Film Review: Sepideh Reaching for the STARS

Friday, January 30, 2015

Linda Briskman
Professor of Human Rights, Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Australia

Film is a universal and popular medium with potential to provide significant cultural insights. In recent years there has been a flourishing of films that not only tell a story but inform and educate viewers, often confronting previously held perceptions. The burgeoning of Iranian cinema is illustrative of this trend through raising awareness of Iranian society and culture.

Although made by a Danish filmmaker, Sepideh Reaching for the Stars falls into this category. It is a heart-warming story of a schoolgirl from the small town of Saadat Shahr in Fars province, who has a single minded ambition to become an astronomer or even an astronaut. What is distinctive about this documentary is how the narrative of Sepideh’s journey through her own reality is intertwined with her imagination and enhanced by the lives and voices of those around her, both family and peers.

Danish documentary maker Berit Madsen does not make judgments. She allows the viewer to see competing views and how they are negotiated. Through the years she spent with Sepideh Hooshyar we observe the customs and traditions of the small town where Sepideh resides. However, cultural norms are not static and what appears at first sight to be resort to tradition alone, comes to be negotiated and adapted as sensitively presented by Madsen. Although Madsen absents herself from appearing in the film and allows the protagonists to speak for themselves, she has built up relationships which have enabled her to gain trust and insider insights. This is made even more profound by travelling to the Fars town with her Iranian husband and their children.  

Madsen filmed on-site. She gained permission from relevant authorities to film in mosques and at official meetings. The family welcomed her presence. There are extensive observations of Sepideh at home and with her fellow star gazers from the astronomy club, including lively and illuminating conversations.

As a regular visitor to Iran I am constantly debunking myths and stereotypes to people in my country who have little knowledge or insight into Iran. I challenge people’s stereotypical images to explain that Iran is safe and welcoming. Like Madsen I have come to see that Iranian society is not as depicted in western countries. In particular, the western depiction of Iranian women as victims is far from the reality of everyday lives. 

Through the microcosm of one girl and one town, cultural navigation is achieved by challenging polarised views and opening up complexity and nuance. We see for example physics teacher and astronomy club leader, Mr Kabiri, with a passion for encouraging school children to extend their world from their own locality to embrace understanding the galaxy. We come to understand how Sepideh’s passion for this endeavour is contested. Sepideh’s widowed and financially-struggling mother is concerned about her daughter spending nights in the field with her classmates and calls on Sepideh’s strict maternal uncle to admonish her about the mixed company she keeps. Her mother is keen for Sepideh to learn to cook, a maternal appeal which is rejected by the strong-willed teenager.

In contrast, Mr Kabiri expresses disappointed when Sepideh, upon completing school, announces that she plans to marry. Kabiri believes that in doing so at such a young age she is not a good role model for other girls. And then the film introduces us to the fiancee who not only shares Sepideh’s love of astronomy but unconditionally supports her to achieve her goals.

Sepideh is intelligent, feisty, passionate about her beliefs and despite a few setbacks along the way remains, with encouragement, determined.

She has adopted role models. One is Albert Einstein and Sepideh writes letters to him in her diary telling of her dreams. The other is Iranian born Anousheh Ansari who achieved her own dream and became the first Iranian to enter space. After Sepideh takes the plunge to email Ansari in the United States, a trajectory of events evolve which I won’t give away so as not to spoil the ending.

I do not wish to reify the place of film as transformative. Viewers need to be discerning. Most western films depicting Iran are made about and not within and do not always portray a balanced or realistic view of Iranian society. Furthermore, Iranian films do not generally attract ‘mainstream’ crowds in western countries, appealing to those who follow offerings in what are referred to as arthouse cinemas or at international film festivals. And not all film audiences have the privilege as I do to frequently visit Iran and to both witness the society and to see the strength of the Iranian film industry. One of my favourite places in Tehran is the Film Museum. As an aside, I would love to see its exhibits travel to Australia for all to see.

There may be changes afoot. As I put my final touches to this review I note that Asghar Farhadi's A Separation will form part of the school curriculum in my state of Victoria in 2015. I hope Sepideh Reaching for the Stars will follow in future lessons in order to achieve both cultural awareness and the universal goal of inspiring schoolchildren to reach for their own stars. One girl and her telescope might provide the momentum.

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم