Relativity Media releases Desert Dancer in select theaters on April 10th, 2015.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How important and challenging was it to ground Desert Dancer in humanism?
Richard Raymond: It's not challenging---it's probably the foundation of the entire project, and of all the energy that goes into this film. Desert Dancer is not a political film in any way, shape or form. It's a story about a shared human connection, and the heroes of Iran who are the youth of Iran, and what they do instinctively to exist artistically despite all of the restrictions that they live under which they think is no big deal. We think that it's a big deal because we're fascinated that dance could be illegal or forbidden, but they just exist. I thought it was really heroic. It's always been a film about the people of Iran, and, in that sense, it's a human film. That was the reason why I wanted to make it in English. Even though the real language of the film is dance, I felt that the plight of the Iranian people was known only too well by the Iranian people, and if I told it in a universal and accessible manner, then the rest of the world would suddenly have a positive awareness for seeing this film and being exposed to this story. That was an important thing to do.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience while provoking them emotionally and intellectually?
RR: Instinctively. Nothing is ever done by design. It's just what feels right. It felt right to make a big cinematic statement with the desert dance. It has taken me a long time to make my first film, and I wanted to shoot it on film. I wanted to make a piece of cinema---I always well. It was never an intention to make the film entertaining; it was always the intention to tell the story, and it's a great story.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance between the dark and light elements of the film?
RR: There are so many stories within the film that are very dark. Elaheh, Freida Pinto's character, for instance---there's another film within a film with her story. It really goes to a dark place. Here you have character whose mother, a dancer at the National Ballet in Tehran that was closed down in 1979, she suddenly had this talent that she was no longer able to use. She turned to drugs, and when she was pregnant and her daughter was born, she passed the curse onto having this gift, teaching her daughter the dance behind closed curtain. When her mother dies of a heroin overdose, the daughter then inherits the addiction, and inherited her curse in a much more mature way. So, her story is very, very dark, while Afshin represents the lighter side of the story--the passionate side. He tries to bring her over, but it ends in tragedy and it doesn't work out for her. So, in a sense, I think the balance between light and dark is represented by those two characters.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you develop a trusting relationship between you and Afshin Ghaffarian?
RR: Before he had told us his entire story, it took 6 months to get to know him and to show him that our intentions were good. You could imagine, all that Afshin has a political refugee at that time in his life is his story. Also, he had just gotten off the plane 2 weeks before, and suddenly we show up and want to make a film about his life. You can imagine that it would take an incredible amount of trust for him. That took time, and took consistency and honesty and openness. After that time of period had gone, we then set up a camera. We just said, "Look, we're not going to share parts of your story if you don't want us to. We won't do anything detrimental to your character." But he just opened up and told us everything. We ended up spending 2 days with him, and there were about 10 hours of video footage telling us the story of his life. It took us months to try to simulate and to understand what are the points of his life that we were going to tell. So, it never felt intrusive because we built up a good relationship by that point. When we met him, he was a very angry young man by his own admission, but today he's much calmer and much more reflective and has a much more mature look at things. It's been great to have his support the whole way through.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that you shot enough footage of Afshin to make a documentary about him?
RR: I'm sure there will be something on the DVD. We definitely will be using some of the footage, with his permission, on the DVD. The film does end up as a doorway to learn more because there's much more complexity in Iran than we present--there's many more shades of gray. That's something that's important for people to discover if they want to discover it. There are so many stories, and you don't have to be a human rights activist to suddenly be exposed to them.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Will there ever be world peace?
RR: It's always important to remember that I'm not a foreign correspondent or a professor. [laughs] But it would be lovely, wouldn't it? We live in dark times, and stories like this show you that through courage and art, there's hope. I hope that there will be more stories like this and that people will be inspired to find a career in the arts because of this film. Art really paves the way to many things that lead to hope and peace. It's the artists---you hear many activists saying this---who promote it in a way that it speaks the loudest. So, films like Desert Dancer have a responsibility, I think, to bring positive awareness into the world if that's the story that you're choosing to tell.
NYC MOVIE GURU: I'm so glad that Desert Dancer received a PG-13 instead of an R-rating by the MPAA
RR: So am I! [laughs]
NYC MOVIE GURU: How tough was the MPAA?
RR: They were very tough on Desert Dancer as well, but, at the same time, I have to give the MPAA credit because they understood that this was in no way showing that drug use to kids is ok. This was actually showing the tragedy of drug use, and the evils that come from drug use. I actually had a long conversation with the MPAA, and they were brilliant. They supported that message wholeheartedly to get that message across.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would something be lost by watching Desert Dancer on the small screen compared to a large screen at a movie theater?
RR: Definitely. Watch it on the biggest screen that you can. I shot it on 35mm, but I shot it anamorphic. We have a few sequences in the dessert. There is only one place to see this film, and that's on the cinema screen because, if you're going to watch live dance, you're not going to watch it on your phone or home computer---it has no effect on you. When you watch this film with an audience and have a collective experience, it has a hugely emotional experience for all of the audience. That's something that I don't want to deny the audience from taking. Desert Dancer is a film that you can know the beginning, middle and end to, but it won't spoil anything for the film because the film is about the experience of watching it in a large auditorium.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you feel like Iran is like a character in itself in the film?
RR: The unspoken character in this film is Iran. Even thought we couldn't shoot in Iran for real, you really get the feeling of the country in the film. The claustrophobia of the city, the freedom of the desert---that contrast was something that I sought out.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How important is it to trust the audience's intelligence and imagination?
RR: We live in a time when, only recently, we had a film called Rosewater that was all political and all historical and told the audience everything about what happened in detail in that time. So, I didn't want to repeat what people have known. The news and the history is so accessible. I think it was important to make a film for people that knew the history and would understand it without it being repeated. And for people who didn't know anything about the history, it would open up the doorway to wanting to learn more while still understanding the movie at the same time.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you avoid veering into preachiness in the film?
RR: It's not my job to do that. I can't do that. It's not propaganda, and it's been great to see people like you recognize that. It's important not to be preachy. My producer would never let me do that.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that complacency is a problem nowadays?
RR: We take everything for granted. I know I did. We take our freedom of expressions for granted. What a story like Desert Dancer does is show people how other people on the other side of the world don't have the same rights and freedoms that we do. There's this incredible Facebook page called My Stealthy Freedom which showcases all these thousands of women from Tehran taking off their headscarfs and taking pictures of themselves in defiance of the laws of the Islamic Republic. I find that to be interesting as well. I'm an advocate for women's rights and human rights. I've become one in the making of the film. One of the actresses in the film is Nazanin Boniadi who's an official spokesperson for Amnesty International, and she's a huge advocate for women's rights. I learned a lot from her. Even though she only has a tiny part in the film, you recognize her from Homeland and Scandal, and she's the female lead in Ben-Hur, so she did me this huge favor for me by doing this tiny little scene, but she added so much weight to the film in terms of teaching and the support and the counseling she gave me about the life in Iran and about how the youth exist day-to-day in Iran despite everything. That made me realize how we take everything for granted, and how lucky we are.
NYC MOVIE GURU: If you were to meet someone who's apathetic and simple-minded, how would open them up to large, important human rights issues without being condescending or frightening them away?
RR: The big issues with someone with apathy are always reflected in their own lives in some way or another. You look at what are the events in their lives, you magnify them, and then you suddenly realize that we all have the same issues and face the same dilemmas and oppression somehow. It could be something else and you relate that to other people, and then it might open up their world.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging was it to keep the running time under 2 hours?
RR: I met someone who said to me, "With an independent film, I have a 100-minute ass. If you want me sitting in a chair for over 100 minutes, you better give me The Avengers or Interstellar." [laughs] I felt that it didn't need to be longer, and Relativity Media let me show the film and sit in an audience---an American audience--and see the film and feel the room. It felt long to me, so I wanted to cut it back down and get the running time lower. They let me do it, and it just felt like the right length. It's all about the pacing; it's never about the numbers, but I know how you feel.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Is it fair to box Desert Dancer within a particular genre?
RR: If one could define it as a genre, it's a drama based on a true story. I did some historical investigation of the number of films made over the last 60 years that were based on a true story, and what we're seeing is, over the last 20 years, those have increased dramatically. So, what that tells me is that people are recognizing that audiences want new and great stories. There are great stories to be found all around us. There are also great writers and storytellers who come up with incredible films from their imagination. I can't wait to work with them, but I think that it's really interesting that when you tell people that it's based on a true story, they suddenly feel that it's worthy of their attention and more authentic. There are so many pieces of cinema that are coming out now that are so generic and so one-dimensional, and they're not great stories regardless of whether they're remakes or superhero movies.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How does it feel to make a movie that can't be turned into a video game, unlike most films nowadays?
RR: You'd be hard-pressed to turn any drama into a video game, that's for sure. I don't think there can ever be a sequel either, so I think we're safe. I'm a fan of video games, though. It feels great to make a film that's being taken seriously and that's being viewed with an open heart and is opening their hearts and minds to understand what's going on in the other side of the world while realizing that we all have the same hopes and dreams.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you detects the actors' charisma while casting them in Desert Dancer?
RR: It's like asking, "How do you make friend?" With a film like this, I was spoiled. I know that it will never be like this again. We had a year of rehearsals and training, and during that year we all became a family. Before I had met Reece Ritchie, I had asked many people who had met with him before what he was like, and everyone said that he was such a beautiful human being and so close to his family and has such a passionate heart. That's all I really need to know about somebody if I really want to work with them. When I met him, we connected on a human level--and with Freida Pinto as well. She's such a great advocate of all the right things, and I learned a lot from her. When you work with these incredible people, all of that alchemy and chemistry came naturally because they're all such good people. I was very, very blessed.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would Desert Dancer work in black-and-white?
RR: It definitely would not work in black-and-white because my cinematography would kill me. When you're shooting a film in black-and-white, you intend to do it that way, so you choose certain colors for the black-and-white to work. I love black-and-white.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Have you seen a similar film called Mao's Last Dancer?
RR: I actually, on purpose, didn't want to watch it because I didn't want it to influence my film. I'm going to watch it now, though.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What film would make for a great double feature with Desert Dancer?
RR: You gotta pair it with Footloose just so that you can come from something so light to something that's actually being taken more seriously. Everyone has commented that Desert Dancer is Footloose in Iran," so for a laugh I think that would be interesting.