Q&A: Cyrus Nowrasteh

The filmmaker explores a dark episode in Iran's history

With election turmoil rattling Iran, Cyrus Nowrasteh's "The Stoning of Soraya M." couldn't be more timely. Already banned in that country, the movie is based on the best-selling book by Paris-based journalist Freidoune Sahabjam and is the true account of the stoning to death of a woman by Iranian villagers in 1986 after she was accused of infidelity (her "infidelity" amounted to improperly speaking with a man who was not her husband and napping in his bed when he was not home; she was his maid and thus had access to his house). Opening Friday in 10 major markets from Roadside Attractions and mPower Pictures, the film was a labor of love for Nowrasteh, who spent part of his childhood in Iran.

The Hollywood Reporter: Are Iranians concerned about the film?

Cyrus Nowrasteh: We showed it here at USC and there was a spirited debate that continued outside the theater. Iranian students were concerned that people would think this movie shows how it is all over Iran. But I think audiences are more sophisticated than that. They see images of Iran every day.

THR: The movie is critical of Sharia law, is it not?

Nowrasteh: Any law that allows for this kind of punishment, we are critical of. But I hear from Muslims who say this is a pro-Muslim film, showing how the religion is hijacked, because there is nothing that encourages stoning in the Koran. There's a quote in the front of the movie stating, basically, "Beware the hypocrite who hides behind the Koran." The underlying theme is that the Koran has been hijacked by people pursuing their personal agendas, whether it's the husband or mullah in the film, or Osama Bin Laden.

THR: You're keeping the location where the movie was shot a secret. Why?

Nowrasteh: Iran makes the entire Mideast region very nervous.

THR: Did you have to adhere to difficult rules when filming?

Nowrasteh: The host country read the script and did not see it as anti-Muslim, which was their primary concern, and they gave us the green light.

THR: In the movie, the two sons participate in stoning their own mother. Did that actually happen?

Nowrasteh: Yes. The entire stoning sequence is from the source material and the journalist's account.

THR: Those kids would be about in their 30s today. You know where they are?

Nowrasteh: Nope. And I'm not gonna go looking for them.

THR: Who is the audience for this film?

Nowrasteh: Everybody. In particular, I'd like everyone in that village to see this film.

THR: The movie points out that, today, there's only one known existing photo of Soraya. Why is that?

Nowrasteh: There's a tradition whereby if someone's convicted of an egregious crime, you erase all evidence of their existence.

THR: Was casting difficult?

Nowrasteh: The principals in the movie are all Iranian actors living in exile who seized upon the opportunity to be involved with this story. Casting smaller parts, extras, was the real challenge because we had to find people in the host country, Iranians, or locals who spoke Farsi. At least a dozen speaking parts were portrayed by people who had never acted before. A few of the ones who played the thugs I got from Iraqi refugee camps.

THR: Did you work closely with the author of the book?

Nowrasteh: I had extensive discussions with him, hours worth, and he provided me many details. Unfortunately, he passed away while we were filming. In fact, he passed away on the same day we finished shooting the stoning sequence, a six-day ordeal.

THR: Do you expect any hostile reactions to the film after its release?

Nowrasteh: Whenever you're dealing with the deep, dark secrets of what goes on in a society, people complain, or dismiss, or claim you're inauthentic. One of the reasons America's a great country is because we go through constant, microscopic examination.

THR: Will copies of the film get to Iran?

Nowrasteh: Clips off Twitter are going to Iran as we speak. There is huge interest over there about the film. There's a significant avenue of smuggled goods, like liquor, that flow in and out of Iran. Western movies, as well. Perhaps the same avenue will be used here, but not by us. That would be counterproductive to our desire to make money and distribute the film properly.

THR: What should the U.S. be doing in regard to the election and unrest in Iran?

Nowrasteh: Those people on the ground risking their lives in demonstrations should be seen and heard as much as possible. Our movie is about reform, and the demonstrators in Iran seek reform.
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