Monday, July 06, 2009

Film Reviews: The Stoning of Soraya M.

By: David Forsmark
Monday, July 06, 2009

The Stoning of Soraya M.
Directed by by Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring Mozhan Marno and Shohreh Aghdashloo

No matter how much you may have researched, discussed, or even protested the ways in which Sharia Law oppresses women forced to live under its dictates-- and even if you have read every word written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Nonie Darwish— the masterful new film, The Stoning of Soraya M., is invaluable viewing.

Like The Passion of the Christ, (which a number of the Stoning film makers were also involved with) The Stoning of Soraya M. comes harrowingly close to adding experience to something which can be too often relegated to the intellectual.

In his Cairo speech, President Barack Obama proved he needs to take the time to watch this film. While he might admire empathy as a quality for Supreme Court justices, he expressed it in all the wrong places while discussing the role of women in the Muslim world.

Rather than point out that the majority of American military conflicts in the past two decades have protected Muslims from invasion and even genocide-- and brought expanded rights to tens of millions of Muslim women-- Obama bafflingly grabbed this obscure ACLU talking point to illustrate our goodwill:

"The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal,…’’

To pretend the wearing of the hijab is largely a choice for women that must be defended against Western cultural imperialism goes far beyond the usual crock of diplo-speak. The hijab is merely the outward manifestation of the seamless garment, if you will, of Sharia Law’s enslavement of women, which ultimately results in brutal acts such as the title atrocity of The Stoning of Soraya M.

Obama did have one criticism for the Sharia system, one which (coincidentally, of course) happens to cut close to home for one of his most loyal union constituencies-- “but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous."

A major problem, to be sure. But what about the right of a woman to marry—or not—whom she pleases, to speak and associate with whom she pleases, to make a living, and yes, to dress as she pleases, including not to wear a hijab? How about the right of a woman not to be beaten for neglecting to cater to every whim of a man—and sometimes even when she does?

And ultimately, as this movie so memorably illustrates, to be allowed to at least defend herself in court when her own life is at stake; and not to be killed when she becomes inconvenient to her family or husband?

While many will understandably focus on the climactic act of brutality in The Stoning of Soraya M., the film’s plot, as it unfolds, subtly provides a detailed look at Sharia’s systematic subjugation of women in every aspect of life-- from her place in the home to her place in the public square.

With all the vital issues raised by the film, it seems almost crass to discuss its artistic or commercial merits, as one would Star Trek, or Up. But it is nonetheless important. As the deserved tanking of films like Lions for Lambs and Redacted proves, Americans don’t buy tickets for crude propaganda; and as important as murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh’s Submission may have been, (mainly by bringing world attention to Ayaan Hirsi Ali) the film itself is basically unwatchable.

It might seem shallow to rate Stoning as a piece of “entertainment,” but it must be said that this is a compelling and gripping piece of storytelling that compares favorably to William Wellman’s 1943 anti-lynching classic, The Ox-Bow Incident. Audiences seem to agree. The Stoning of Soraya M. took the Audience Prize at the recent Los Angeles film festival—and not because of any media hype that made it the Thing To Do.

Stoning is based on the 1994 book by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, who accidentally uncovered the story while stranded by car trouble in a remote Iranian village in the mid-1980s.

Sahebjam, (played by James Caveziel) is approached by Zahra an older, well-off widow who seems to have some stature in the town that protects her from harm. Zahra is powerfully played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was an Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress in House of Sand and Fog, and memorably played a conflicted jihadist mother in Season 4 of 24.

Zahra is determined to tell the world the story of her niece, Soraya, who was falsely accused of adultery by her corrupt husband, Ali, the town jailer who was trading mercy to a condemned prisoner in exchange for taking the man’s 14 year old daughter as his next wife. While Sharia Law allows a man four wives, Ali cannot afford two, and Soraya refuses to give him a divorce as he plans to leaver her and their daughters destitute, taking only their boys with him.

Ali manipulates the corrupt town Mullah, the weak-willed mayor, and intimidates a crucial “witness,” into supporting his plot to legally murder his wife with the consent and participation of the town—and even Soraya’s family.

As encouraging as it may be to see young Iranians marching in the street, they have a lot more to overcome than just the rulers at the top of their culture. The Stoning of Soraya M. reveals the insidious nature of Sharia Law by showing the way everyone is forced or drawn to participate in Soraya’s murder, from officials to her own sons. It takes a village to stone Shorayah.

And that is not the only gutsy decision made by director Cyrus Nowrasteh and his screenwriter wife, Betty Giffen Nowrasteh. Showing the stoning in detail has caused some to cringe; but it is important to show that this is not a quick death, and to realize the savagery of the group mentality necessary to carry this slow torture to its conclusion. Allowing us to look away with a fade to black would not convey the true brutality of what Sharia requires.

The Nowrastehs also had a tough artistic choice to make. A straightforward chronological telling of the story with its inevitable conclusion might have made the film too much to bear. By employing the devise of framing the tale of Shorayah with the efforts of Zahra to get the truth out, they opened themselves to the charge of trivializing the story by giving it a thriller element; but because of this element, the audience is given some glimmer of hope to hang onto.

The device works beautifully. While the film certainly has an agenda, it is a compelling story, not merely a sermon.

I should also say a word about the courage of actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who has certainly not flinched from taking politically charged—and politically incorrect—roles. She gives another magnificent performance here, giving the film its moral center and keeping it from being just a grim story of victimhood.

Cyrus Nowrasteh, who also was the screenwriter for The Path to 9/11, and The Day Reagan Was Shot, is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. But how big a force depends on the support of everyone who has ever complained about the lack of moral vision in Hollywood.

Don’t be intimidated by the somber subject matter. Get out and see The Stoning of Soraya M. Too many people have risked too much to get the truth out, if we ignore it, their efforts are in vain.

Touch of Evil

Art imitates life, and vice versa, in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.'

by Stephen F. Hayes
The Weekly Standard
07/13/2009, Volume 014, Issue 40

The Stoning of Soraya M. is an intense film. It is a beautiful film. It is a disturbing film. Mostly, though, it is an important film--one that reminds us, powerfully and without apology, what evil looks like, what it feels like, and why it's crucial that we recognize and condemn evil when we see it, even when it might be easier to downplay or rationalize or ignore it.

MPower Pictures/Courtesy

Martyr. Soraya (Mozhan Marno) is stoned to death in director Cyrus Nowrasteh's latest film, based on a novel by Freidoune Sahebjam.

For that reason, Soraya might be the best-timed movie release in decades. Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh and produced by Stephen McEveety and John Shepherd of Mpower Pictures, it is set in a rural Iranian village in 1986. It is based on the true story of Freidoune Sahebjam, a French-Iranian reporter who happened upon the town one day after the public stoning of Soraya M., and learned of the horrific act from Soraya's aunt.

Soraya is convicted of adultery after Ali, her abusive husband of 20 years and father of her four children, invents a story about Soraya's supposed liaison with the village idiot, a recent widower. The charges are false. Ali, a jailer, made them up so that he could leave Soraya for the 14-year-old daughter of a local doctor under his watch in prison. Ali blackmails the local sheikh into endorsing the charges and, with this backing, eventually tricks or cajoles several others, including the town's gullible mayor, into joining the harassment of Soraya.

The heroine of the story is Zahra, Soraya's aunt, a feminist anachronism, an outspoken woman who stubbornly refuses to give up her voice in the early years of Iran's post-Revolution theocracy. And it is a haunting voice, both in tone and substance. Zahra, played by the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, known primarily for her work in House of Sand and Fog and the fourth season of 24, has a deep, gruff voice that ads urgency to her pleas on behalf of Soraya, and adds strength to her confrontations with villagers.

The Stoning of Soraya M. has a curiously suspenseful feel to it, despite the fact that the title eliminates any doubt about Soraya's eventual fate. Will they actually do it? How will they do it? Who will participate?

The stoning scene itself is gruesome. Early in the sequence, Soraya, wearing all white and buried up to her waist, is struck in the forehead with a sharp stone. Blood that begins as a trickle soon pours out of her fresh wound, discoloring her dress and the loose dirt around her. The violence, though difficult to watch, is powerful and essential: This is what evil looks like. It should be uncomfortable.

It has also proven uncomfortable for some critics. The New York Times's Stephen Holden, who once lauded Quentin Tarantino's blood-soaked Reservoir Dogs as a "critic's choice," worries that the violence in Soraya veers off into "lurid torture-porn," and that the contrast between good and evil is too pronounced. Real evil, it seems, is much more difficult to comprehend than the pretend or abstract variety.

We have seen this from the White House as well. Speaking as a candidate, Barack Obama promised to stand for the human rights of Iranian bloggers and to support those who have marched and bled for democracy. Those were nice sentiments that helped him sound presidential at a time in his campaign when sounding presidential mattered most. But for more than a week after Iran's fraudulent elections, as Iranian bloggers were being silenced, and as Iran's marchers for democracy were bleeding in the streets, President Obama was virtually silent. And when the regime dispatched its thugs to smother protests with wanton brutality, Obama praised Iran's "vigorous debate."

The stoning scene was eerily reminiscent of a spectacle that unfolded in Tehran on June 20. A member of the regime's Basij militia gunned down a beautiful young woman standing on the side of the road, near a rally. A shaky video of the immediate aftermath was quickly uploaded and available for viewing on the Internet. It shows Neda Agha-Soltan--whose first name means "voice"--lying on the ground, surrounded by a group of men frantically trying to stop the bleeding from a wound in her chest.

As the camera focuses on her face, her life drifts away. And as her great brown eyes roll backwards, blood begins to flow from her eyes and nose--slowly at first, then in an inexorable flood of death.

President Obama would eventually condemn the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan and others like it. But he did so reluctantly, and only when he had no other political choice. Neda wasn't stoned to death, but she might as well have been. The method of her killing was more technologically advanced and efficient, but that was the only difference between her murder and the stoning of Soraya M.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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