By Marty Mulrooney
Following on from AMO’s review of The Stoning Of Soraya M., director Cyrus Nowrasteh kindly joins us to discuss adapting such a controversial novel to the big screen, and his recent transition from television to the world of cinema.
Hello Mr Nowrasteh, thank you for your time. Can you tell our readers about yourself please?
Hello. I’m an American of Iranian parentage who lived as a child in Iran for about 4 1/2 years and returned there to visit as a young adult. I’ve always felt a strong bond with Iran and its people.
What attracted you to The Stoning Of Soraya M. project?
I first read the book, THE STONING OF SORAYA M., in 1995 when it was published in the US. It was an emotional, gripping, and heartbreaking story that was also oddly uplifting. It stuck with me for a number of years. And, finally, in 2008 I was able to film it.
What is the film about?
The film is based on the true story of a stoning incident in Iran in 1986 after the Islamic Republic had placed Iran under Sharia Law which included punishments like stoning, reserved primarily for women.
What actors were involved with the film?
Academy Award-nominated Shohreh Aghdashloo leads the predominantly Iranian cast. She plays Zahra, Soraya’s aunt, who tells the story of what happened to her niece to the journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam (portrayed by Jim Caviezel). Other actors in the movie are Navid Negahban as Ali, Soraya’s husband and the primary villain of the piece who concocts a conspiracy that will allow him to be rid of his wife. Also in the film, in a powerful portrayal, is Parviz Sayyad as the mechanic, Hashem, who though he knows wrong-from-right is unable to sustain under Ali’s intimidation tactics that draw him into the plot.
What did each actor bring to the project?
Shohreh brought deep emotion and dignity to her part, as well as ferocious strength as she takes on the men of the village. Mozhan Marno who plays Soraya brought a certain vulnerability combined with strength to Soraya. She doesn’t play her as a victim, which I think adds so much to her portrayal.
Some reviewers have noted that the stoning sequence itself is very difficult to watch. Was it important not to shy away from this central moment?
My intention was to show stonings for what they really are, and present the ritualistic nature of this barbaric punishment — so that the audience will never forget it. I have been accused of being uncompromising in my approach to this story, and that’s a charge I accept. But once I saw footage of actual stonings — which are far more brutal than what’s shown in the move – I resolved not to sanitise it. That would be an insult to those many victims of this brutality. The world must know the truth.
Was it a difficult scene for actress Mozhan Marnò to film?
Mozhan did a magnificent job in the stoning sequence, and it was very difficult on her. She had to sit in that hole for 6 shooting days. But it gave her a strong sense of the horror involved, to be there surrounded by an angry mob that wants to kill you.
Where did filming take place?
I’m not really supposed to say where it was filmed, a Middle-Eastern Arab country. Jordan.
How long was the shoot?
It was a 32-day shoot in a very remote, difficult location.
How did Iran react to the film? I am aware that they had already banned the book upon which the film is based…
Iran labelled the film “objectionable” even before it was released, probably based on their knowledge of the book. Consequently, it hasn’t been released theatrically in Iran, but it is underground via bootleg DVDs by the thousands.
Do you hope that the film will help stop such cruelties taking place in the future?
It would be incredible if this film, in some small way, affected the debate on stonings and helped to bring about an outright ban.
You previously worked on a television miniseries, The Path to 9/11, which was also rather controversial. Can you tell us more about this film and why it caused debate?
THE PATH TO 9/11 was a docu-drama that covered the events from the first attack on the WTC in ‘93 to the attack on 9/11. A kind of “how we got there” with principal characters based on real people. Though it blamed two administrations for numerous failures, Bill Clinton took offense and attacked the miniseries publicly and tried to get it pulled before broadcast. The focus of his and the media’s attacks were on me. Disney/ABC did, under adverse pressure, cut three minutes and ran the show. We had incredible ratings, 28 million watched, and numerous experts came out in support of the accuracy of the piece. Unfortunately, the controversy intimidated Disney/ABC into burying the show and never releasing it on DVD — despite its huge success. I’m very proud of the show and stand by it.
How does working for television differ from making a feature length film?
I love television and I love movies. They’re great mediums and I hope to continue to work in both. Film, of course, allows you a certain latitude in the kinds of stories you can tell. STONING could never have been made for television.
What upcoming projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing THE LAST CAMPAIGN, the true story of Robert Kennedy’s ’68 campaign for the Presidency until he was shot. A story of self-redemption.
Thank you for your time.