Taste, timeliness are tricky with Iran pic

'Stoning of Soraya M.' walking a fine line during unrest

Q&A: Cyrus Nowrasteh

With tumult roiling the streets of Tehran, the filmmakers behind Iranian martyrdom drama "The Stoning of Soraya M." find themselves in a rare spot: with a new release seemingly ripped straight from the headlines.

But as distributor Roadside Attractions readies a platform rollout this weekend, it must attempt to capitalize on that interest without appearing to overlap it.

"This is a story that everyone thinks they can see on the news, but they really can't," Roadside president Howard Cohen said. "Our job is to make sure people know that."

The pic centers on a journalist (James Caviezel) and his discovery of a story about a woman stoned to death in 1986 Iran because of presumed infidelity. The milieu of Cyrus Nowrasteh's film is highly specific, but producer Stephen McEveety notes a strong parallel with current events.

"Anyone watching TV can see this is about a certain kind of religious fascism that was present 20 years ago and is present now," he said. "If you Google the subject, you'll see stonings going on today."

"Soraya," made for $4 million, premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it earned moderately good reviews and universal citation for its gritty martyrdom aspects. (McEveety also produced "The Passion of the Christ," and the pics share thematic concerns.)

Despite that response and the film's pedigree -- it also stars Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo -- the road to release has not always been clear. No one picked up "Soraya" after its Toronto bow (Roadside bought it about four months ago), and there were debates about when to release it.

Some desired to bow "Soraya" in conjunction with the Iranian elections but not before, so as not to appear to be jumping into the political fray. Others recommended that Roadside not wander into the thicket of summer tentpoles.

"There were a lot of naysayers who said, 'You can't release a movie like this outside the fall,' " Cohen said. "We felt the election made it the right time."

Dennis Rice, who heads the marketing effort, argued seven months ago that the best time to release the film would be two weeks after Iranian elections. "I thought there would be interesting results and, sometimes, it takes the media a while to catch up," he said.

Meanwhile, screenings across the country -- where opinion makers, including several in talk radio, and human and women's rights advocacy groups were in attendance -- and the news from Iran led to dozens of interview requests.

Writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh and Aghdashloo have handled most of the TV and radio, and McEveety has been pitching in for print. Caviezel will also make himself available. Last weekend, the company staged a panel at the L.A. Film Festival.

Rice said Aghdashloo has made so many appearances "she has become the poster child for women in Iran."

Roadside will release the film this weekend on 30 screens, a fairly aggressive play for a serious pic in June. It will widen to 75 in the following two weeks.

"I'd like to say that I'm a really good producer in orchestrating all this," McEveety said wryly. "But all you can do is make a film you feel strongly about and hope everything else falls into place."

Paul Bond contributed to this report.
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