National Press Club

Iranian-born Oscar Nominee Pushes Envelope for Women in Iran

June 22, 2009 | By Melissa Charbonneau

Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo says protests in Iran are unprecedented in the country's post-revolutionary history and are linked to the decades-long repression of women’s rights by a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

“I want to cry, and at the same time I am happy -- happy that the Iranian people have at last after 10 years decided to take their destiny in their own hands and now are pouring on the streets -- happy because 40 percent of them are Iranian women -- happy because they are calling this movement a ‘women's movement’ in Iran," Aghdashloo said Wednesday at a National Press Club panel discussion and film screening.

Aghdashloo, who fled Iran in the 1970s, stars in “The Stoning of Soraya M," a docu-drama is based on the true story of Soraya, a young wife and mother stoned to death in an Iranian village after her husband and the local mullah conspired to convict her on false charges of adultery.

Aghadashloo was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in “House of Sand and Fog,” and has appeared in “24,” “House of Saddam,” and “The Lake House.” She filmed “Stoning” in Farsi with a mostly-Iranian cast.

Iranian-American director Cyrus Nowrasteh joined Aghdashloo for the Press Club Q&A.

A screenwriter, producer and filmmaker recognized for his work on “The Path to 9/11” and “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” Nowrasteh says “Stoning” is about women’s rights and reform. He says the film should not be viewed as anti-Muslim, noting that nowhere in the Muslim holy book, the Quran, is stoning justified.

“It's very important at the front of movie there's a quote, the first thing you see,” Nowrasteh says. “That quote is also in front of the book and is, basically, ‘Beware the hypocrite who hides behind the Quran.’ And as you watch the movie you'll see this is as much about people who hijack religion and use it for their own personal agenda.”

While the film’s critical stoning scene has been described as shocking and grisly, Nowrasteh says it is a watered-down version of reality. The sequence begins with Soraya being led down a dusty street. Dressed in white, her arms are bound, and she is buried in a hole up to her waist. Her father, husband, and sons hurl the first rocks as chanting villagers join in the bloody ritual.

The director calls the violence “necessary.”

“If you did the standard movie, popcorn-kind of violence, then you're doing a disservice those people who have died this way,” Nowrasteh said. “I felt that we need to push it.

It's nothing compared to the real thing. We've both seen the real thing. If you reach the point where people are streaming out of the theater then you've got a problem. So it's about doing that delicate balance and what serves what you're trying to say.”

While the film’s release was timed to follow Iran’s presidential elections, escalating political tensions and the use of social media is opening doors for greater awareness of the film inside Iranian borders. Aghdashloo welcomes the exposure, but she opposes any external U.S. government interference in Iran’s internal affairs, arguing it could create a dangerous backlash for protesters pushing the regime for more rights.

“It would not only ruin the movement,” Aghdashloo says, “but also give the hardliners the opportunity to accuse the movement of the spontaneous action, of being backed by either the US or England. I truly believe this is for Iranians, the Iranian people, to resolve. We have to leave them alone and let them make their own decision.”

The film opens in limited theaters nationwide on June 26.