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Desert Dancer: What's It Like to Live Where Dancing Is Illegal? 

Wednesday, Apr 8 2015
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Found cavorting before an appreciative audience of grade-school classmates, a young Afshin Ghaffarian got a beating from his teacher, but also gained a mentor who quoted lines from Rumi and secretly showed him filmstrips of Nureyev. By 2009, Ghaffarian had formed a college dance troupe, in spite of the fact that it's illegal. Welcome to Iran, which, as Desert Dancer's pre-opening disclaimer informs us, actually had a great deal of culture to offer before the 1979 revolution. A graceless dramatization of Ghaffarian's true story ensues, with well-intentioned writer Jon Croker and director Richard Raymond becoming mired in platitudes and moral superiority. This Iran, where everyone just goes ahead and speaks English so we don't have to read subtitles, seems about as authentic as the Russia of Rocky IV. But it is a U.K. production, so there's a bit of class after all. Downton Abbey's Tom Cullen exudes warmth in a supporting role, and Reece Ritchie brings sincere intensity to the lead, abiding a mostly inert romance with his dance partner Freida Pinto, a tragic addict. Together, they transmute increasingly brutal run-ins with morality cops into semierotic modern choreography. We didn't need a pseudo-Persian Footloose to imagine dance as a means of political resistance, but surely there's no harm in drawing inspiration from Ghaffarian's bravely creative life.

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Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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