It’s all the more disappointing for a cinemagoer when a film meant to delight in a fellow performance art falls limply flat on its face. Paired with a weakly executed, western-articulated perspective on the constraints of Iranian society, Richard Raymond’s debut feature Desert Dancer is a lifeless, contrived and remarkably unengaging rallying cry for freedom of expression and self-fulfilment in the face of adversity. Caught somewhere between one of the Step Up series and an attempted expose on political oppression, the film opens with images of a man beaten black and blue by vicious kicks to the face.
Early signs of a hard-hitting indictment of a brutal regime soon give way to a very tame representation of one boy’s ‘journey’ – in the X-Factor sense of the word – from a youngster born to dance to a man who now tours Europe with his own Paris-based troupe of fleet- footed companions. Desert Dancer is based on the real life trials and tribulations of Afshin Ghaffarian. Risking incurring the wrath of Iran’s Orwellian morality police by dancing in front of his classmates, he joins the Saba Arts Academy where students paint, sing and dance to their mutual hearts content behind closed doors. No sooner have we made the slightest of connections to a young Afshin does the action jump forward a decade to his arrival in Tehran to study and really stick it to the man by forming an underground dance group with a few of his pals.
Reece Ritchie plays Afshin and fellow Brit Tom Cullen is among others that choose to fight the good fight alongside him. Lines such as “We have to make a stand” and “When I dance I feel free” give some idea as to the platitude- riddled script which writer Jon Croker came up with. What should be rousing and defiant is delivered with such little vigour that no sense of anticipation, danger or excitement is generated ahead of the big desert performance. Indeed, other than putting themselves in apparently grave danger, what these semi-revolutionaries are actually hoping to achieve by mini-bussing a handful of their mates out into the middle of nowhere to watch the dance is never made clear.
Freida Pinto appears as the stunningly beautiful, supremely gifted Elaleh who turns Afshin’s head and heart but just so happens to also be a heroine addict. The explanation of her troubled upbringing and cold turkey sequence is presumably included to bring some dramatic heft to the dullness of all other proceedings but it’s just yet another montage and clichéd plot point. It must be said that there is a definite elegance and beauty to the storytelling of the main dance which for once is well complimented by the score, but it is the sole high-point in a very forgettable film.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens