With hundreds of thousands protesting in Iran – many of them women – a film about the stoning of a woman in Iran, which opens in Philadelphia June 26, seems even more timely, says Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – When Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo was asked by co-director Cyrus Nowrasteh to consider the lead role in soon to be released “The Stoning of Soraya M.” her immediate reaction was, “I’ve been waiting for this for 20 years.”

In a nutshell, the film is based on a true incident; the 1986 barbaric execution of an Iranian mother on false charges of adultery orchestrated by a cruel husband intent on marrying a young girl, assisted by a corrupt mullah. The two whip the men of the village into a frenzy resulting in the graphically depicted execution. The stoning scene is certainly disturbing, but Aghdashloo notes, “it only lasts six minutes. I have seen a tape of a real stoning and it took an hour and a half.”

Aghdashloo plays not the victim, but rather Zahreh, her courageous aunt who, in a relentless pursuit of justice, gives an account of the case to a French-Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam (played by Jim Caviezel who portrayed Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”). The journalist wrote a best-selling book of the same title.

“This film will forever be close to my heart. I had no hesitation, none whatsoever to do it,” said Aghdashloo, whose own feeling on the state of the oppression of women in her native country is summed up by Zahreh’s words near the film’s beginning, “The voices of women do not matter here.”

Events of the past week in Iran with huge demonstrations against what is seen as a rigged election have changed Aghdashloo’s perception of “The Stoning of Soraya M.”

“Up until yesterday my focus was on a voiceless woman being stoned. Now it is about the woman who stands up for her rights,” she said.

“The irony is amazing, how timely and timeless the film is. It has a woman speaking to a reporter. Now in Iran women are standing up and telling reporters what is going on. There are hundreds of thousands protesting, and 40 percent of them are women,” Aghdashloo said.

Her own career began as a successful actress in pre-revolution Iran. With the rise of the Islamic state and harsh religious guidelines her films were either censored or forbidden. She fled Iran for London, where she earned a degree in international law, with the intent of first entering journalism, then politics.

But just at that time a friend offered her a part in a play about the Iranian Revolution, and a second film career started. This led to Hollywood where, after a stunning performance in “The House of Sand and Fog,” (2003) she was nominated an Oscar as best supporting actress.

Other film credits include “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “American Dreamz,” “Xmen: The Last Stand” and, in 2006, “Nativity Story,” in which she played Elizabeth.

A special memory of the latter was a screening before a large audience at the Vatican, after which the cast members present had dinner with Archbishop (now Cardinal) John Foley, who surprised her by his knowledge and discriminating insights into fine cinema.

A small regret she has is that she did not come to America as a very young actress, when mastering English without an accent would have been easier and access to potential roles may have come her way.

She has gradually come to realize her appearance in meaningful films which protest injustices really do more good for the promotion of human rights than she could have done as a journalist.

Although Aghdashloo jumped at the chance to appear in “The Stoning of Soraya M.” several actors accepted then turned down the part of the journalist, the male lead, before Caviezel accepted. They were afraid of possible retribution against their families for appearing in a film which might be seen as critical of radical Islam.

Aghdashloo has had threats made against her life because of her work, she concedes, but they will not deter her.

“It’s not about my safety, my image, at the end of the day. There are 10 people in Iran on death row waiting to be stoned. When I think about one woman waiting there, I would rather go with her than with my safety.

“None of this happened in the old regime under the shah. We have been drawn back 1,500 years,” she said. “Women had rights under the shah. This isn’t Islam, it is superstition and tradition.”

Will conditions change in Iran?

“I’m naturally an optimistic person and happy with small things,” Aghdashloo said. “I sincerely believe people will choose peace over violence. Iran is at the dawn of democracy.”

“The Stoning of Soraya M.” opens locally at Philadelphia’s Ritz Five on June 26.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.