Something strange happened last week in UK cinemas. A film called THE STONING OF SORAYA M. opened at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts with little in the way of widespread attention or elaboration. There was some coverage in the Times newspaper who gave the film a 4 star review: the Financial Times going one better in awarding it 5 stars ― full marks. Other than that the Stoning of Soraya M. cultivated little press attention and even less arthouse appreciation as its domestic box-office results are neither available in the UK Film Council nor Guardian's weekend box-office tallies. The Stoning of Soraya M. existed below the radar ― something that almost seems criminal considering the importance of the film's subject matter.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is an American funded film, adapted from French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam's 1990 non-fiction book, La Femme Lapidée. Set in Iran in 1986, it tells true story of Soraya Manutchehri whose husband concocted a Machiavellian conspiracy to frame her for adultery, which brutally culminates in Soraya being buried up to her waist and then pelted to death with rocks. The film stars Academy Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo as Soray's aunt Zahra; as well as James Caviezel as Freidoune Sahebjam and Mozhan Marnò as Soraya. The film is directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh and produced by Mel Gibson's long-time producing partner Stephen McEveety, who was passionate about bringing Nowrasteh's powerhouse screenplay to the screen. Having secured funding for what is a tough sell; production took place over 6 weeks in an undisclosed mountain village in Jordan, and had two prolific actors drop out in pre-production when they contemplated the risk they may court by appearing in a film that vilifies Iran's governance and its barbaric Shariah practices.
Having finally overcome the creative and logistical hurdles involved in making the Stoning of Soraya M., the film premiered at 2008's Toronto International Film Festival where it was Runner-up for the Audience Choice Award, losing out to Slumdog Millionaire. Realising that the film would be deemed too risky an acquisition for American distributors, McEveety's production company Mpower footed the bill for the U.S. release and hired distributor Roadside Attractions to book it in theatres. It still took British distributor High Fliers Films a further 2 years to buy the UK distribution rights. High Fliers rolled out a low-key UK release last week, failing to garner the press attention needed to increase the profile of such an important picture and attract the kind of buzz that gets British arthouse cinemas outside of London to exhibit it. Back in June 2010, Tom Stewart - Head of acquisitions at High Flier Films, told Screen Daily, "We're thrilled to bring such a powerful and evocative drama to UK audiences at last, showcasing such strong performances from a wonderful, international cast." Judging by last weekend's poor results, they failed to push it sufficiently.
There's no denying that the Stoning of Soraya M. is a hard film to watch, astoundingly directed in a way that you literally feel the impact of each and every rock thrown at Soraya during the harrowing execution scene. I can't begin to convey just how painful the scene is to watch. When asked by the Christian Broadcasting Network if he expected the film to come runner-up at Toronto Film Fest, Stephen McEveety said "I wasn't surprised. I was surprised that someone beat us actually." This response is understandable because the Stoning of Soraya M. is powerful experience; one that will stay with the viewer long after they have seen it. The images depicted are graphically disturbing; difficult to watch without turning away. Yet Lindy West's assertions in the Daily Telegraph that the film is "little more than boring racism [that] Christian extremists will love," seems unfair. By arguing the film is sensationalistic is unreasonable as the brutality Soraya incurs is presented in a manner that provokes debate; designed to encourage meaningful deliberation. The filmmakers have the intention of giving the audience a profound experience, one that is intentionally uneasy and arguably all the better because of it. McEveety stated, "[the execution scene] was essentially tougher than it is now ― trying to find that perfect spot without making too weak or too strong." Although there are elements of the film that may be perceived as convoluted, sentimental and one-dimensional; for anyone who has been to that region of the world will know that melodrama and overstated emotions is very much a part of the national psyche. Iran is neither Britain nor America as people often exhibit hyperbolic sentiments in uncomfortable ways.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is a hugely significant picture that tells a very simple story in an uncompromising way. What should have been a catalyst that sparks debate about the role of women in Iran seems to have become a footnote release that has either been attacked for ostensibly poor acting (God knows how the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw can say that), or as a lurid video nasty.
If films are meant to move the audience and put them in impactful situations, then the Stoning of Soraya M. does exactly that and does it well. Upon the film's U.S. release in June 2009, John Jurgensen in the Wall Street Journal asked Cyrus Nowrasteh to respond to criticisms about the Stoning of Soraya M. being inaccurate and sensationalistic, to which the director said: "A movie like this needs to be absolutely uncompromising in its approach. The subject demands it."
At a time when there is a wholesale aversion to challengingly dramatic adult cinema, the Stoning of Soraya M. is a film that stands out as the exception; though not so much in commercial terms as the production costs ran to £2.5 million and its worldwide gross stands at a paltry £627,807: but that seems to be tolerable as McEveety told the Wall Street Journal, "If [The Stoning of Soraya M.] doesn't succeed financially, I can live with that."
Despite living in a time of global crisis and war, it seems no one wants engage in thought provoking art that, I agree, is difficult to experience, but rightfully, very hard to shake off afterwards.