Film Review | Desert Dancer

An Iranian dance troupe organises a secret performance in an attempt to escape the prying eyes of the regime

Teodor Reljic
18 May 2016, 10:21am
Frieda Pinto and Reece Ritchie dance their way to freedom in this politically interesting but dramatically pat ‘true story’
Frieda Pinto and Reece Ritchie dance their way to freedom in this politically interesting but dramatically pat ‘true story’

Originally released in 2014 in Germany and the US, Desert Dancer features Maltese actress Marama Corlett in one of her most prominent big screen roles thus far – and she’s among a globally diverse coterie of actors to populate debuting director Richard Raymond’s production.

It’s a shame that this – otherwise pretty international – endeavor about the challenges of cultural expression in Iran boasts virtually no involvement from Iranian talent among its cast and crew. 

But a regrettable dearth of representation is sadly not the most immediate problem of this well-meaning but dramatically poor mix of topical drama and redemptive fable.

Desert Dancer tells a familiar story in a unique setting for populist world cinema. In the run up to Iran’s turbulent 2009 election, a group of brave young people risk their lives in honour of their art form of choice. Dancing being illegal in Iran, the film focuses on the real-life figure of Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie) and his friends, who challenge this restrictive government edict by forming an underground dance company.

Hacking into YouTube to learn the ropes from all the greats – Michael Jackson, Pina Bausch, Gene Kelly and Rudolf Nureyev – they decide to set up a performance deep in the desert, away from the watchful eyes of the of the military police.

Spurred on by fellow arts student Ardavan (Tom Cullen), Afshin is a beacon on hope in a challenging situation, leveraging their fellow dancer Mona’s (Marama Corlett) wavering commitment to the cause after hey boyfriend, Naser (Neet Mohan) is attacked by the morality police. Further compounding the situation is Afshin’s budding relationship with enigmatic but troubled dancer Elaheh (Freida Pinto).

That all the characters in the film speak in a kind of generalised ‘Middle Eastern’ English accent – mixed into the sound design with the jarring crispness of an overdub – is rather telling. This is a sleek production aiming for maximum global exposure and which wants to have just enough local flavour to be seductive, but not too much so as to alienate the unadventurous movie-going masses.

As often happens in these situations however, these best laid plans often go tits up, as strained attempts at broad appeal are often sniffed out as just that by the audience. Raymond is not an incompetent director, and manages to balance out the mandatory dance sequences while making sure to get on with the story. The trouble is that the same story – penned by Jon Croker – is so riddled with clichés that it defangs any topical bite the film may have had.

Maltese actress Marama Corlett is Mona
Maltese actress Marama Corlett is Mona
Afshin is your friendly neighbourhood plucky young hero – you’d be hard pressed to distinguish his overarching character beats to that of Spider-Man or Luke Skywalker, and the trajectory of his stealth dance troupe follows the familiar high/low/high/low/high rhythm typical to biopics about artists (particularly musicians).

The film’s potential to educate a mass audience – particularly the younger generations who might have otherwise thrilled to Glee and the Step-Up series – about the knotted political situation in Iran, is hard to fault. However, with zero effort to lend real texture to the drama, and with an ultimately cynical approach to crafting story, Raymond ultimately presents something of a hollow bauble. 

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...