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June 27, 2009.
has a film's release dovetailed with an earth-shattering event so that, by
its very existence, it CAN contribute to radically altering world affairs.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is such a film Ė especially since it
highlights the plight of the women of Iran. It tells the tale of Soraya
MarnÚ, who refuses to divorce her abusive husband, a former criminal, so he
falsely accuses of her of adultery which leads to her execution by stoning.
In revolutionary Iran, women have few rights and the religion is manipulated
by those claiming correct religious practice.
Though set in 1986 Iran, Soraya's plight and that of her one defender, her
aunt, Zahra Ė played by Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo Ė is similar
to that of the formerly liberated Iranian women, who, chafing under the
current regime's oppression, have been at the forefront of the protests
happening now since the Presidential election was stolen by conservative
incumbent MaMoud Amadinajad.
Jackbooted by the Islamic laws put into place after the Ayatollah Khomeini's
"revolution" deposed one dictatorship and imposed another in 1979, women
lost many of their rights, and abuses Ė including the stoning depicted here
in great detail Ė began.
Based on Freidoune Sahebjam's 1994 novel of the same name, Soraya's death
was documented by a journalist (played by Jim Caviezel in the film) whose
car breaks down in a remote village. He hears the story through Zahra, who
desperately relays it to him in the hope that he'll get the word out about
what happened in her town.
That he did. The book was a big success when published, and now it's a film.
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh struggled for years to get it made, so he hopes it
will stir a groundswell of reaction for the women struggling in Iran. Of
course, securing Aghdashloo as its star, an Iranian actress of such reknown
Ė she went from starring in acclaimed Iranian director Abbass Kiorstami's
early features to a supporting actress Oscar nom for House of Sand and
Fog (with turns in such films as The Nativity Story or X-Men:
The Last Stand and TV series as 24 or Grey's Anatomy) Ė
was crucial to making it as powerful as it is. And in her husky,
accent-inflected voice, the 50-something Aghdashloo shared similar feelings
as well in this exclusive interview.
Did you read the book the film is based on?
No, I had no idea about the book. But I had seen a real [stoning] on tape.
saw a real stoning [gasps]?
It was horrible! Those who say that the stoning in this film is graphic
should see the real one. This is a mild watery version of the stoning.
Where did this happen?
It was smuggled out of Iran during the mid-'80s by some opposition. [It] was
copied a thousand times and spread amongst the people who were involved with
the Iranian film and show business industry in US. Thank God he told me not
watch it during the evening. I took my daughter to school, put my husband to
work, and at 11 am I put it on. It took an hour and a half for them to die
An hour and a half?
An hour and a half! I was sitting at the edge of my chair. Now my audience
is telling me they sit at the edge of their chair Ė they never get to relax.
I tell them, "Believe me, I sat like that for an hour and a half" and when
it was finished I was almost paralyzed. I could not believe my eyes. There
was no way this was [fabricated]. It was a real one. The one I saw involved
two young men who were being stoned for being homosexuals, one was eighteen,
the other nineteen. This is like twenty years ago.
After watching that actual footage, did it influence you as being the
storyteller of this film? How did that affect you in regards to how you
portrayed your character?
Basically, Cyrus trusted me, because he was born here in the U.S. and got to
Iran only for a few years when he was a child. So he did not really have any
recollection Ė none whatsoever. He also told me to come up with ideas and
then weíll discuss them together. I just kept playing for him and maybe we
talked a few times over the character. But basically he trusted me all the
way through. As an actor, especially a method actor, I needed to imagine her
physicality, how she looked. So I started with my nanny, Maryam, and the
green scarf she wore. She used to put one of her ears out like it was a
hairstyle, wearing it with those coin earrings which had a picture on them.
So I thought, "Okay, okay, okay, Iím going to dedicate this to Maryam. Iím
going to think about her, the way she walks and talks. She was a villager
and took really good care of me." She was a kind yet strong woman. She came
all the way from the village, and started working in Tehran and had six
Then, while doing research on the physicality, I saw this brilliant picture
on the first page of New York Times Ė weíre subscribers though we live on
the West Coast. I saw this Iraqi woman standing with her hands clutched into
each other, like this, and she was looking far into the distance. There was
a younger girl, seven or eight years, next to her with a fire going on
behind her back. Her face is bruised, and she is, of course, dirty with the
mud and everything on her face and clothes. But still, you could see the
strength in her eyes. The way she was looking far in the distance was like,
"I am determined to win this war." I thought, "This is it." So I tore it
out, took it with me to Jordan, and put it on the mirror until the film was
Then I had to think about different ways that woman wear the chador [full
veil], and I had no idea because my family didnít wear a chador in Iran. I
only got to wear it twice with my grandmother, going to the mosque. So I was
renting Iranian films that were made in post-revolutionary Iran, and started
going through them and seeing, "Ooh! Thatís great!" It all came to me, how
they act with the chador. Honestly, I discovered the chador in United
States. Thereís thousands of ways of working with this Ė how to open it to a
person you have an intimate relationship with, and how to close it to
Did you stay on top of the struggles in Iran when you went into exile?
I did all the time, yes.
So you stay in touch with your fellow exiles or filmmakers because youíre
so involved aesthetically? How do they survive in Iran?
Well, people do find their own ways of living Ė either behind closed doors,
or in the dungeons, or try to keep a low-key position in society. Some came
out and worked, such as Kiarostami, I guess. I once asked an Iranian poet
living in Colorado, "How are you doing? Are you still writing that beautiful
poetry?" And he goes, "No, Iím afraid not, I havenít worked for a year now."
I said "Why not?" And he said, "Because I am a poet when Iím in my own
country. When I see Damavand mountain in front of me, when I see all those
hot springs in Iran. I guess I get my sources from whatís in Iran." I asked
a painter, "How come you lived in Iran and never left?Ē Ė because he speaks
English and French fluently. And he said, "Shohreh, Iím a painter. I get my
sources from rich colors, and the carpets, and the rich foods in our nature.
I canít do the same thing in Switzerland."
Are you a Muslim?
I was born into a Muslim family, but never practiced.
We Americans have a very limited, if not distorted and superficial, view
of what the Muslim world is like. If I asked someone on the street what is a
Shiite and Sunni, few would know. The Shiite tradition is vastly different
from the Sunni tradition.
It goes beyond that. For rural societies in the Muslim world, itís more
details, of course, not just what's on the surface of it. [Stonings like
this] do not happen in the big cities. It happens in the rural societies,
where people whoíve hi-jacked Islam are manipulating people through Islamic
law. Claims that stoning is Islamic law Ė which is not, really. Stoning is
not in Qur'an, itís not even in the Hadith Ė stories that were told in the
time of Muhammad or after him that [can carry the weight of law]. Itís
categorized under superstitions and traditions. But there are a few,
especially in the rural areas, that donít know this.
The same thing is happening in Pakistan and other Muslim countries Ė
stonings not really sanctioned by law.
When you were in Jordan shooting, did you talk to the villagers that were
Oh. I was all the time with the villagers.
What did they think about this story?
First of all, when Iím working on a natural scene, I try to mingle and get
involved with the scene. So when I got in, I started talking to a man and a
woman. She was wearing a chador, but her face was out, and she was this
close to hitting the man. I told my friends, "This is my character in this
village." So I went to her and I said "Madame, what is your name?" She said,
"Jamila." And I said, "Jamila, my name is Shohreh and I want to be your
friend." So every day she used to do my braid. I would literally sit on her
lap and she would do it. Our hair person, said, "Why donít you let me do
it?" I said, "You donít understand. This way I am making this bond with this
woman. Itís necessary for me to feel like being one of them when portraying
my character, and plus from that, Iím learning so much from them." I learned
how to smoke from Jamila. Believe it or not, I smoked.
Youíve never smoked [laughs]?
Oh yes, I did, but not a chain smoker. Still, I had no idea how a village
woman would smoke, because I smoke like a European. Thatís totally
different, how they put their cigarettes between their fingers Ė that's how
they smoke. I learned a lot from them, and they were so gracious and kind.
They kept asking me, "Whatís the story? Whatís the story?" I couldnít tell
them, of course, but they were putting bits and pieces together.
Even though there are people wearing chadors there, Jordan is still a
fairly modern Muslim state without this repression. What did they say or
think? Did they get an idea of what the movie was about? And did you get
their reaction to the idea of stoning people?
First of all, they were very cooperative. They were extras in the film. They
loved doing it. They kept asking about the story, and I kept telling them
different things. I didnít want to tell them what the core of the ideas was,
not until the stoning scene started. And when it started Ė Jamila kept
asking me, "Is she innocent?" I kept telling her, "Jamila, it is irrelevant
whether sheís innocent or not, this thing shouldnít happen. Her husband
shouldnít hit her." Because I go and get into the middle of the fight and
save [Soraya] when Ali is beating her up in the street, Jamila and all the
woman friends were around acting like the people of the village. They
couldnít help themselves, they applauded, "Bauurra! Baurra!" The director
goes, "God no! Youíre not supposed to show any kind of reaction. Donít
applaud Ė this is not theater. Itís for real."
So they were really cooperative, very nice people. But the moment we started
digging the hole, they all gathered together, looked at the hole and Jamila
came to me and said, "Are you Shiite?" I said yes. She said "Oh. Alas." They
were crying. And the scene of stoning, Jamila and her friends Ė I was crying
because I was supposed to, and I couldnít help myself because I was thinking
of the real thing. But they were crying. Never did they ever witness
anything like this before.
Not in Jordan?
Not in Jordan. Never. I was so afraid that we might [ruin] their kids by
doing this, in that village Ė you know, teaching them how to throw the
stones. I was really afraid about that, really afraid. But then theyíre such
civilized people, and they were all very, very, very upset and devastated
about the film.
What are your expectations with this film coming out?
The film speaks brilliantly for itself. What Iím desperately looking forward
to is that people who watch it, who would see it, will do something about
it. They wonít just have to cry in their privacy. They can go to the site,
stoning.com, and leave remarks there. When millions of people have read
the site, then together we might be able to do something.
When you refer to the situation in Iran, how does this film play a part
in the debate and in the broader Middle Eastern discussion?
Itís amazing how timely this film is. Itís not only timeless, but also
timely. Of course, shedding light on injustices such as this one would help
a lot for the people hearing about whatís happening in Iran. And itís not
only happening in Iran, itís happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and
more. So, being at the same time as this election and all these
demonstrations in Iran, itís just amazing, and again, itís like a miracle. I
have to admit that from the moment Cyrus called to the moment we went to
Jordan to shoot didnít take more than a month and a half, then a month and a
half of shooting, a couple of months in post. In less than a year, we were
in Toronto Film Festival, where we managed to become a runner up to
Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, last year at this time, we were filming in
Jordan. So itís just amazing how timely it is and the effect it's going to
have in opening people's eyes to whatís going on behind the curtain,
especially in rural societies in the Islamic world. It also gives a portrait
of these voiceless women who do not have even their own basic nights.
Can you go back and visit Iran?
I have not been back to Iran in the last 30 years since I left.
Given that theyíve jailed people who came here with legitimate reasons I
would be hesitant...
I would love to visit Iran, but when Iran is free.
Is that why you left?
Yes, I was already on my way. I was an actress. I started when I was
eighteen years old with a stage actor first and then [director Abbas]
Kiarostami changed my [future]. He came to see one of the plays [I was in]
and said, "You are going to be in my film." It was his first feature [The
Report]. He taught me so much. First and foremost, the most important
thing he taught me was not to act. Because I was coming from stage and I
intend to act, he said, "You know what, just deliver the words." I still
How much has Iran has changed over the course of the 30 years when you
working with [esteemed Iranian director] Abbas Kiarostami?
Actually, The Report was 34 years ago. The reason I left was the
rumor that the Islamic Republic was going to take over and Ayatollah was
coming to Iran via Air France. Being familiar with Islam from my grandmother
Ė who was a pious woman, but not a fanatic by any means Ė I knew with its
doctrine, there was no place [for me] in that society. Thatís why I jumped
in my car in February 28th, 1979, and drove to Europe 31 days later. But
yes, it has changed a lot, to the degree that nowadays weíre hearing words
on the streets of Iran that you have not heard [in a very long time]. Not
for the last 30 years. Weíre hearing words such as transparency, law,
accountability which is very healthy, very promising and very exciting.
Moving here in the '80s to work in the US, it must have been a challenge
as a middle-eastern actress to land a role here. It is changing a bit now
but back then it must have been tough. How did you manage?
In fact, when I got to the US, a friend of mine said, "Youíve got to work. I
have to introduce you to an agent." I went to meet with the agent, a very
nice guy. He said, "Shorheh, youíre sort of over-qualified." I can
understand what he was trying to say. "You can get work, but it's going to
be limited." With this accent and jet black hair, what are you talking
about... Of course! I know that! Then he sent me to different auditions and
I realized that this was all extra work, like daily work and I called him
and said, "Letís not ruin our relationship over these petty audtions." At
that time I was doing theater with my current husband, playwright Houshang
Touzie. He writes, directs, and produces contemporary Iranian plays. If I
want to compare him to anybody in States, I would definitely say Neil Simon.
Yeah, comedy. We were doing so well with our first play, we bought our first
house through it, so I thought, "Why am I wasting my time?" I called and
said "Letís forget about it."
It was fifteen years later that casting director Deborah Aquila called and
said, "Can I talk to Shoria Adhdashi?" and I said "Wow! Thatís sounds a lot
like my name but itís not my name. Where on earth did you get this name?"
She said, "Whatever your name is, I would you like to come down and sort it
out." I said, "Where to?" And she said, "Dreamworks." I said, "Regarding
what?" She said, ďHouse of Sand and FogĒ and I was speechless. I had
read the book and told my husband, two years prior to this call, that if one
day they make a film out of this book and do not give me this role, it would
be really unfair of them. Thereís no democracy in this country! He said
ĎWhat does it have to do with democracy? Youíre such a political animal.Ē
So it is
liberating for you as a woman to be the one to speak this voice Ė to play
this woman now?
Absolutely. It was definitely liberating to me as an actor, as a feminist,
as an activist, as someone who really cares about whatís going on in that
country. But to clear the air here, nothing like that happened when I was a
child. Never, everÖ
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