Making a biopic about someone who’s still alive to see it must be tricky. There’s the subject’s feelings to think about, as well as the usual artistic considerations. And making a biopic about someone you admire must be even trickier. How can a filmmaker responsibly portray the complexities of someone’s life without obscuring their accomplishments—or, for that matter, whitewashing their flaws? An example of the latter is Desert Dancer, a film that reduces a politically-charged tale of artistic triumph in the face of oppression to a series of bland platitudes that wouldn’t be out of place on an inspirational poster on the wall of a guidance counselor’s office. In fact, the whole thing resembles nothing more than the kind of video a well-meaning high-school teacher would put on to occupy their class while they catch up on some paperwork. It will almost certainly be used for this purpose in the future.
From the beginning of the film, all we know is that dancing is forbidden in Iran. We don’t really get into the reasons why—“It’s a sin,” is all anyone says—or how this rule fits into a larger pattern of government control. And with anti-Muslim sentiment still prevalent in the Western world, it’s probably smart to downplay the religious implications of this rule. The goal is making people feel good here, not making them hostile. But in trying to cater to a non-Iranian audience, the filmmakers end up with an Iran that is neither foreign nor familiar, where college students attend dance clubs and carry books with titles in English, but people are still reduced to wide-eyed awe by rock ’n’ roll records from the ’50s. “How quaint,” we’re supposed to think. “They don’t have culture like we do here.” All this despite a title card trumpeting Iran as “the birthplace of poetry,” and a subplot involving abuse of arrestees during the 2009 “Green Movement.” What are they marching for? Freedom. Freedom to do what? Dance, probably.
Desert Dancer is based on the life of Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie), who was arrested by Iranian authorities after performing a dance number in the desert—you know, the Desert Dancer of the title. The film follows Afshin from his early experiences at an art school, where he learned about Western culture “behind closed doors,” to college, where he is introduced to the forbidden pleasures of alcohol, YouTube, and girls. But teaching himself to moonwalk doesn’t satisfy Afshin for long, and he soon forms an underground dance troupe with his friends because, as he/probably a Danskin commercial at some point puts it, “When I dance, I feel free.”
Enter Elaheh (Freida Pinto), the daughter of a former ballerina crippled by drug addiction after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 made her profession into a crime. Elaheh shares her mother’s passion for dance, as well as her weakness for heroin, another subplot that would seem to be the result of a newsmagazine segment the director saw while eating dinner one night were it not based on an actual person’s life experiences. Pinto reportedly trained for over a year for her role, and performed all her dance scenes herself; she does show a remarkable aptitude for it, and if she ever decides to quit acting, she has an (admittedly modest) future in modern dance to fall back on. Ritchie, a trained martial artist, also handles the dance scenes capably. Do Afshin and Elaheh fall in love? Do you even have to ask that question?
Unless you’re an aficionado of interpretive-dance type entertainments, and can appreciate them earnestly—something, admittedly, this reviewer is too cynical to do—even the supposedly stirring dance scenes in Desert Dancer are too generic to evoke much of a reaction, particularly those divorced from the political subtext of Ghaffarian’s real-life performances. There are a lot of scenes of people dancing out their feelings in this movie, and it takes a special, very sincere kind of person to watch that without giggling. The milquetoast sub-Spielberg score doesn’t help. Even M.I.A.’s “Galang” fails to stir the blood, and in a movie like this one, specifically designed to give the viewer a rush of uplifting hormones as well as a cultured, self-congratulatory feeling, that’s saying something.