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Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
June 18th, 2009

Busted: The Stoning of Soraya M.

Busted Halo speaks with the movie's star, director and producer

 
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shohreh-inside

In the few days since we published our interview with Jim Caviezel, events surrounding the election in Iran have added special resonance to his new film, The Stoning of Soraya M. (opens June 26).  In the movie, based on an actual event that occurred in Iran in 1986, an Iranian woman is the lone voice protesting the stoning of her niece under Sha’ria law.

In the following interviews, the film’s star, Shohreh Aghdashloo, director Cyrus Nowrasteh and producer Stephen McEveety (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ) discuss what compelled them to make this powerful and disturbing film. As Iranian-Americans, Aghdashloo—who is familiar to American audiences for her Oscar nominated performance in House of Sand and Fog—and Nowrasteh have very personal connections to both the subject matter of their film and the way a very similar mix of Islamic law and civil justice is playing out in the current Iranian election crisis.

Click here to get involved with organizations working to stop stonings, honor killings, domestic violence and other atrocities toward women.

Shohreh Aghdashloo

Busted Halo: This has got to be a really tough week for you. This movie has suddenly taken on a deeper resonance because of events in Iran. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re feeling this week?

Shohreh Aghdashloo: Absolutely, it’s amazing. I have mixed feelings, I have to tell you. I feel happy, I feel sad. I feel sad for the people who are dying. I feel happy for the people who have decided at last, after 30 years, to take their destiny in their own hands. I am happy to hear all the dialogues that are coming out of Iran now, when before we were only hearing monologues coming down from the clerics dictating how people should live, talk, walk, and behave. Now we’re hearing dialogues. We’re hearing people asking for — shouting for — recounts, and we’re hearing the government saying yes we are going to recount. This is all very healthy; of course very dangerous as well. I am very excited. I am dying to be with them at this moment but I guess they have enough problems of their own and I’m not going to just add to it. This is something for the Iranian people who live in Iran to resolve.

BH: Do you have family still there?

SA: Yes, yes. My mother.

BH: Have been in touch with her at all?

SA: Yes. I keep calling her and she keeps saying, “Well no one has come here, don’t worry about me. I am 80 years old.” And I keep saying, “That’s why I am worried, because too much excitement is not good.

BH: Is your family Muslim?

SA: Yes, I was born into a Muslim family but never practiced.

BH: Can you give us a sense of your own religious journey?

SA: Since childhood, because of my grandmother, I’ve always been interested in all religions. I have studied bits and pieces of the Bible. When I was young and visited my grandmother she had a Bible in Farsi with all those beautiful pictures. I have studied the Bible because of The Nativity, the movie I played in. I love the Gospel of John. I have studied bits and pieces of the Kabbalah and I love it. It’s very much like Sufism, very much like what Sufis have to say in Iran. I have also studied Islam in schools. It was mandatory for the first few classes before high school of course. I have read the Buddha.  You’re entitled as a human being and as someone who wants to know more you can read about them and learn about them and pick up the parts that you think you can relate to and use in your daily life. It affects you whether you want it or not.

BH: When did you leave Iran?

SA: In the time of turmoil, 1979. At first, it was just me but then gradually and slowly I managed to bring out my brothers. I have three brothers — one lives in England and the other two live with me in the United States. I live in Los Angeles.

BH: Because of your background I would imagine The Stoning of Soraya M., would be a movie that would be close to your heart. Can you talk about what the script meant to you when you saw it?

Stoning never happened in the monarchy in Iran. I wasn’t very much familiar with the stoning until the late 80’s when a friend of mine gave me a tape that was smuggled out of Iran… it involved two young men, 18 and 19 years old, who were first given 80 lashes and then were stoned for having an inappropriate relationship. In other words, they were being stoned for being homosexuals. It took an hour and a half and I can tell you, still after years, every time I remember this film, I feel bitter and I feel horrible…. As an actress, as a feminist, and as an activist I kept asking myself who, how, and when we would be able to shed light on this. So you could imagine when this screenplay came around I was overwhelmed

SA: Absolutely. [My character] Zahra and I share a lot in common but we are coming from two entirely different backgrounds. I for one had never heard anything like this before the revolution in Iran. In other words, stoning never happened in the monarchy in Iran. I wasn’t very much familiar with the stoning until the late 80’s when a friend of mine gave me a tape that was smuggled out of Iran and copied with the help of some American-Iranians in the film industry and it was a real one, a real stoning, filmed with the camera inside a sack. At first it is hard to see what’s happening but then when the mob hysteria starts the cameraman starts taking the film and no one really notices. I had seen this film in the late 80s and it involved two young men, 18 and 19 years old, who were first given 80 lashes and then were stoned for having an inappropriate relationship. In other words, they were being stoned for being homosexuals. It took an hour and a half and I can tell you, still after years, every time I remember this film, I feel bitter and I feel horrible. After watching it, for weeks I couldn’t eat properly, I couldn’t sleep properly. As an actress, as a feminist, and as an activist I kept asking myself who, how, and when we would be able to shed light on this. So you could imagine when this screenplay came around I was overwhelmed so much that I immediately told him I would definitely do it for him, but allow me not to say yes because I don’t usually say yes before I read the screenplay thoroughly. So he sent the screenplay over the same day and I read it through the first time with my eyes going up and down the lines but the second time I tried to read between the lines and I realized how accurate it was, and how powerful this film was going to be. I called him the day after — I guess it was too early because his voice was still sleepy — and said I am in.

BH: Have you been back to Iran since you left 30 years ago?

SA: No.

BH: Have you seen your mother?

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SA: Yes, yes. She’s been here. I managed to get her a green card and now she comes and goes and visits my brother in London. Right now she’s in Iran because she needed to sell her property and size down her side of things.

BH: Do you not feel welcomed going back or are you not allowed?

SA: To be honest I never tried it, and I never had the opportunity to think that I would be able to visit Iran in a week or so, so I never tried it. I would never know.

BH: No interest?

SA: Not until Iran is free.

BH: And in your mind Iran hasn’t been free since ‘79?

SA: No. With all due respect to what is going on right now, the problem for us has always been this religious government. People outside Iran and inside Iran who truly do believe in a democratic government know that they cannot have a democratic government unless it’s a secular government, unless it’s separated from the churches, mosques, and it works for the people, by the people.

BH: Do you think it is difficult to do a movie like this about Islam or the practices of some in Islam? Is there any danger in doing this? I know the journalist whose book it was based upon was issued a death threat by people in Iran. Do you feel any fear about this? Also, can you talk about the human rights component of this and rights for women around the world?

Stoning has been happening since the stone ages. It has happened in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Other nations and other religions have dealt with it hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, we have not and it is still happening in the rural society in the Islamic world.

SA: First of all, I have to mention that stoning has nothing to do with Islam. Stoning has been happening since the stone ages. It has happened in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Other nations and other religions have dealt with it hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, we have not and it is still happening in the rural society in the Islamic world. In Islam, there is the Qur’an, which is the Holy Book; and then there are hadith, which means stories told at Muhammed’s time or after; and the third one is sunnat, which means traditions and superstitions. Stoning is under that category. In other words, nothing to do with Islam. But of course, those who have hijacked Islam or are abusing Islam would tell their subjects that this is a part of Islam and it is not. The first and main goal [of the movie] is to clear the air and the second one is to portray the people who do not keep quiet, like my character Zahra. It is not about the woman being stoned, it is about the woman who refuses to remain silent. She is courageous, she is human, and she won’t just do whatever they dictate to her. She is very much like the 40 percent of the population in Iran now who are women. Zahra is very much like those women. Then you see how timely and timeless this film becomes when you realize that it’s happening at the same time with what is going on Iran.

BH: Do you have any hopes for what we could do or what the rest of the world could do in this situation while things are going on over there?

SA: Support, of course. Iranians need a lot of support. By support, with all due respect, I don’t mean interference. Any external interference with Iran’s internal affair would not only weaken the movement but would give the leaders, the hardliners, the opportunity to claim that this is not a spontaneous action, that this is backed by the U.S. or U.K. and so on and so forth, and we all know that it’s not true. We all know that this started spontaneously and now people have realized what they have in their hands and they just don’t want to go home; they refuse to go home, peacefully standing, watching in the streets and asking for their basic rights.

Click here to get involved with organizations working to stop stonings, honor killings, domestic violence and other atrocities toward women.

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The Author : Bill McGarvey
Bill McGarvey is co-author of Busted Halo’s Freshman Survival Guide. Bill was editor-in-chief of Busted Halo for six year. In addition to having written extensively on the topics of culture and faith for NPR, Commonweal, America, The Tablet (in London), Factual (Spain), Time Out New York, and Book magazine, McGarvey is a singer/songwriter whose music has been critically acclaimed by the New York Times, Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Billboard and Performing Songwriter. You can follow him at his website billmcgarvey.com or on Facebook.com/billmcgarvey
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