Living in post-Revolution Iran, Afshin Ghaffarian (Gabriel Senior plays the younger version) is attracted to the arts and is drawn into an institute run by kindly Mehdi (Makram Khoury), who teaches them about dance, which is forbidden by the Ayatollah’s “moral police.” Little Afshin is captivated. Ten years later, a grown Afshin (now played by Reece Ritchie) attends the University of Tehran, where the tides are changing and the country is caught in the middle of a new revolution among the youth of Iran, who are vouching for and supporting new progressive presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi versus current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections.
Dance has been driven underground (literally underground, as this is where the clubs are now located) and anyone caught dancing in public will be beaten by the morality police, or the Basij. After Afshin befriends Ardi (Tom Cullen), a progressive painter whose art is always spray painted over, Mehran (Bamshad Abedi-Amin), a poet whose brother is a member of the Basij, Mona (Marama Corlett) and Elaheh (Freida Pinto), whose mother was a part of the Iranian Ballet pre-Revolution. Elaheh is also a heroin addict and the group’s technique dance teacher. Afshin’s dream is to dance uninhibited, free of all that the government doesn’t allow. But dreams always come at a cost.
Based on the true story of dancer/choreographer Afshin Ghaffarian, Desert Dancer masks itself as a dance film, but is really a political thriller, with not enough dancing. First-time feature film director Richard Raymond falters in creating a balance. The film desperately wants to be a dance film, but in all actuality, there are more conversations had about dancing than there is actual dancing. The film’s main plot, which has much more with the political turmoil in Iran circa 2009, is very similar to Jon Stewart’s 2014 political drama Rosewater. Raymond’s film retains many of the aforementioned film’s attributes, giving us Iran from an English-speaking, mostly non-Iranian cast perspective, but lacks Rosewater’s drive, passion, and focus.
This lack of ultimate drive leaves the film in a lackluster state. There’s more talking than doing and screenwriter Jon Croker makes the mistake of throwing in another character’s background, but never engaging us completely with it. What I’m referring to is Elaheh’s heroin addiction, which is abruptly brought up, becomes the focus for about ten minutes, before being dropped for the most part. No character is ever fully realized and the politically charged thriller-esque atmosphere doesn’t really go anywhere except to be the backdrop for rebellion a la Footloose.
However, what Desert Dancer does excel at is its ability to transform some of its more quiet moments into passionate ones via what can only be called interpretive dance. The highlight of the entire film is the dance Reece Ritchie, Freida Pinto, and Tom Cullen perform among the desert dunes. It’s beautifully choreographed, passionate, and wonderfully performed and interpreted. You can’t look away from it. If the remainder of the film had been as fantastic as this one unforgettable scene, then Desert Dancer could have been so much more, but it’s ultimately bogged down by trying to be two very separate things and dragging its plot for a bit more time than it should have. A film with a lot of potential, but unfortunately underwhelming.