Director Cyrus Nowrasteh
Busted Halo: This movie is powerful in the way it deals with the human rights issues — Iran being in the news makes it doubly fascinating. You were raised in the United States, correct? Your parents came over well before the revolution?
Cyrus Nowrasteh: Well they did, but they also went back. I lived in Iran as a child and my parents went back in the mid-70s so they were there during the revolution and I visited them in ’78.
BH: Are they still alive?
CN: Yes but they’re back here now retired.
BH: Are you a Muslim?
CN: Muslim born, non-practicing.
BH: The book came out in 1994. When did you become aware of it and when did you start trying to get rights to it?
CN: Well I was aware of the book in ’94 but I never pursued it because I didn’t think there was any way this movie could get supported. I started to pursue it in 2005; we went after it, it took a while and we finally got the option on the book. I inspected the script with my fellow screenwriter. We first took it to Shohreh, the actress, and then we were able to find some producers and keep pursuing it.
BH: It sounded like it was difficult to find Freidoune, the author of the book?
CN: Yes it was hard to find him; he was in France. When I was able to connect with him, it helped moved the process along.
BH: Was he living in hiding, because — I think — there had been a death threat against him for some stuff he had written?
CN: Yes, he was living in hiding off and on. I don’t know if he still was in hiding, I think he felt like the danger had passed.
BH: He was very specific about the things he wanted in the movie. He wanted it predominantly done in Farsi and also with Iranian actors. Was there anything else?
CN: Not really, what was interesting was that that was how we wanted to pursue it as well; we wanted to do it that way. That was his primary concern.
BH: As a person of Iranian heritage, were you a person he trusted to tell the story with some sensitivity?
CN: I think so. He had not been approached by any other Iranians, since the years that the book had been published. European directors had, but he resisted that because he wanted it done in the original language with Iranian actors.
BH: Is that for authenticity’s sake? Did he think that Western artists would distort it?
CN: I think. I think he wanted to be as authentic as possible and he just wasn’t sure if the interpretations would come across. I’m sure he had a whole myriad of reasons.
BH: Your main attraction to this was just how horrible it is that in the late 20th century there actually existed stoning?
CN: First and foremost, I responded to it as a great story. That’s what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to tell a great story to people. If it has meaning and impact and is about an important subject, then all the better.
BH: Was there any difficulty in trying to shoot the stoning scene, an obviously graphic, moving, powerful, and disturbing scene? Was there anyone that balked at that idea?
CN: When we showed it to the distributor there was some balking. But what we found is that the version of the movie you saw tested the best. Abbreviated versions did not. So if anything, to some, it was more upsetting. There was almost, kind of, a catharsis effect to the version you saw that people didn’t experience in other versions.
BH: Have you seen this with Muslim audiences?
BH: What has the reaction been?
CN: Very positive.
BH: Were you surprised at all or worried at all about that?
CN: No. People know this goes on. Muslim culture is very diverse. There are many, many Muslim countries. The majority of them have banned stoning. Those who are really knowledgeable about Islamic culture know that stoning is not even mentioned in the Qur’an — it’s just something that has come down over the ages and been adopted by a handful of Islamic republics — and that a lot of people feel that this is not representative of them or their religion.
BH: My impression was that you had very little trouble getting it distributed in the Middle East, yet you had a little more trouble in America.
CN: I think that a lot of people’s perceptions of the Middle East and how they would respond to this is not necessarily consistent with the reality. A country like Iran where it is codified and it is in the justice system and in the Islamic penal code is going to be more resistant to this kind of story.
BH: So it won’t be shown in Iran?
CN: It is not set to be shown in Iran. If it is it will probably be surreptitiously, through bootleg DVD’s someday, but not too soon I hope.
BH: I have to imagine that the recent events in Iran cast another light on that culture in a dark, sad way. Can you talk a little bit about your feelings of what we see today in the news?
CN: Well I think clearly there is a movement for reform inside of Iran. I think it’s coming from the youth; I think it’s coming from woman. I’d like to think that our movie sort of taps into some of that. I think people want change.
BH: I would imagine that there are Muslim voices that you’re encountering that are horrified that women are treated this way. Are you seeing a lot of that? Are those voices getting stronger?
CN: Yeah, I think so. You don’t hear a lot of support for stonings from anyone who sees the movie. Those who do seem to want to justify it, do so from inside of the Islamic republic.
BH: Were you able to talk to anybody associated with the story beyond Freidoune?
CN: Well, I couldn’t go inside of Iran and that’s what would be required. Look, the book is highly acclaimed. Amnesty International did some investigation into the incident way back when the book was originally published in 1990 and found it supportable and a powerful document that they have touted, because no one has ever written much about this subject.
BH: What do you hope American audiences will see from this and get from the complexity of this culture?
CN: Hopefully, it will make them more aware next time they hear of such incidences or occurrences. There are movements and groups inside of Iran and other countries, women’s groups, who are trying to abolish stoning and these other abusive practices. I think it helps raise the awareness.
Click here to get involved with organizations working to stop stonings, honor killings, domestic violence and other atrocities toward women.