Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
The story of Afshin Ghaffarian is a compelling and visceral story. As a young boy in Iran, he was driven to perform using the bodily instrument of dance to express himself. In his birth country, free-style dance was forbidden, though not technically illegal. Still, to practice it was to risk punishment and possible jail time, under the shuttering eyes of the morality police.
To the delight of his classmates at school, Afshin danced in great sweeps only to be called from school and shamed. Later, he was hounded by fundamentalists, beaten and stomped on.
His every gesture was then churned into motion that he incorporated into his kinetic art.
Like Antonin Artaud before him, Afshin uses his body as antenna to transmit the fear around him and filter it anew.
Richard Raymond's "Desert Dancer" is the film version of Ghaffarian's efforts to be an artist under Iran's very real oppression.
Actor Reece Ritchie (The Lovely Bones) is Afshin as a young man at Tehran University, surrounded by the vibrancy of paint, graffiti and loud music.
Ritchie's portrayal is well intentioned but aside from spinning, twirling and moonwalking in long scrolls of movement, we never get a sense of his uniqueness as a person or his individual character. It is well established that he is talented and driven as a dancer, but aside from that, he is uniform, bland and insipid. Aside from dance related dialogue, he says precious little.
What makes Afshin tick? What are his quirks and foibles?
Instead, there is a plodding story as Afshin tries to assemble (what else?) a dance group. Despite its Iranian location, the film goes the conventional route of other dance related films in its message of standing up against the system from "Footloose" to "Flashdance" with the same, heavy handed, all too obvious slogans in the mode of "To Dance is to Live."
After so many versions of this, shouldn't there be a more complex approach?
When a gang-leader attacks Ghaffarian, and says "I'll find you, Afshin Ghaffarian!", he all but twirls a black mustache.
The country of Iran too, shows little uniqueness aside from a sea of green with crowds chanting for the candidate Mousavi. The election of 2009 is interesting all by itself but we are given only a bit of window dressing. Aside from chanting, how does the election affect the dancers personally in terms of feeling. Again we don't really know and Afshin seems only to skate around the edges of what is a very tumultuous result, although he does get beaten.
Elaheh (Frieda Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire), is Ghaffarian's dance partner. She dances well but who in a moment of struggle turns to heroin. Her withdrawl scenes lack emotion and she is far from convincing as the addict artist. Aha, here is Elaheh, stumbling over a dinner table and she looks fresh from a modeling shoot. Why not turn that into a routine?
The dance numbers though no doubt earnest and serious, play as laughable comedy. In one scene, Afshin and Elaheh are in the dunes writhing and spiraling in torment. Suddenly from out of the blue, Ardavan (Tom Cullen) appears scampering like twinkletoes on the balls of his feet. He symbolizes a threatening and violent policeman, yet the effect is so overdone in its treatment that it comes across as Monty Python or Elmer Fudd. In another dance segment, Pinto walks her fingers across her arms in the manner of a first grader doing a "Here's the church \ There's the steeple" trick.
The last straw of "Desert Dancer" occurs when an entire crowd makes a V for victory sign in identification with Afshin. Afshin Ghaffarian's art deserves a more novel treatment that doesn't stoop, hand wring our senses or preach with syrup and sentiment. That this film is filled with such overt mawkishness is a missed opportunity.