The Stoning of Soraya M. is a raw drama which emotionally pummels the viewer with the injustice it so directly and unapologetically portrays. It is based on the true, tragic story of a young wife and mother in Iran 22 years ago, which was reported by a French-Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam (played by Jim Cavaziel in the film).
Like The Passion of the Christ, also produced by Steve McEveety, this is an extreme close-up of a horrifically violent and unjust death. All the considerable power of cinema is leveraged to draw us into the story, both visually and emotionally. Making the valid choice to tell this story of grave injustice through an “extreme close-up” enables us as viewers to uniquely experience in some small way the emotional and physical beating and stoning of Soraya. But as powerful as the film’s approach is, it will most likely limit the audience of the film. Which is too bad, because this is a story that needs to be heard now, perhaps even more urgently than in the past.
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh gives the film an immense commitment to the details of the world of a tiny Iranian village. The writer, director, and all the actors except Jim Cavaziel are Iranian, Iranians in exile, or Iranian-Americans. Powerfully written, acted and directed, all the elements of the film conspire together to make the story seem an entirely credible, eyewitness account. Despite the victimization of Soraya (in a marvelous understated performance by Mozhan Marnò), the strength of her character in facing death is inspiring, as is the strength of her aunt Zahra, in a moving all-out performance by Oscar® nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo.
Actor Jim Cavaziel was present at the screening, and he made a point I could not agree with more. He pointed out that while some people might be upset by the violence in the film, in reality, they should be upset–outraged!–that this violence really happened to a young woman named Soraya, and still happens to women today. This is a film that should disturb, anger, and hopefully, provoke to action. The horrible injustice against this one woman reverberates in and against every woman, in every society.
Producer Steve McEveety also talked about the film as a way of “bearing witness” to these kinds of tragic, senseless deaths. He feels the film is for anyone who’s been a victim, and I agree. The Stoning of Soraya M. gives a voice to Soraya herself who, during her lifetime, could not be heard.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is a movie with a profound message: it compellingly and artistically tells a story of injustice solely from the victim’s perspective (or more accurately, from the perspective of the victim’s nearest relative). In being faithful to this eyewitness account, the pain is heart-rending. But the film’s single perspective can be a two-edged sword–limiting the complexity of the film and making the actions of everyone but Soraya and Zahra not only inexcusable, but incomprehensible. On the one hand, this kind of close-up, single-minded account could lead to an immense outrage against this kind of injustice, a prod to prevent similar injustice in the future. But on the other hand, the lack of complexity in this film could lead to a loss of something precious–a sense of compassion–that we are not so very different from the people of this village.
Who of us has not given in to some of the familiar social behavior in the film–granted, without such consequences? Haven’t we all traded favors? Haven’t we all fallen into the trap of thinking like the people surrounding us? How many of us have perverted religious ideals by using them to look down on someone else? Who of us hasn’t tried to protect someone we love at someone else’s expense? Manipulation, pressure, taking sides, fear tactics, and abuse of power are the engines that drive one man’s desire to be free of his wife into a communal murder.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is not comfortable to watch because, at the end, we have to decide what we will do with the immense sadness and anger roiling around in us. We are left with burning questions: What happened to the villagers afterwards? They must have been (and most likely still are) haunted by the atrocious murder they committed together. What could make a difference so that those who seek to draw closer to God through living Shariah law do not use it to oppress women? And what is our response to the oppressors–not just the villagers, but especially the conspiring murderers at the center of the plot–whom we have seen involved in nothing else but murder? We cannot lose sight of the respect each person deserves, even when it seems they have forfeited the rights of being human. When one woman is condemned simply because she is a woman, we are all condemned along with her–even the oppressors. How can we respond to this injustice?
The question is particularly compelling to me, living in Toronto. In 2004, allowing a form of Shariah law to be practiced as part of faith-based tribunals was seriously discussed in Ontario. Shariah law is a code of life that many Muslims adhere to, but its place in Canada continues to be an ongoing concern because there is no consensus in its interpretation. Of much greater concern is the injustice against many women around the world, with the excuse of Shariah law.
This film is not suitable for children because of its horrific violence. But it is an important film–especially for people interested in religion, anthropology, and human rights. Becoming aware is the first step to ending injustice. There is not yet a theatrical release date for Canada, but I’ll post a link when there is.
If you can’t see the film but still want to make a difference, why not take the time to find out more about the rights of women and children in countries where human rights violations are common? For those of us who can see the film, perhaps researching how Shariah law is practiced in various countries can nuance the film’s presentation of Muslim customs.