“Desert Dancer” which opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles is part political thriller and part dance film. Set during the 2009 national elections in Iran it follows a close knit group of six student activists in Tehran whose lives strike glancing blows against the politically and socially repressive Islamic State. The accomplished, well organized screenplay by Jon Croker is based on the life story of Afshin Ghaffarian who galvanizes his friends into starting a clandestine dance company. Richard Raymond in an exceptional directorial debut deftly balances political and personal narratives, as well as drawing out strong performances from a fine cast.
At the center of the story are Elaheh (Freida Pinto) and Afshin (Reece Ritchie). Both give affecting, emotional performances. Elaheh has already weathered enough loss to turn her into a heroin addict. Their love interest and her rescue are woven into the story with beautiful understatement. The evolving friendships culminate in a rapturous dance sequence in the desert where Afshin has organized a performance for a small audience. Fearing repercussions from the state and continued harassment and beatings, it’s the only place where they can find the freedom they need to dance publicly. Former ballet dancer Marama Corlett also gives an excellent performance in her supporting role.
The dance sequences were choreographed by Akram Khan who has been associated with many crossover theatrical dance projects and who has his own contemporary company based in London. For these untrained dancers Khan finds just the right mix of naivete, awkwardness, and emotional fervor for the dance scenes. Given the scope of his contributions he is unfairly listed in the film’s IMDb credits only as “other crew”.
The narrative develops using flashbacks which touch on the childhoods of both Eleheh and Afshin. The focal dance sequence in the desert is beautifully shot. The true to life chaos and violence of a political street rally scene (which focuses on a woman being beaten) seems modeled on the death of Neda Agha-Soltan who was shot by state supported militia during the 2009 election protests. The moving camera puts you on the edge of the brutality. The film concludes in Paris with another remarkable dance theater sequence shot with distorted close ups and rapid fire cutting. Afshin’s escape is finally both literal and figurative.