The Stoning of Soraya M. (Roadside Attractions, R)

film_soroya_sm.jpgThe story of the events which led to that outcome is entirely compelling, making this one of the most moving films I have seen in recent years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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There’s no question what the outcome of The Stoning of Soraya M. will be. As the title promises, Soraya is stoned to death by the men of her village after being convicted on trumped-up charges of infidelity. But the story of the events which led to that outcome is entirely compelling, making Soraya M. one of the most moving films I have seen in recent years. And I’m not alone in my reactions: Soraya M. came second only to Slumdog Millionaire in voting for the Audience Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

Soraya’s story is both simple and profound. She was a wife and mother of four children in a small village in Iran. Her husband wanted to divorce her and marry a 14-year-old girl, but didn’t want to pay support to Soraya and their two young daughters. Gradually he conspires with the local mullah (Ali Pourtash) to intimidate another villager (Parviz Sayyad) to bear false witness against Soraya, and that’s all they need to convict her in a closed, exclusively male Islamic court. A hole is dug in the village square, Soraya is buried up to her waist, and the men of the town (including her father and two sons) pelt her with stones until she is dead. Soraya’s aunt Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) claims her body but is prohibited from burying it; instead, she must leave it in the open for the wild dogs to gnaw on.

The process of Soraya’s stoning is presented in realistic and excruciating detail, but not inappropriately so considering that her fate is the focus of the story. It’s one thing to read that a woman was stoned to death, leaving the actual process at the level of an intellectual abstraction, but quite another to see it happen before your eyes. Many films have shown more explicit (and often gratuitous) violence, but the impact is greater in this film as it is intensely personal (imagine throwing a rock at a trapped human being who yesterday was simply your neighbor, then doing it again and again while watching her suffer), and because Soraya is a person we have come to know and care about.

The story of Soraya is framed by the unplanned visit of a journalist (James Caviezel) to Soraya’s village the day after her execution. His car breaks down and, while it is being repaired, Aunt Zahra manages at great personal danger to tell Soraya’s story to him. When the male villagers (all of whom are implicated in Soraya’s murder, since they all took part) discover that he’s been talking to Zahra, they destroy his tape recorder and threaten his life, yet he manages to escape and ultimately to tell her story to the world.

Soraya M. is based on a true story, reported by the journalist Feidoune Sahebjam and adapted as a screenplay by Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh and Cyrus Nowrasteh. Sahebjem’s 1994 book The Stoning of Soraya M. first brought her story to public notice and has been translated into many languages and used in classrooms around the world; this film should serve to bring Soraya’s story to an even wider audience. Sad to say, Soraya M. was not an isolated victim; the United Nations estimates that over 5,000 women are killed annually after accusations of bringing dishonor on their families, and other reports indicate that at least 1,000 women have been stoned to death in the past 15 years after similar accusations. Further information about the film, and about women’s rights violations worldwide, is available from the film’s website. | Sarah Boslaugh

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