Desert Dancer (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Richard Raymond, UK/United Arab Emirates/Romania/Morocco, 2014, 102 mins

Cast:  Reece Ritchie, Frieda Pinto, Tom Cullen

Review by Carol Allen

This is a powerful story, based on the real life experience of Iranian-born dancer and choreographer Afshin Ghaffarian, and is a passionate feature film debut by British director Raymond.

Born in Iran, Afshin discovers his love of dance at an early age in a country where dance is illegal.   Determined to pursue his dream however, Afshin forms a dance company with his university friends.  They teach themselves to dance through videos of work by artists ranging from Michael Jackson and Gene Kelly to Rudolf Nureyev, which they hack on YouTube – also illegal in their country.  As their skills develop the members of the young company feel an overpowering urge to communicate their art and put on a performance, which they do in secret out in the desert away from the eyes of authority – or so they hope.

The predominately British cast of young actors, which includes Ritchie as Afshin, Pinto as his partner and Cullen as another member of the dance troupe, are very appealing.  None of them are trained dancers but the dancing skills they were taught for the film by choreographer Akram Khan are impressive.  These sequences are very enjoyable, particularly the one of the performance in the desert, when we fear all the time that they are about to be discovered, which has a good sense of tension and foreboding counterpointing the actual dance.

There are also scenes of the group dancing and doing drugs in a night club – presumably also illegal – where the sense of youthful rebellion establishes a sense of identity recognition with young people everywhere.  It’s not unlike back in 1968, when television footage of young people in Czechoslovakia dancing to the Beatles in the brief period of the Prague Spring, before the Russian tanks crushed the new freedoms, created an empathy with young people in the West.  There is a further historical emotional analogy in the brutal behaviour of the “morality police”, when putting down a demonstration, which is disturbingly reminiscent of the Nazis in the 30s.

The opening scenes with Afshin (Gabriel Senior) as a child are good and veteran actor Makram Khoury lends a nice touch of older gravitas as his supportive teacher, who makes a moving reappearance at the end of the film. The story telling loses pace a bit in the middle, but then picks up from the desert dance sequence onwards.  

As this is based on a true story, it is no spoiler to reveal that Afshin escaped to the West with the help of a student drama company, who had permission from the authorities to perform in Paris.  The facts will however have been reshaped to make a feature film and I hope that the student performance of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is one of them, where Afshin, who is playing Caliban, steps out of character to make a passionate plea to the audience for freedom, which he does through dance.  The fact that he here lets down his fellow actors, who have helped him escape from Iran, by ruining their show to make his point, makes us rather lose sympathy for him, although the way he performs his story at this point is very dramatically effective.   I’d prefer though to think that in real life he used the character of the much abused Caliban to make his point and didn’t ruin the show for the other actors!  

Overall the film doesn’t always manage to sustain the emotional and dramatic impact it could have done from the subject matter but as it was made on a pretty low budget for such an ambitious project, that could be the reason.  It is however well worth seeing both for what it is saying about freedom of artistic expression and for the wealth of mainly young talent in the cast.

Review by Carol Allen