By: Deena Guzder
In Southwestern Iran, roughly thirty-five miles outside of the city of Kerman, lies the small village of Kupayeh. In 1986, French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam's car unexpectedly stalled on the steep, narrow roads zigzagging along Kupayeh's austere mountain ridges, stranding him in the wind-whipped village. Walking among the sand-dusted brick houses, Sahebjam is accosted by a desperate woman, Zahra, who feverishly relates a terrifying village conspiracy involving blackmail, misogyny, and murder. Zahra tells the journalist that she, as a woman in Iran, no longer has a voice and she pleads with him to "take her voice" and tell the world her story.
Speaking into Sahebjam's tape recorder, Zahra recounts the tragedy of her 35-year-old niece, Soraya, who was stoned to death for the crime of adultery, a crime that she did not commit. In 1994, Sahebjam exposed the village's dark secret in his best-selling book, The Stoning of Soraya M.: A True Story. In 2008, Director and co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh adapted the film into a movie by the same name. Stoning will be released domestically on June 26. The film already had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was the runner-up for the Audience Choice Award.
Related through husky-voiced Zahra (Academy Award nominee, House of Sand and Fog's Shohreh Aghdashloo), Stoning centers on Soraya-a beautiful woman with wavy black hair that cascades down her slender shoulders-and Ali-a brooding, abusive husband smitten with a child-bride. Ali wants to trade Soraya in for the younger woman, but realizes he cannot support two wives. Soraya refuses Ali's offer of a divorce because she depends on her husband's income to support their four children. Vindictive against his spirited wife and lustful over a 14-year-old potential bride, Ali spreads a vicious rumor that his wife is having an affair with a recent widower. Needing two witnesses, Ali blackmails a faux-mullah-by threatening to denounce him as a previous collaborator of the Shah-and the widower himself-warning that his mentally disabled son could be sent to an institution. Under Iran's Islamic law, adultery is punishable by stoning, but such sentences were only common in the early years after the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the pro-Western government and brought hard-line clerics to power. Iran's reformist legislators have advocated abolishing death by stoning as a punishment for adultery, but opposition from hard-line clerics has quashed their efforts.
The town mayor in Stoning, Ebrahim is partially savvy to Ali's political machinations and partially willfully ignorant. Ebrahim declares, that under Islam law, "women are guilty unless proven innocent and men are innocent unless proven guilty," to which Zahra retorts, "Right, all men are innocent and all women are guilty." While Stoning issues a strong indictment of Iran's double-standard for men and women, the movie is not anti-Islam. Stoning exposes the perils of violence rooted in religious righteousness; however, the film also depicts religiously inspired acts of great courage. Zahra positively evokes Islam when she speaks Truth to Power-telling Ali that "God is watching" him spin his web of lies-and later repeatedly exclaims "God is Great!" to a crowd of villagers as she helps the journalist escape with her story on a cassette.
Setting hard primary colors against shades of sepia, Stoning plays with light filters to visually divulge the tenebrous world of village politics, a world that systematically disenfranchises women. The film's most indelible scene is eerily prosaic. Young boys roam the barren landscape for fist-sized stones. As the boys rap the stones against the unpaved ground, the beating intensifies, like a thunderous drumbeat heralding impending war. Donning a pristine white bridal gown, Soraya is escorted to her death by a fiercely protective Zahra amidst a blood-thirsty crowd. Soraya's last words are not a plea of innocence, but a condemnation of mob-mentality and the practice of stoning. Director and co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh depicts every gruesome detail of the execution, in which Soraya is buried to her chest with her arms bound, and bludgeoned with jagged rocks from close range until she bleeds to death.
A scene of The Stoning of Soraya M. with Shohreh Aghdashloo
Only a person with a heart of stone could fail to recoil in horror during the film's brutal finale. However, one hopes the film is not mistaken for a denunciation of Iran at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations remain strained. The film should renew outcry against not only death by stoning, but also death by lethal injection, fire squad, and electric chair. We must abolish the death penalty in all its nefarious forms whether in the remote, landlocked corners of Iran or in the sanitized charnel houses of the United States.
Warbling sound to foretell tragedy and depicting brutality with the same gruesome attentiveness as "The Passion of the Christ", the film aims to arouse moviegoers' furor. Yet, let us not forget that international human rights groups have long lambasted the use of the death penalty not only in Iran but across the world. Let us hope that Stoning reignites global protests against the arrogance and inhumanity of the death penalty everywhere.
In Iran, women disproportionately suffer from executions by stoning; in the United States, the poor and the non-white disproportionately receive death sentences. As Amnesty International notes, "by working towards the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, Amnesty International USA's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign looks to end the cycle of violence created by a system riddled with economic and racial bias and tainted by human error." While the U.S. has sanitized the horror of killing people through lethal injections and electric chairs, it has not washed its hands of the accompanying guilt. Iran must unequivocally renounce the barbaric act of stoning people to death, and the U.S. must similarly make a commitment against destroying human life.
About the author: Guzder has reported for Time Magazine, Mother Jones, United Press International, and other publications on human rights issues across the world. She is the author of a forthcoming book, currently scheduled for release by Chicago Review Press in 2010. Please visit: www.deenaguzder.com
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