Set in Tehran during the volatile climate of the 2009 presidential election and the start of the “Green Movement,” Afshin and a group of dancers risk their lives and form an underground dance company. With what little access to the Internet they have, the group discovers music and dance videos that were banned from viewing in their country. Inspired by these newfound heroes, they stage their own performances and uncover a passion for dance and one another.
A few weeks after the premiere of ‘HEARTLESS’, PHILIP RIDLEY‘s acclaimed film starring JIM STURGESS, the film’s producer – director RICHARD RAYMOND – read a news story about an Iranian dancer named AFSHIN GHAFFARIAN who was arrested after putting on a performance in the desert. Ghaffarian eventually fled his country to pursue his art and escape an oppressive government.
“I was really moved by Afshin’s story,” said Raymond. “I had no prior connection to dance, and I never in a million years thought it would be the subject of my first feature but I found it to be absolutely fascinating as an artist and a filmmaker. I connected with this story about dance and art in Iran being so restricted, and how artists, filmmakers, poets, and dancers always seem to be at the forefront in telling stories of freedom.”
The “Green Movement” was still going on in Iran. Ghaffarian used his dance to protest for freedom and he was a really galvanized political dancer/protestor. The French government granted him asylum and he was awarded free entry to the National Dance School in Paris where he graduated.
It took many months to convince Afshin to share his story, until finally Raymond and writer JON CROKER flew to meet him in Paris. They spent eight hours listening and recording Ghaffarian’s incredible story of resistance and resilience. This interview became the framework for their screenplay. “I felt this was a very important story of an unsung hero, a classic story of an underdog against extraordinary odds,” said Raymond. “Many people don’t know about the hardships these young people have to face, and how they express themselves artistically when the regime says they’re not allowed.”
It took Raymond an extremely long time to raise enough money to make Desert Dancer due to the nature and subject matter of the film.
As he prepared to undertake his first feature film, Raymond had to convince financiers that he was the right person to helm the project. So the young director decided to film a promo piece with portions of a “desert dance” scene in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, with Ghaffarian playing himself.
The Jordanian authorities had other ideas. Afshin wasn’t allowed to be in the country. When Raymond inquired why, the authorities explained that because he was a male dancer, he must also be a homosexual.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” remembers Raymond. “They were not allowing Afshin in because they assumed a male dancer would be gay. We were witnessing the discrimination firsthand. So, there we were in Jordan with a camera crew, other actors in place and no lead.”
Fortunately, Raymond had an idea. He had recently seen ‘THE LOVELY BONES’ and been impressed with REECE RITCHIE in a small role. “I thought he was an absolutely wonderful actor,” recalls Raymond.
Beyond being a tremendous actor, Ritchie has significant martial arts training so Raymond knew he could handle the strenuous dance sequences. Ritchie had additional qualities that did not go unnoticed. The physical likeness he had to Afshin was uncanny.
“He also had the same energy, the same uplifting spirit and the same passion as Afshin,” said Raymond.
“Richard was very passionate,” recalls Ritchie. “He explained that he had these interview tapes that he’d taken of the real Afshin and that he would love for me to watch them.” After screening the hours of tapes, Ritchie remarked, “I was absolutely fascinated by Afshin’s life – what he’d done knowing we were the same age. He had a completely polarised existence to me.”
The actor called his agent and said “I’m playing this part, come hell or high water.” Reece got on the next plane to Jordan, and almost immediately found himself dancing in the desert.
Raymond continued to seek out actors who could bring the story to the screen. Feeling that Ghaffarian’s story wasn’t just a story about Iran, Raymond wanted a cast that reflected its universal appeal.
“It was a story about repression and persecution all over the world whether it’s your family or whether it’s your government,” said Raymond. “I felt that anyone, anywhere could connect to having a dream, fighting for that dream and striving for it. And so I wanted to cast actors from every part of the planet to help tell this story.”
He was particularly sensitive to the challenge of casting “Elaheh,” a trained dancer who helped Ghaffarian and his friends refine their dance skills. “Elaheh,” is also the woman Ghaffarian loved and had to leave when he escaped Iran.
After honing the script, Raymond sent it to FREIDA PINTO‘s agent and the ‘SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’ actress immediately responded to it.
“I was excited by the idea of working with Freida because I had never seen her play a role like this, and she brought so much to the part,” says Raymond.