Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The True Story of Soraya M.

The United Nations estimates as many as 5,000 Islamic women fall victim to so-called “honor killings” every year. Whether reported or not, each instance is an appalling crime, utterly incompatible with any concept of honor. Now the true nature of honor killing has been graphically dramatized in Cyrus Nowrasteh’s viscerally intense The Stoning of Soraya M. (trailer here), opening in select cities this Friday.

Freidoune Sahebjam was a French-Iranian journalist who exposed many of the Islamist regime’s human rights abuses. When passing through a provincial town, a chance encounter with Zahra, a sophisticated older woman of the Shah’s secular era, leads to the biggest story of his career. Just the day before, her niece Soraya was gruesomely executed for the crime of inconveniencing her husband. As Sahebjam interviews Zahra, she bears witness to the terrible injustice that befell Soraya.

Zahra explains the abusive Ali wanted a divorce, so he could marry the fourteen year old girl he lusts after. However, he did not want to financially support Soraya or their two daughters. Of course, none of this violates Islamic notions of honor according to the hypocritical local mullah. Rather then live up to his obligations, Ali conspired with the mullah to falsely accuse Soraya of adultery. In post-Revolutionary Iran, this was clearly the easiest course of action for him. As the town’s mayor explicitly explains, if a husband accuses his wife of adultery, she must prove her innocence, but if a wife accuses her husband, she must prove his guilt.

Given the film’s title and the framing device, it is no secret where Stoning will end. It is not called the Narrow Escape of Soraya M., after all. However, Nowrasteh (the Iranian-American screenwriter and producer of The Path to 9-11) creates such a sense of mounting horror, it seems like the actual stoning will come as a relief. And then it happens.

Watching Stoning, you become acutely conscious of all the conventions of American legal dramas which do not apply here. There will be no heroic appeals or a last minute stay from governor. Once Soraya is declared guilty, the die is cast. However, it is also just as evident this is not a case of mob rule overwhelming the town’s better nature. What happened was deliberate, allowing plenty of time for cool heads to prevail while Soraya’s execution pit was dug.

Stoning is Soraya’s story, but it is Shohreh Aghdashloo’s film. The Oscar-nominated Iranian-American actress gives a powerful, fearless performance as Zahra. Not simply the film’s noble conscience, she is a nuanced, fully realized character—an intelligent, assertive, but ultimately vulnerable woman in a society which grants her no legal standing. As Soraya, Mozhan Marnò avoids simply playing the innocent victim, investing her with surprising inner strength and resolution. While only briefly seen during the wrap-around segments, Jim Caviezel is nearly unrecognizable but effective as the intrepid Sahebjam.

Filmed on location at an undisclosed Middle East locale, Stoning completely immerses the audience in its forbidding world. It is an uncompromising film, fueled by outrage, but also a truly moving human drama. Following the Iranian regime’s violent attacks on democracy protestors, Stoning’s theatrical release could not be timelier. Yet, this would be an important film, even if the regime was not dominating headlines with its thuggish crackdown. It is a well-crafted, absolutely absorbing film that demands a wide audience. It opens in New York this Friday (6/26) at the Sunshine Cinema.

Photos courtesy of MPower Pictures