'Some dude on a double bass wearing antlers & a daft grin' A preview screening of 'D
Preview Screening, Eastleigh Film Festival
Tuesday 22nd September
Desert Dancer- the true story of Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian who risked his life in order to dance. Choreographer, Akram Khan created the dancing for Richard Raymond’s directorial debut on the big screen, starring actors Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen and Reece Ritchie starring as Afshin.
Expression vs Oppression is the mantra of Desert Dancer, which takes the story of Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffariari and attempts to make it one of a nation. Director Richard Raymond’s debut relies on the strength of choreographer Akram Khan’s reputation whose eclectic vocabulary of culture clashes and multi-disciplines, languages and semiotics became renowned in pieces such as Zero Degrees.
Dashing into the preview screening after dance training, I begin to tense as the slow moving predictable plot worryingly nears the line to the Step Ups of this world. As my boyfriend sends me a live commentary of the football embellished with a sprinkling of Fevered Sleep’s streaming of Brilliant, I wonder if I made the right decision to accept my free invite to a Premier based on Akram Khans’ reputation alone.
Five goals in nine minutes,
a dude on a double bass wearing antlers and a daft grin, and...
no nothing exciting yet except the dance troupe’s leading female battling
an embarrassingly glorified heroin addiction.
Ghaffarian’s love interest’s audition routine finally provides the choreography that I’ve been waiting for, a constant whirlwind of turns, spiral, back bends and intricate gestures that unfortunately go no further throughout the film. The clunky handling of the camera, low view points and cropped compositions are surely an attempt at creating the sense of the underground, forbidden nature of dance which is banned in Iran, but instead, frustrates a viewer who values Khan’s choreography and its potential addition to the themes, plot and meanings of the film.
Meanwhile Fevered Sleep’s bedtime music is “childish but I love it”, “a sequence of light chords are being pulled” and I imagine what I might be missing, imagining their mesmerising performance of Stilled (2011 & 2015). A methodical pace imbued Brilliant’s dark and complex melody. A click & clunk of a light chord initiates the lowering, (not quite falling) of hanging chords into the depths of the darkness. As I consider buying the film to watch as it is intended- before sleep, Matt describes the chemistry between the double bass player and performer and its roots as a live stage show; maybe if we frame our viewing together we can create our own immersive experience somewhere inbetween the barrier of the screen and being in the same place and time as the performance.
Only available for another 15 minutes the transient nature of live performance takes hold of the online screening and I return to Desert Dancer, wondering when the troupe will overcome their personal sob stories and do what they have got together to do.
The dancing itself didn’t seem particularly impacting throughout the film except for the fact that they were actually doing it against the political regime in dangerous circumstances and perhaps I do them an injustice here by expecting more. It seems a little futile to be comparing a children’s musical screening to a heroic true story however in terms of two parallel showings at a film festival, I question the artistic construction and impact of a joint medium.
References to the typical canon of contemporary dance include videos of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’ film Rosas Danst Rosas, Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. The closing desert solo under a white sheet is yet another homage this time to Martha Graham and Richard Alston in a reincarnation of a GCSE dance class. It all feels a little amateur and over simplified. As the characters plan a date to watch Bob Fosse, why didn’t the director pay more attention to his film Cabaret and take note from a political film that maximises the potential of dance through filmic devices to make socio-political commentary, juxtaposing violence with pleasure.
Right down to the epilogue, Raymond seems to have turned a political grand narrative into a personal triumph for Afshin Ghaffarian. The uneasy tension between national politics and individual heroism ebbs and flows throughout the film but is sealed by the closing lines that put a relatively inactive dance company on a pedestal and seems to forget a nation of oppressed people left behind. Why wasn’t Ghaffarian himself the choreographer for the film?
I don’t want to undermine the oppression of a society and the political significance of Ghaffarian’s story – instead to highlight a film that does not do it justice. The climax where he breaks his script to declare his political stance and dance on the stage in a dangerous situation works well to create the gravitas of the narrative with evocative, violent gestures. The impact on Iran and Ghaffarian’s current status is left unclear, perhaps intentionally but muddies rather than sparks current political debate.