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."
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."
McEveety believes that while it's easy for Westerners to think that corruption and mob rule only happen in foreign countries, we are all subject to the same weaknesses. "I hope people are outraged [when they see the movie] and that stoning will be banned internationally," he said. "I hope it sparks a discussion about honor killings, which are far more prevalent and happening all over the world. But I especially hope that every individual that sees it looks at their own lives and recognizes their own experience committing violence or witnessing violence and doing nothing. We're all guilty of sin yet we think of ourselves as good people. And probably most of the people in that village thought of themselves as good people."
Traveling through rural post-revolutionary Iran, Freidoune Sahebjam, a French journalist of Iranian descent, met a woman who told him the brutal story of the death of her niece, Soraya. Sahebjam published a book on the story in 1994; on June 26, his true story will be released as a film, The Stoning of Soraya M.
The film version of Soraya (Mozhan Marno) is based on the real-life woman, a mother to two sons and two daughters and wife to Ali (Navid Negahban). Although she is only in her mid-30s, Ali has tired of her. He wants to marry a 14-year-old. His offer of divorce would force her and her daughters into desperate poverty, perhaps even prostitution. She rejects it. Ali would take the boys, but cares nothing for his daughters. He cooks a plot to have Soraya stoned. Coercing others to go along through blackmail or intimidation, he and a corrupt mullah put together a sham trial, accusing Soraya of adultery.
The film (rated R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language) marches to its inevitable conclusion and Soraya is stoned by the community she's known all her life. The mob mentality engulfs former friends, her father, and even her young sons. Her aunt, the educated Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), is the only one courageous enough to stand against the mob, but her cries are not enough to stop the brutality.
Brutality is the key word in this film. The stoning sequence is long, explicit, and hard to watch, even-stomach turning. "It was important to me to tell the truth," said director Cyrus Nowrasteh, and surely only a true stoning could be more disturbing than his film version.
As a work of art, this movie has shortcomings. The characters are one-dimensional and do not grow or change. The outcome is known from the beginning, so there is no suspense. But that's not really the point. As a documentation of an outrage, designed to horrify the world and make it pay attention, it works very well.