Monday, February 3, 2014

Sepideh Movie Reaches For The Stars

Opening in the Sa'adat Shahr in the Fars province of Iran, 16-year-old Sepideh Hooshyar dreams of becoming an astronaut while stargazing the universe from just outside the light limits of her small town. She carries her telescope up and down the hills of Sa'adat Shahr, just like her father used to do before his death.

In looking for others who share her passion for astronomy, she joins an astronomy club headed by Asghar Kabiri. Several of them meet up to view astronomical events together. As she invest more and more time into stargazing at night, she begins to find more pressure during the day as it becomes clear her ambitions and the expectations of her family are in conflict.

Sepideh is a reminder that dreams remain the most important freedoms.

It's easy to forget that Sepideh is a documentary at the hands of Danish director Berit Madsen. He spent a few years in the company of this teenage girl who dared to dream about becoming an astronaut in a world where astronauts have no place in a conservative Muslim culture.

Even more remarkably, Madsen manages to tell the story with compassion as opposed to criticism. While her family is comfortable compared to her neighbors, their finances are increasingly strained. The fields they own have gone dry; the oil from the irrigation pumps stolen.

Because they cannot afford to send Sepideh to a university, the family continues to receive criticism for the teenager's increasingly unlikely dreams. They tell her, on more than one occasion, that it might be time to stop sleeping the day away to stay up and see the stars. Instead, she should study cooking or other domestic skills that would make her more attractive to marry.

Despite making promises to her mother to consider a change of course, Sepideh still feels that it is her destiny to become an astronomer and make her father proud. She applied for a scholarship in an attempt to pursue her dreams.

It is sad but perhaps not surprising that she is eventually turned down for the scholarship (likely because she is female). She turns to Kabiri, but even he doesn't seem to be on her side. He would rather see her stay in Sa'adat Shahr and use her passion to help him reach his dreams of seeing a 20-year-old observatory be built in the area.

Because this is real life, the story becomes an important warning for anyone who thinks they have to give up on their dreams. In showing us how Iranian society piles on obstacles for someone with big ideas, some might find those obstacles creeping into their own societies as exception or dependency replaces their race toward something better.

As the film progresses, it becomes increasing infuriating as Sepideh swims upstream while never giving up hope of following in the footsteps of multi-millionaire Anousheh Ansari, who became the first Iranian into space. The story, as well as its conclusion, is mesmerizing in its ability to rekindle the dreams of an audience as well as keep her dreams alive after struggling for two years.

Another graph or two about filmmaker Berit Madsen.

Berit Madsen is a social anthropologist and documentary filmmaker from Denmark best known for carrying out film work in the Caribbean, Nepal, and Niger. She has produced a number of documentaries as part of her research, slowly becoming a master of ethnographic research and observational cinema.

Madsen has lectured extensively on the subject of ethnographic filmmaking in Denmark, India, and Serbia. She has been a member of the working committee of the Nordic Anthropological Film Association since 1991, NAFA vice general secretary since 2006, and co-editor of its electronic newsletter NAFA-Network since 1993. Sepideh is perhaps her most visually striking and emotionally stirring film.

Sepideh By Berit Madsen Shoots 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

In watching Sepideh, it is almost impossible not to feel simultaneously empathetic for the girl and sympathetic for any of our own dreams that have remained unfinished. It is an expose of personal conviction and courage, one that is inspiring despite any trials and tribulations that Madsen takes us through.

You can find the film available for rent or purchase on iTunes. You can discover more about the film on the digital issues of DFI-FILM website. A remarkable film all around and two years in the making.
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