December 29, 2022
My intention was to show stonings for what they really are, and present the ritualistic nature of this barbaric punishment—so that the audience will never forget it. I have been accused of being uncompromising in my approach to this story, and that’s a charge I accept. But once I saw footage of actual stonings—which are far more brutal than what’s shown in the movie—I resolved not to sanitise it. That would be an insult to those many victims of this brutality. The world must know the truth. —Cyrus Nowrasteh
By Koraljka Suton
French-Iranian journalist and war correspondent Freidoune Sahebjam became an internationally recognized best-selling author after his 1990 book La Femme Lapidée got translated into English four years later. Its title—The Stoning of Soraya M.: A True Story. Its legacy—the world was made aware of a horrendous reality, resulting in a domino effect that included, but was not limited to, the author’s controversial work being proclaimed a dangerous fabrication and subsequently banned in Iran. But that did not stop the truth about Soraya Manutchehri getting falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death in 1986 from finding its way to the silver screen in 2008, thereby leaving a legacy of its own. After American-Iranian filmmaker and screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh (known for his docudrama The Path to 9/11, and movies such as The Young Messiah (2016), and Infidel (2020)) read the book in the mid-90s, its contents refused to leave him for the following decade. The same was true of his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, who the director would eventually write the screenplay with. During a ten-year period, the married couple occasionally debated turning Sahebjam’s hit into a motion picture. In 2005, the seed that had been planted with those deliberations started sprouting and they decided that the timing was finally right—their sons were now adults and the Nowrastehs felt it was their own lives they were risking by giving a voice to the voiceless, thereby potentially igniting the wrath of some very dangerous people. The spouses were no strangers to such backlash either—they received their share of death threats after the director had made The Path to 9/11 in 2006. Well aware of the risks involved, they commenced with securing the film rights, which ended up being a two-year process.
The author was not an easy person to contact. When Cyrus Nowrasteh finally managed to get in touch with him via phone, he discovered that that was not the first time Sahebjam had been offered to have his book adapted. But he turned all prospective buyers down, since none of them were able to meet his demands. None except Nowrasteh, that is. Firstly, the actors needed to be mostly Iranian and the film was to be shot in Farsi. Secondly, the director had to be of Iranian descent. With Nowrasteh, the latter was a given and the former was something he had also envisioned. After having secured the rights, the Nowrastehs began working on the script in 2007. President of Mpower Pictures John Shepherd expressed interest in the screenplay and showed it to Stephen McEveety—the company’s CEO and one of the producers behind The Passion of the Christ (2004). After getting financing for the project, the production could move forward, with the safety of the cast and crew becoming McEveety’s main concern.
So, the producer spoke with each cast and crew member separately and explained to them the risk involved in making this picture. As it turns out, they were already well aware of the potential dangers. In McEveety’s own words, quoted in the film’s press kit: “Our cast and crew are brave people who put their lives and careers on the line to make sure this movie would be seen.” The Stoning of Soraya M. was filmed in an undisclosed Middle Eastern country (later confirmed to be Jordan) over a period of thirty-two days, with the stoning sequence itself taking six days to shoot. Sadly, Freidoune Sahebjam passed away in his Parisian home on the sixth and final day of filming the titular scene. In THE STONING OF SORAYA M. Why and how we wrote it together Nowrasteh states: “Of all his books, this was the dearest to him. Though none of us had met him in person, we all felt his loss, as well as a renewal of purpose.”
The true story follows the book’s author who experiences car trouble in a small Iranian village called Kuhpayeh. While he waits for his car to get fixed, an Iranian woman by the name of Zahra invites him over and asks him to record her account of the stoning of her niece Soraya that took place the previous day. Soraya was a married woman and a mother of four. Her abusive husband Ali worked as a prison guard who intended on saving a doctor sentenced to death in exchange for marrying his 14-year-old daughter. Unwilling to support two families, Ali decided to accuse Soraya of being unfaithful, knowing very well that, according to Sharia law, the sentence for adultery is death by stoning. If a man is accused of adultery, the wife must prove his guilt. But if a woman faces the same charges, she must prove her innocence. Read that again. With other men backing his lies (some of whom were either manipulated or blackmailed into doing it), Soraya did not stand a chance.
Iranian-American actress Mozhan Marnò (Charlie Wilson’s War, Traitor) took on the titular role, one she could deeply empathize with despite growing up in completely different circumstances, and did a spectacular job at portraying the kindness, strength and bravery of a woman whose only crime was being born one in the first place. The role of her aunt Zahra who vowed to expose Soraya’s execution to the world went to Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog (2003)), the only actress Nowrasteh had envisioned for the part. One of the reasons why she wanted to make this film was the fact that she used to portray voiceless women, and playing Zahra was “a chance to show that there are many women in this world who are not voiceless because they refuse to stay silent,” as quoted in the film’s press kit. She went on to say: “I’d just love for this film to be shown in each and every country on the face of the earth. That’s what I’m hoping for. This film is not really at all about Iranians—the characters could be Egyptian, they could be from Yemen or Somalia. This is an international subject matter that needs to be seen everywhere on the planet.” The last part to get cast was that of the journalist. The small but important role went to Jim Caviezel, the only non-Iranian cast member. Well known for portraying Jesus in Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ, Caviezel had proved that he was more than capable of both learning to speak a foreign language and enduring whatever criticism may come his way. Soraya’s husband Ali was played by Navid Negahban (FX’s Legion, Aladdin (2019)) with chilling cruelty and malevolence. Yet, some reviewers criticized the film, claiming that the male characters, Ali in particular, were one-dimensional “evil archetypes”.
Which begs the question—in a movie that aims to truthfully depict the real-life story of a woman who was stoned to death, how exactly is a man who literally plotted and schemed to get her executed so that he could go on and marry a minor supposed to be portrayed? What kind of nuance are we supposed to be presented with? If critics (or viewers) wish to understand the roots of Ali’s character and actions, they should look no further than the way he raises his sons—it is the perpetuation of transgenerational trauma at its finest. The movie perfectly showcases the results of a fundamentalist patriarchal upbringing drenched in misogyny and sprinkled with violence, fear and control—as a child, you can either do away with your empathy and become an abuser yourself or face the consequences of refusing to comply. And so, the cycle continues.
Being a highly sensitive woman who has visceral reactions to cinematic depictions of violence, this was an excruciatingly painful and rage-inducing movie for me to watch. And I would not have it any other way. Why? Because this story needed to be told and the atrocity that is stoning which women are still subject to in this day and age had to be shown in all of its cruelty. Some critics deemed the film torture porn, due to its lengthy, nauseating and gory stoning scene that makes one lose faith in humanity. Again, as a woman who does not stand for gratuitous violence, I vehemently state that Nowrasteh’s depiction of Soraya’s horrendous and inhumane execution is anything but. Although extremely violent, this is not a case of bombarding viewers with unnecessary violence for violence’s sake. Why? Because women like Soraya have been murdered and are still being murdered in such a way—the least we can do is not sugarcoat it so as to avoid discomfort. The least we can do is not sugarcoat femicide. As the director himself said in a discussion with Pars Times: “I’ll tell you why they think it’s gruesome. It’s about a stoning. I don’t know how you’d do a stoning user-friendly. To me, it’s a disservice to the women who had been stoned to death. Have you ever seen a videotape of it? You’ve seen the real thing? Yeah, it’s horrifying. It is horrifying. And for me to water that down and turn it into, you know, quote a movie popcorn thing just so I can get more people in seats—I think it’s a disservice to those people who’ve been through this.” He then went on to mention how the book is “far worse” in its description.
It is very easy for us as humans to close ourselves off from the plights of others—most of us do it not out of malice or spite, but out of self-preservation. We have so much of our own pain to deal with (the majority of which we are not even aware of), that looking at the pain of a fellow (human) being threatens to evoke an empathetic response, thus becoming too much for us to bear. So, if we are verbally exposed to the notion that some women are currently being stoned to death, we get to decide how much of that information we are going to take in and allow ourselves to visualize and feel. We can stop the train of thought in its tracks and determine “not to go there”. We have the luxury of saying “yes, stoning, very sad” and steering the conversation in another direction. We can come into brief contact with the weight inherent in one such concept, immersing just one pinky toe into the raging waters of unimaginable pain, hurt, helplessness, hopelessness and despair that surround the actual experience itself. And we can leave it at that. We can choose not to know the details. But that is something we do not easily get to do if we are given a visual representation of the logistics that go into the “making” of one such spectacle—because for the mob gathered in the town square, eagerly awaiting their opportunity to throw their (first) stone, the stoning of Soraya M. was nothing short of a spectacle. We are meant to follow Soraya as she says goodbye to her daughters. Watch in disbelief as she gets buried in the ground waist-deep. Stare in horror as her own father disowns her and attempts to throw the first stone. See her underage sons joining in. Witness the mob getting wilder, crueler and more exuberant as stone after stone is being thrown, bringing Soraya closer to death with each thud. Listen to Soraya’s whales, screams and cries of anguish as her body is being brutally mutilated. And stay alongside her for the totality of it—for the whole twenty-minute cinematic depiction of her way of the cross. Sure, we can opt out of that too—leave the theater, cover our eyes, press fast forward, pause or stop, turn to the person we are watching with and seek out comfort. But Soraya could not. We still have that luxury. Soraya did not. And not just Soraya, but all the women who have ever fallen and who still fall victim to femicide—be it behind closed doors or in the middle of a town square.
The aftermath of the film’s release is testament enough to its undeniable relevance. Although it was banned in Iran just like its source material, the adaptation managed to become an underground hit, with bootleg copies being shared and viewed in secret. This was happening at a time when protests were raging all over Iran due to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being re-elected president in 2009. Incidentally, the film’s release also coincided with the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani sparking international outcry. The Iranian Azeri woman was accused of adultery and conspiracy to murder her husband and was sentenced to death—by stoning. The screening of The Stoning of Soraya M. at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Centre in London was dedicated to Sakineh. Nowrasteh said the following at the time: “The whole point of this film was to make people aware that this goes on. It is still going on. We know about Sakineh but there are a number of other women on death row in Iran who face being stoned.” Due to international pressure, the method of her execution was changed from stoning to hanging but Sakineh was ultimately pardoned after spending nine years in prison. Iranian writer Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee also ended up behind bars. In September 2014, the home she shared with her husband was searched by the Iranian government, who found an unpublished story written by Iraee—about a young woman who, after watching The Stoning of Soraya M., burns a copy of the Quran. That’s right, Iraee wound up incarcerated because she wrote a story. One that was not published.
Soraya Manutchehri was executed in a remote Iranian village in 1986 by her own family and neighbors for allegedly having an extra-marital affair. No one batted an eye, but her brave aunt made sure the world would find out. Thirty-six years later, on September 16th, 2022, twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed in Iran’s capital Tehran by the so-called morality police for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly, resulting in nationwide protests and the loss of hundreds of civilian lives. Fourteen years after its original release, Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M. is as relevant as ever and hits just as hard. It also reminds us of the fact that films can be made for various reasons—one of which is to speak truth to power. By holding up a mirror to society, the filmmakers of such pictures are uncompromising in their depictions of the chosen subject matter, determined not to shy away from showing it like it is. Even at the cost of upsetting the powers that be, thereby risking their own lives. They make us feel discomfort because the truth is uncomfortable. They make us feel anger because the truth is rage-inducing. They make us feel pain because the truth is painful. They refuse to remain outraged, yet silent bystanders because they know that by exposing the truth in a language people can viscerally relate to—the language of film—greater awareness can be spread. And social change always starts with awareness. Cyrus Nowrasteh is one such filmmaker, his entire cast and crew are such human beings, and The Stoning of Soraya M. is one such film.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“It stunned me. I just couldn’t believe the depth. It’s something akin to a Greek tragedy in the sense there’s everything in it; there’s betrayal, there’s lust, there’s deceit, there’s injustice… and it’s true. And it’s very raw. I just related to her, I don’t know why. I have nothing in common with her, and yet there was something so universal about the forces that came down upon her.”
—Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh
A monumentally important screenplay and a screenwriter must-read: Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh and Cyrus Nowrasteh’s screenplay for The Stoning of Soraya M. [PDF] (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Our absolutely highest recommendation.
CYRUS NOWRASTEH: IT WOULD BE INCREDIBLE IF THIS FILM,
IN SOME SMALL WAY, AFFECTED THE DEBATE ON STONINGS
After Alternative Magazine Online published a positive review of The Stoning of Soraya M., calling it a “masterfully shot film” that’s “hard to watch and difficult to swallow,” the magazine sat down with director Cyrus Nowrasteh to talk about the experience of shooting it. This great interview was conducted by Marty Mulrooney.
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Hello Mr Nowrasteh, thank you for your time. Can you tell our readers about yourself please?
Hello. I’m an American of Iranian parentage who lived as a child in Iran for about 4 1/2 years and returned there to visit as a young adult. I’ve always felt a strong bond with Iran and its people.
What attracted you to The Stoning Of Soraya M. project?
I first read the book, THE STONING OF SORAYA M., in 1995 when it was published in the US. It was an emotional, gripping, and heartbreaking story that was also oddly uplifting. It stuck with me for a number of years. And, finally, in 2008 I was able to film it.
What is the film about?
The film is based on the true story of a stoning incident in Iran in 1986 after the Islamic Republic had placed Iran under Sharia Law which included punishments like stoning, reserved primarily for women.
What actors were involved with the film?
Academy Award-nominated Shohreh Aghdashloo leads the predominantly Iranian cast. She plays Zahra, Soraya’s aunt, who tells the story of what happened to her niece to the journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam (portrayed by Jim Caviezel). Other actors in the movie are Navid Negahban as Ali, Soraya’s husband and the primary villain of the piece who concocts a conspiracy that will allow him to be rid of his wife. Also in the film, in a powerful portrayal, is Parviz Sayyad as the mechanic, Hashem, who though he knows wrong-from-right is unable to sustain under Ali’s intimidation tactics that draw him into the plot.
What did each actor bring to the project?
Shohreh brought deep emotion and dignity to her part, as well as ferocious strength as she takes on the men of the village. Mozhan Marno who plays Soraya brought a certain vulnerability combined with strength to Soraya. She doesn’t play her as a victim, which I think adds so much to her portrayal.
Some reviewers have noted that the stoning sequence itself is very difficult to watch. Was it important not to shy away from this central moment?
My intention was to show stonings for what they really are, and present the ritualistic nature of this barbaric punishment—so that the audience will never forget it. I have been accused of being uncompromising in my approach to this story, and that’s a charge I accept. But once I saw footage of actual stonings—which are far more brutal than what’s shown in the move—I resolved not to sanitise it. That would be an insult to those many victims of this brutality. The world must know the truth.
Was it a difficult scene for actress Mozhan Marnò to film?
Mozhan did a magnificent job in the stoning sequence, and it was very difficult on her. She had to sit in that hole for 6 shooting days. But it gave her a strong sense of the horror involved, to be there surrounded by an angry mob that wants to kill you.
Where did filming take place?
I’m not really supposed to say where it was filmed, a Middle-Eastern Arab country. Jordan.
How long was the shoot?
It was a 32-day shoot in a very remote, difficult location.
How did Iran react to the film? I am aware that they had already banned the book upon which the film is based…
Iran labelled the film “objectionable” even before it was released, probably based on their knowledge of the book. Consequently, it hasn’t been released theatrically in Iran, but it is underground via bootleg DVDs by the thousands.
Do you hope that the film will help stop such cruelties taking place in the future?
It would be incredible if this film, in some small way, affected the debate on stonings and helped to bring about an outright ban.
You previously worked on a television miniseries, The Path to 9/11, which was also rather controversial. Can you tell us more about this film and why it caused debate?
THE PATH TO 9/11 was a docu-drama that covered the events from the first attack on the WTC in ‘93 to the attack on 9/11. A kind of “how we got there” with principal characters based on real people. Though it blamed two administrations for numerous failures, Bill Clinton took offense and attacked the miniseries publicly and tried to get it pulled before broadcast. The focus of his and the media’s attacks were on me. Disney/ABC did, under adverse pressure, cut three minutes and ran the show. We had incredible ratings, 28 million watched, and numerous experts came out in support of the accuracy of the piece. Unfortunately, the controversy intimidated Disney/ABC into burying the show and never releasing it on DVD — despite its huge success. I’m very proud of the show and stand by it.
How does working for television differ from making a feature length film?
I love television and I love movies. They’re great mediums and I hope to continue to work in both. Film, of course, allows you a certain latitude in the kinds of stories you can tell. STONING could never have been made for television.
What upcoming projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing THE LAST CAMPAIGN, the true story of Robert Kennedy’s ’68 campaign for the Presidency until he was shot. A story of self-redemption.
Thank you for your time.
SEX AND THE STONING, A TALE OF TWO STANDARDS
“Western feminists should stop navel gazing and support the struggle of Muslim women,” wrote the celebrated Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen. “Sex and the City 2 is too self-indulgent, say the critics. They should know. Isn’t it the ultimate Western indulgence to desperately seek out deep messages from a movie intended to be nothing more than fun? Watching an altogether different movie, The Stoning of Soraya M., in the same week as catching up with the shenanigans of Carrie and her friends traipsing across the Middle East was always going to make for a telling contrast. One film, with a $US100 million budget that grossed $US31m on its opening weekend, is forgotten before you leave your cinema seat. The other, with a $US5m budget and first weekend box office receipts of $US115.000, stays with you even if you’d prefer that it didn’t.”
Check out this three-part interview with Cyrus Nowrasteh, in which he dives deep into the subject of making The Stoning of Soraya M. and what motivated him to share this story.
Thanks to DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood, we have a 35-minute interview with the brilliant actress Shohreh Agdashloo. “You think the stoning scene in the movie is painful? I have news for you. I have seen a real one on tape.”
‘THE STONING OF SORAYA M.’: WHY AND HOW WE WROTE IT TOGETHER
“It would be a lie to say we felt no trepidation. It’s a dangerous world, and this film risks offending some of the most dangerous people in it. One reason we waited so long to tackle it was simply that our children are grown. But somebody has to speak for the voiceless, for Muslim women who are legally and religiously powerless. To tell one story is to tell the story of millions.” —Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh and Cyrus Nowrasteh
‘SORAYA’S’ MESSAGE OF DEFIANCE AN UNDERGROUND HIT IN IRAN
In 2010, Mark Tapson wrote a great article on the impact of Nowrastehs’ film on both the Iranian and American audiences. In the following lines, we transcribe Mr. Tapson’s piece in full.
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While audiences in America flock to the escapist eye candy known as Avatar, it’s sobering to realize that in the real world, beyond the cozy cocoons of our multiplex theaters but nearer than James Cameron’s utopian dreamscape, another film’s message of defiance is helping to fuel revolution against a repressive regime.
The Stoning of Soraya M., from writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh and Mpower Pictures, tells the true story of a woman in a remote Iranian village in the wake of the fundamentalist revolution of 1979, who is falsely accused of adultery and then stoned to death by a mob desperate to cleanse themselves of this rumored affront to their collective honor and to their religion. It’s not only a gripping story in its own right, but it also focuses a harsh spotlight on the shocking reality that stoning still exists in the Iranian penal code. The movie has been reviewed and written about many times on Big Hollywood, as well as listed among the site’s 10 best movies of 2009. (Look for it on DVD from Lion’s Gate in March)
Despite official condemnation of the film in Iran and a government clampdown on cell phone and internet traffic as the country wrestles with revolution, word is getting out from sources close to the filmmakers that bootleg DVDs of The Stoning of Soraya M. are being shared secretly by Iranian citizens, and being shown in private homes in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and elsewhere. These sources must be kept anonymous, of course, since arrested protesters there have an unfortunate tendency to be allegedly raped and allegedly tortured, if not allegedly killed.
In one e-mail dated New Year’s Day, for example, a woman wrote that her “cousin was in a party last night and everybody was talking about [Cyrus Nowrasteh’s] movie. They all liked it. The movie is all over.” Another woman’s message: “We send our greetings and we congratulate you on ‘Soraya.’ The word that we’re hearing is that if they find this film in anyone’s hands they will be jailed. People fear for their safety and are choked off from the outside world, telephone conversations are monitored…it’s bad.” And yet another source relates that “I was at the hairdresser yesterday and two women were talking about a movie called SANGSAR [Stoning] that they had seen and they like it a lot. I asked about it and they said the dvd is all over Tehran… It is a perfect time for the movie with the mess that is going on here.”
When the film was released in the States last summer, Iranian-American viewers in some communities stood at the end and proclaimed “Down with the regime! Death to the dictator!” Now viewers inside Iran are feeling a similar surge of defiance after watching it, and it has been stiffening their resolve as protesters clash with riot police and the paramilitary Basij on the streets in that “mess that is going on here.” Iranian citizens see Stoning as dramatic confirmation of why the demonstrations against apocalyptic madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cleric-in-crime, the Ayatollah Khameini, are taking place – and why women are at the forefront of them, challenging the totalitarians in power just as Soraya’s fearless aunt Zahra confronted the village hypocrites in the film.
Audiences elsewhere have responded to the unforgettable movie’s impact since its premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where Stoning won Runner-up for the Audience Choice Award. It also won Second Runner-up for the Cadillac People’s Choice Award, the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics’ Choice Award, and the Ghent Film Festival’s Canvas Audience Award. At the Satellite Awards, it was named one of 2009’s Top Ten Films and nominated for Best Drama, while its star Shohreh Aghdashloo won Best Actress in a Drama.
(And yet the Film Independent Spirit Awards, created to celebrate “unique, provocative” films, entirely ignored the movie—one for which the cast and crew literally put their lives and those of their relatives at risk by working on it, and one for which viewers in Iran now put their lives at risk by merely watching it. A movie doesn’t get more provocative than that—but I suppose Film Independent had to make room among its nominees for truly edgy fare like, say, (500) Days of Summer.)
Now The Stoning of Soraya M. is a secret hit in Iran. At a time when many film critics and viewers are feeling a thrill up their collective leg over Cameron’s technical mastery, it’s a reminder that the emotional core and storytelling power of film can embolden and inspire social change, even in the face of imprisonment and execution. Long after the vertigo—or depression, as the case may be—induced by the shiny spectacle of Avatar wears off, Stoning will likely be remembered for the part it played in history.
The real Soraya’s tale has come full circle. Her execution may have been a gut-wrenching tragedy from Iran’s previous revolution, which ushered in a fundamentalist theocracy; but thanks to filmmakers who dared to revive her story, Soraya is helping to empower a new revolution that might just steer Iranians toward freedom.
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An interesting Q&A with Cyrus Nowrasteh by The Hollywood Reporter from 2009.
Here are several photos and movie stills taken during the production of Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M. Photographed by Ali Saadi @ Mpower Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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