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Movies | Filmmakers hope Soraya M. prompts soul-searching and action

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

Few films experience as timely a debut as The Stoning of Soraya M. is set to make on June 26. While women in Iran are protesting the suspect election of a president whose policies have been particularly oppressive to them, the true story of a woman who was wrongly put to death by Islamic officials in the 1980s seems especially relevant.

Based on the best-selling book by the late French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, the film recounts the murder of 35-year-old Soraya, a mother of four whose husband had fallen in love with a 14-year-old girl (see sidebar below). Not wanting the expense of caring for two wives, he conspired with the local mullah to frame Soraya for adultery. She was found guilty by a corrupt village council that included her own brothers, and stoned by a mob that included her father. Had it not been for the outspokenness of her aunt, who risked her own life to relay the events to Sahebjam, the truth behind Soraya's death may never have come out.

Writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh, perhaps best known for his controversial miniseries The Path to 9/11, says this is a story he's been waiting to tell for more than a decade. "I picked up the book in 1994. The title caught my attention and being of Iranian heritage I was curious about it. By the time I'd finished it, I was overwhelmed. My wife and I are both screenwriters, and it was such an emotionally gripping story it screamed movie to us. But realistically we had to step back and go, 'Who's going to make a movie like this?' So we didn't pursue it at that time, but we never stopped talking about it. Then in late 2005, I thought we were in a better place career-wise and that the industry might be more receptive to it."

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At that point the Nowrastehs' screenplay came to the attention of Steve McEveety, CEO of Mpower Pictures. As a studio executive at Icon Entertainment, McEveety had worked closely with Mel Gibson, producing projects like Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, and The Passion of The Christ. He'd launched Mpower with the aim to "make films that profoundly impact culture" and felt that, like the company's first picture, Bella, Soraya M. had the potential to fulfill that mission. "My business partner had been bugging me for months to read the script and I'd never gotten around to it," McEveety admits. "But when I finally picked it up, it just blew me away. And I thought, 'We have got to make this movie.'"

From there, putting the cast together became a relatively easy matter, with James Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, signing on for the role of Sahebjam. All three men say they're aware that some people may view the film, which has been banned in Iran even before its release, as controversial for its critical stance of Islamic rule. But they say that they're not concerned about it.

"When I'm making a film I can't think about who might object or for what reason," says Nowrasteh. McEveety agrees, stating, "I hope people of all faiths and political perspectives will embrace this film and go see it. But I have no problem criticizing Shariah law. The abuse of religion can destroy any country and what we see in Soraya is clearly an abuse of religion and law."

For his part, Caviezel says that as a Christian, he believes he has a special impetus to get involved in movies like Soraya because believers have been given a mandate to speak out against injustice regardless of who it might offend. "In the West we say, 'Oh, it's Shariah law and who are we to impose our religious values on them?' I think that's an evil deception. Those people are human beings, they have the imprint of God in them, so what does that tell us we should do? What does the Good Samaritan story tell us we should do? Chant some politically correct line so as not to upset anybody? I don't think that's the model Christ gives us."

The three men also agree that while the themes in the story indict aspects of Islamic governance, they hope audiences will look beyond the cultural context and examine ways the film reflects their own lives.

Caviezel ties the villagers colluding in the death of the innocent Soraya to Christians colluding in the deaths of the innocent unborn. "I don't think in terms of 'women's rights,' I think in terms of 'human rights,' and Soraya's story is just one example of it," he says. "Here in the United States, men have no rights if a woman wants to abort their child. And too many in the church are afraid of having stones thrown at them if they speak out against that."

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