Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars: IDFA Review

Engaging if earthbound documentary is elevated by its subject's feisty pluck.

Berit Madsen's Danish documentary, selected for competition at both IDFA and Sundance, follows the dreams and frustrations of a teenage Iranian girl.

Planet Earth's luminaries can outdazzle anything in the heavens, as illustrated by Berit Madsen's strenuously uplifting documentary Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars (also known simply as Sepideh). While enlivened by the determination and charisma of its eponymous heroine, an Iranian teenage astronomer with astronautical aspirations, this paean to boundary-pushing independence never itself threatens to break new ground.

Launching at IDFA, the Danish production by debutant Berit Madsen has secured a North American bow in Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition, and can doubtless expect further festival and small-screen bookings. Events and sidebars specializing in human-rights matters and young people's issues will provide primary exposure before this quiet crowdpleaser finds its long-term role in educational contexts.

Astronomy has long held an exalted position within Islam, a religion whose symbol features a crescent moon and a star. Membership of an Astronomy Club thus grants unmarried females an unusual degree of latitude, with opportunities for the sexes to meet after dark and observe the heavens. Sepideh Hooshyar from the Fars province, whose transition from 16 to 18 is telescoped into the film's 80-odd minutes, is a particularly avid adherent of this unique constellation of physics, math, geography and anthropology.

Her role-model is Iranian-American Anousheh Ansari, the first female space-tourist: "I want this to be an inspiring story," Ansari is heard remarking, "I believe that if you want something badly enough, it will happen." The documentary draws a discreet veil over the fact that Ansari ponied up to go into space, emphasizing instead how Sepideh is fired up by her countrywoman's example. A passing reference to Ansari as "the first woman in space," meanwhile, will come as news to 1960s cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.

Driven by an desire to honor her late father, and a frequent letter-writer to Albert Einstein, Sepideh sticks to her ambitions in the face of maternal bemusement ("learn how to cook!") and outright opposition from her unapologetically traditionalist uncle. The latter hissably epitomizes an entire national system of patriarchal restriction and repression which the film takes for granted and never attempts to explain or explore, instead concentrating on Sepideh reacts to such limitations.

As is so often the case in documentaries about spirited young religious women, it isn't too long before the specter of marriage appears, casting a potential shadow over Sepideh's unapologetic drive for self-realization ("I'm a free person!"). Matrimony, however, doesn't necessarily preclude academic and professional progress. And Sepideh's thirtyish suitor is much less of a presence than her astronomy tutor Kabiri, a progressive-minded counterbalance to her uncle's bull-headed naysaying.

Iran has a notably youthful demographic spread just now , and Sepideh provides plenty of grounds for optimism as regards the turbulent country's future. Madsen's fundamentally dead-serious concern with female empowerment and education is leavened by welcome moments of dry humor - Agora meets Persepolis, perhaps. In what's generally a functional, even formulaic picture in terms of visuals and overall tone, near-relentlessly over-scored in accordance to current documentary conventions, nocturnal cinematography by Babak Tafreshi and Oshin D Zakarian provides suitably celestial, Malickian grace-notes.

Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition), 24 November 2013
Production company: Radiator Film
Director / Screenwriter: Berit Madsen
Producers: Stefan Frost, Henrik Underbjerg
Director of photography: Mohammad Reza Jahan Panah
Editor: Peter Winther
Music: Niklas Schak, Tin Soheili
Sales: Danish Film Institute, Copenhagen
No MPAA rating, 88 minutes