Desert Dancer
"Raymond might sometimes hit his beats too hard but he does keep his eye on the bigger picture."

Often the strength of a film depends on perspective. An adult watching Richard Raymond’s consideration of the life story of Afshin Ghaffarian – an Iranian who defied the regime in pursuit of his dancing dreams – will undoubtedly find the treatment of repression in the country simplistic. Looked at from a different angle, though, his old school romance style, decision to shoot in English and Dirty Dancing references make the story palatable for the teenage audience who might otherwise give anything involving human rights a body-steer and who are surely the target here.

Written by Jon Croker, the film boils down to two themes – expression versus repression and the teenage staple of a will they/won’t they romance. Afshin grew up in the generation after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which resulted in a crackdown on singing and dancing. As a cute and curious moppet (Gabriel Senior) he learns to dance at the local community centre before heading off to university (now played by Reece Ritchie) in 2009, when the whisper of revolution was in the air ahead of the elections that saw Mir-Hossein Mousavi take on incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The underground music scene – explored with considerably more vigour by No One Knows About Persian Cats – represents “the Ayatollah’s worst nightmare” and a place of escape for rebellious youth.

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It’s not enough for Afshin, who decides to form a secret dance club, attracting a motley bunch of students to his cause including fire-brand artist Ardi (Tom Cullen), engineering student Mehran (Bamshad Abedi-Amin), who finds repression begins at home courtesy of his brother being a member of the Basij militia. Finally there is Elaheh (Freda Pinto), who is the daughter of a famous dancer and has the grace and poise to pirouette into Afshin’s heart, the only problem being that she is addicted to heroin.

This soapy fact, while giving Raymond the opportunity to explore the idea that the regime might be actively encouraging drug use as a way of repression, is poorly handled. Rarely has a heroin user looked more dewy than Pinto and scenes of withdrawal are laughingly detox-lite. Raymond sacrifices tension in favour of what he hopes will be dramatic shots, so that we see dancing on rooftops that is surely a long way from hiding your plié under a bushel and the less said about the melodramatic score by Benjamin Wallfisch the better. The film could also use more of the desert dancing of the title because when it comes, Pinto and Ritchie (the latter really coming into his own when he expresses himself physically rather than verbally), put in a mesmerising performance, choreographed by Akram Khan and displaying muscular emotion that is sometimes lacking elsewhere.

Raymond might sometimes hit his beats too hard but he does keep his eye on the bigger picture and viewed as a primer that might inspire younger cinemagoers to find out more while enjoying a good dose of romance, Desert Dancer has some saving grace.

Reviewed on: 25 Apr 2016
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An Iranian youngster risks everything to start a dance company despite the fact the pasttime is illegal in his country.
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