, like Mr. [Parvis] Sayyad, who plays the mechanic or Mr. [Ali] Pourtash who plays the Mullah. When we all got together in that village and started speaking Farsi in front of each other, we all had strange feelings, of course. But then, a few hours passed by and language was no longer an issue. We were just together, on the same page, [and were] trying to put on a brave face despite this picture being about this horrific act. As a matter of fact, it was very nostalgic, I should say. We kept speaking Farsi all day and kept singing Persian songs, or Farsi songs, in the evening when we were having dinner. We hadn’t had this opportunity in years, none of us. You can imagine it helped us to keep ourselves ‘up’ and to stay together until we finished doing this story.
I imagine that you would need to have a strong bond with your fellow cast members when acting out something so intense…
Absolutely. With tragedies, actors tend to keep themselves ‘up’ all the time. We joked around. We were, you know, making fun of each other. One of us liked to do a lot of practical jokes. The only time that we really couldn’t do it, or in other words, didn’t have the energy to stay ‘up’ anymore, was when we were filming the stoning scene. It took six days and the director covered it from all angles. It looked so real that it was so hard for all of us to go through: the victim in the hole, the villagers who got to participate in the film and the extras who got to throw the stones, with the familiar faces, shouting “Allah akhbar, God is great”. At one point, I think it was on the fourth or fifth day, I’m not quite sure, I opened my eyes, and I really had a hard time telling the difference between cinema and reality. That’s how moving the whole shooting of the scene was.
As a viewer to be front and center for a scene like that is tough. It’s an intimate experience, and watching the mob violence is terrifying. It’s a very challenging thing to sit through, but I suppose necessary to get the point across? Do you feel the violence in the film is justified for the subject matter?
Absolutely. For people who believe that the film is graphic, I have to tell them that in comparison to the real one I saw on tape, this one is a mild version. The real one that I watched, it took an hour and a half for them to die and was far worse than this one [in the film]. Yes, you’re absolutely right, in order to send a message across, we needed to show bits and pieces of it.
You’ve blazed a trail by representing a diverse spectrum of Middle Eastern women’s experiences with the many different kinds of characters you’ve played. What are the responsibilities of being a trailblazer for you?
They are enormous, and to be honest with you, I have a lot to do. There is a lot left to pay attention to but, you know, one at time, I pick them up with a pair of tweezers (laughing). You know how meticulous I am with my work! I’m not in a hurry! I know that there will be time, there’s a time for everything. Twenty years ago, I wished that a film about stoning would be made, and that the act, the public wouldn’t beatify it. Now, it’s happening. It was meant to happen now, not back then. I just wait, gradually and slowly, and bring into light the things that I have witnessed. I believe that humanity should do something about this.