Since I have lived in Turkey, I was attracted by the movie’s Middle Eastern setting (it was filmed somewhere in Iran) and by the fact that it was a runner-up for the “audience choice award” at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. I also remembered Shohreh Aghdashloo (the actress playing Zahra, Soraya’s aunt in the film) from Catherine Hardwicke’s film, The Nativity Story, in which she played the role of Elizabeth, Mary’s older cousin.
It was only after I started watching the movie that I realized what I had gotten myself into. The acting was good, but the events that I was viewing were so wearying – men playing out their desire for homage and revenge, and the women just trying to keep going, to manage in impossible situations. I felt drained and wanted to stop watching. But the relationships among the villagers were solid and felt human. The way that the women effortlessly let their veils fall inside their houses, yet had them always ready to use as covering, made me marvel at how adaptable people are in retaining personality, regardless of custom.
The film has been held up as an indictment of the Sharia law that is actively practiced in some Islamic countries today. It is based on a book written in 1994 by a French journalist of Iranian descent, who learned of Soraya’s story when passing through an Iranian village in 1986. Zahra’s niece’s husband, wanting to divorce her and take a young child bride, connived with the local mullah to bring charges of infidelity against Soraya. He took this measure because Soraya refused divorce on the grounds that she and her daughters would be left penniless.
The movie is working on several assumptions at once: first showing us how Islamic law makes it easier to manipulate women. Yet the type of bondage that Soraya finds herself in also plays out in our Western cultures- when your children’s father may turn violent, becoming your adversary. There is more help and outreach in the West, but not everyone is able to access it.
In this true story, Soraya is innocent. The husband and the imam are transgressors of the law. In other stonings, the woman may not be innocent, but this brutal execution method is still horrifying, and Nowrasteh wants to educate us on this point. Recently the Taliban in Afghanistan stoned both a woman and her lover to death. The man was allowed to be upright and have his eyes covered, while the woman had to be in a hole and could only gaze at her executioners.
Because of the acting and the characters catching my interest, I was committed to finish the movie, even as it worked towards its fatal conclusion. What the filmmaker Nowrasteh wanted to do was show a real stoning. Other movies traditionally show stoning as happening quickly – we see the first cuts on the cheek, then a torrent of stones cascading over a prostrate body. Nowrasteh learned that the speediness of the event was not accurate – that stonings can take some time. Some critics have decried the film for the relentless portrayal of Soraya’s execution, drawn out in excruciating detail with innumerable pauses. However, this is evidently how it happens.
What I found interesting was how some men and women reported uncontrollable weeping after watching this movie. I experienced the same, and wondered at this. It was a movie, after all. But the physicality of the experience is what works on you, and makes the film unique. As the director said, when pressed, “This movie is not for everyone.” However, the film is not exploitative; it just takes you step by step through the event. And this is still part of our human history - of how, as the character of Zahra relates, “The evil one was here.”
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