DESERT DANCER (2015) review
written by: Jon Crocker
produced by: Isabela Miko
directed by: Richard Raymond
rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some drug material and violence)
runtime: 98 min.
U. S. release date: April 10, 2015 (limited)
Maybe at on time introducing a film with “based on a true story” led viewers to sit up in their seat and pay a little more attention to what transpires in the film. But now, that overused phrase has caused audiences to chuckle to themselves when it appears on-screen or just roll their eyes. I definitely heard a few when I was at the screening of “Desert Dancer” as the phrase “based on a true story” appeared prior to the film’s start. I guess I can understand that reaction. It’s not as if we need a film to come out and say that for us to be pulled into the story. Or is such a statement trying to compensate for narrative flaws and tired clichés?
It’s as if there’s a sub genre just for these kind of films, somewhere under biopics. I often find myself more involved in a film’s story when I know as little as possible going in. If you need to through up some text on the screen establishing the political turmoil or governmental rule of the story’s environment, but you don’t have to follow it up with a “based on a try story” stamp. “Desert Dancer” unfortunately is compelled to do both.
For the most part, “Desert Dancer” takes place during the tumultuous presidential 2009 election in Iran, which we see through the eyes of Afshin Ghaffarian (played as a boy by Gabriel Senior and as a young man by Reece Ritchie “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”), a dancer/choreographer now living in France. Afshin stood apart from most kids his age as a child, gravitating to music and movies (he was smitten with “Dirty Dancing”), a passion that was suppressed and forbidden in Iran as morality police roamed the streets like militant gangs just waiting for someone to trip up. It sounds archaic, but it still happens today. Last year a handful of young Iranians were given 91 lashes and jail time because they were found dancing in Pharell’s “Happy” video. As hard as it is to fathom, such stringent laws are real and still active today.
Luckily for Afshin, he has a mother that encourages his interests and is recruited to a secretive school (more like a club) led by a the kindly Medhi (Makram Khoury), a teacher supportive of the arts. It is there that Afshin finds an outlet, is exposed to The Kingmen’s “Louie Louie” and a safe learning environment in the confines of this particular school.
By the time Afshin is college age, it’s 2009 and he is attending the University of Tehran, looking to pursue his interests. He is reminded that the arts are still suppressed, especially amid such a volatile political environment. Nevertheless, Afshin decides to form an underground dance troupe, in an effort to create something from his heart, free from the totalitarian rules. Supporting by like-minded peers, Ardie (Tom Cullen “Downton Abbey”), Maria (Marama Corlett, you missed her in “Guardians of the Galaxy” if you blinked) and a mysterious outsider, Elaheh (Freida Pinto “Slumdog Millionaire”), Afshin commits to hours of rehearsals, while studying YouTube clips of Michael Jackson, Gene Kelly and Rudolf Nureyev.
It isn’t enough though. Afshin longs for an audience to share the expressive dance sequences he and his troupe have tirelessly worked on. Afshin comes up with the idea of performing in the desert, on the outskirts of the Tehran, for a private audience. Such a secretive event won’t happen without challenges within and outside the troupe, especially with the threat of government officials finding out.
If director Richard Raymond would’ve delved more into defining the main characters more, “Desert Dancer” would certainly be a more compelling film. Instead, the political environment is at every corner, broad strokes and all. Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” from last year covers this environment more successfully. Now, it doesn’t help that Jon Crocker’s screenplay is littered with both repetitive and redundant dialogue, but Raymond heavy inclusion of the political backdrop often overwhelms the already interesting story. It’s as if he forces a thriller upon the viewer, with cartoonish antagonists and truly obvious set-ups, instead of simply allowing the struggles of these characters to build tension for the audience.
The focus on the developing relationship between Afshin and Elaheh receives a good chunk of screen time. That wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for how formulaic Elaheh’s arc feels. Her mother was a professional ballerina before the revolution and once the strict laws were enforced, she turned to drugs. Just as Elaheh learned her dancing moves from her mother, she also developed a heroin addiction as well. This obviously becomes problematic for the troupe, particularly causing stress and friction between Afshin and Elaheh. None of these is handled with a cheese, but there is a feeling of familiarity that deflects any real investment in the plight of these characters.
That being said, the dancing sequences in “Desert Dancer” are solid and often quite captivating, especially in the performance scene in the desert. For a film with such a title, there better be a payoff in the sand. There may be a plethora of montages building up to that pivotal performance, but the actor’s give it their all. They contort and twist in impressive movements, as their characters tell a captivating story without words. If only dancing was more in the forefront of this film, instead of the political drama that threatens to tip it off-balance.