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A true-life Footloose set in the Middle East, Richard Raymond‘s directorial debut tells the story of Afshin Ghaffarian, who struggled to fulfill his dream of becoming a dancer in the face of oppression by the authoritarian Iranian government. Set in 2009 during the country’s controversial presidential election and the beginning of the “Green Movement,” Desert Dancer too often lapses into generic cinematic clichés, failing to live up to the dramatic potential of its subject matter. Despite some arresting dance sequences staged by acclaimed dancer/choreographer Akram Khan, the film starring Freida Pinto and Reece Ritchie is unlikely to stir up much interest.
We’re first introduced to the central character as a young boy who, inspired by a bootleg video of Dirty Dancing, impulsively performs an exuberant dance in front of his school classmates, only to be given a beating by the teacher for his troubles. Cut to several years later, when the now grown Afshin (Ritchie) manages to become enrolled in an arts school whose kindly professor introduces his students to the joys of the record “Louie, Louie” and shows his new student a film of Rudolf Nureyev performing.
Enrolling in Teheran University, Afshin is befriend by fellow student Ardavan (Tom Cullen, Downton Abbey), who exposes him via an unfiltered computer to the joys of YouTube where he joyfully watches Michael Jackson and Gene Kelly videos. They decide to start an underground dance company and are soon joined by the beautiful and exotic Elaleh (Pinto), the daughter of a once prominent ballerina whose career was cut short after the 1979 revolution.
Afshin and Eleleh quickly strike up a romantic relationship that is complicated by her growing drug habit. Meanwhile, the budding dance company is increasingly threatened by a group of menacing gang intent on enforcing the government’s artistic repression. Afshin and his fellow dancers decide to put on a performance in the desert, presumably outside the reach of their persecutors.
Managing to secure a part in an Iranian cultural festival that travels to Paris, Afshin dramatically interrupts the performance to stage an impassioned solo dance dramatically conveying the brutal repression to which he’s been subjected. As the audience which includes his expatriate former arts teacher watches in stunned silence, a pair of Iranian government agents, channeling the Nazis in The Sound of Music, desperately attempts to shut the proceedings down. That Afshin’s defiant act ends in triumph is a given, although the dramatic portrayal differs in key aspects from the actual events.
The film is certainly ambitious in its execution, encompassing key elements of the public protests demanding the removal of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office after the obviously rigged election. But despite the storyline’s inherent drama, the characters and situations too often feel flat, with the adherence to Hollywood templates glaringly obvious and predictable. Ritchie, despite his striking physical resemblance to Ghaffarian, isn’t charismatic enough to sustain interest, and while Pinto fares better, even admirably performing her own dancing, she’s ultimately unable to rise above her character’s stereotypical traits.
The film certainly relates a compelling true-life story, and the dance sequences are strikingly photographed and edited. But for all its good intentions, Desert Dancer has two left feet.
Production: Relativity Media, May 13 Films, Rostik Investment Group in association with Sarah Arison Productions, Greene Light Films, Star Land kpc, BluePencilSet, Lipsync Productions, 6Sales.
Cast: Freida Pinto, Reece Ritchie, Tom Cullen, Nazanin Boniadi, Makram J. Khoury
Director: Richard Raymond
Screenwriter: Jon Croker
Producers: Pippa Cross, Fabiola Beracasa, Izabella Miko, Luis Astorquia
Executive producers: Sarah Arison, Ryan Kavanaugh, Tucker Tooley, Jason Beckman, Sally Greene, Rodika Zmikhnovskaya, Jeremy Cowdrey, Marina Fuentes Arredonda, Mohammed Al Turki, Hamz Talhouni, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Rick Porras, Nigel Thomas
Director of photography: Carlos Catalan
Production designer: Shahram Karimi
Editors: Chris Gill, Celia Haining
Costume designer: Louie Stjernsward
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting: Manuel Puro
Rated PG-13, 98 min.
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