Berit Madsen's documentary Sepideh opens with powerful visual representation of determination. A teenage girl, swathed in a black dress and Muslim hijab, treks through the Iranian desert, lugging a telescope as large as she is. She's heading out to a nearby hill where she plans to observe the stars. We've seldom seen such drive and tenacity captured in a single image, and the apparel adds a meaningful touch: this young woman has bucked the traditions and restrictions of a patriarchal Islamic culture in order to pursue her passion. The subject's name is Sepideh Hooshyar; she's a Persian teenager growing up in the province of Fars, Southwest Iran. In 2006, Sepideh watched on television as a woman named Anousheh Ansari became the first Iranian to go into orbit. Sepideh had already grown obsessed with the night sky, encouraged by the local science teacher/astronomy club president, Mr. Kabiri, to begin stargazing. As the film opens, Sepideh is 16; she now believes that she, too - like Ansari - can eventually leave the bounds of Earth, though the steps to get there seem excruciatingly tough given cultural restrictions. The strained financial situation of the family doesn't help either; Sepideh's father died when she was a little girl, and two relatives betrayed Mrs. Hooshyar and her children by refusing to help irrigate the couple's land. Now, the Hooshyar family sits on the brink of financial collapse; it looks as though it will be impossible to pay Sepideh's university tuition, and Mrs. Hooshyar practically demands that her daughter work to save the family from ruin. Sepideh knows that this will annihilate her personal dreams and consign her to a life of misery. Hope arises in the form of a full-tuition university scholarship, though this is contingent on a project submission to the admissions board - and the men unceremoniously reject Sepideh's proposal. Madsen lays out the various dynamics transpiring within the Hooshyar family cleanly and effectively. Per that indelible opening image, the filmmaker aligns us with Sepideh, as the young girl clings to her life's dream and her ideals at any cost, often to the consternation of her mother and uncle. Appropriately, via Sepideh's intimate narration on the soundtrack, the early stages of the film give us an inside handle on the elements of astronomy that drew Sepideh to it; she finds in the night skies peace, tranquility and poetry absent from her earthly surroundings, and also feels - in the cosmos - a deep metaphysical connection to those loved ones - including her dad - who have passed away. There is never any question in our minds that Sepideh will stick to her guns in lieu of throwing in the towel; she's sure of what she wants and will never back down. The only uncertainty - in her mind and ours - involves how to reach that destination. Accordingly, while watching this picture we're struck by the overwhelming challenge of breaking into an industry sans a point-of-entry for young Iranian women; Sepideh essentially comes across as a maverick, a trailblazer forging a new path not only for herself, but for the dozens of local women destined to follow her. Her story echoes Mohandas Gandhi and other individuals who acted as a single flanking rudder to turn enormous social groups around in a more positive direction - and indeed, when the science teacher advises Sepideh to effectuate change by stirring up enthusiasm for astronomy among family members, we're reminded of Gandhi's maxim that a nonviolent revolution does not rest on force, but on a program of transformation of relationships. If the film falls short of perfection, it does so in two key respects. First, it occasionally feels a shade too precious, as when Sepideh writes a few letters to Albert Einstein ("Dear Mr. Einstein...") as a kind of emotional outlet, and narrates them on the soundtrack. This type of whimsy doesn't serve the movie well, and isn't convincing either; it comes off as a cute idea drummed up for the screen, not something that Sepideh actually did. Also: the film raises some key questions about the real-time authenticity of the conversations that it depicts; although they seem credible in the moment, you start reflecting on them and realize that some are private exchanges that would have been next to impossible for Madsen to catch on-camera as they initially transpired. There are distant echoes of reality television here; a few dialogues feel as if they may have been rehearsed and re-enacted. For the most part, though, the film's emotional persuasiveness more than offsets whatever fleeting sense of contrivance we may have. The full U.S. release title is Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars, and that seems apt: this is a solid, satisfying chronicle of a young woman who had the courage to chase her dreams at any cost, braving misunderstanding, social stigma and possible ostracization in the process. The story feels touching and inspiring in equal measure.
astronomy, Iran, Iranian [nationality], oppression, stars [astronomy], women's-issues, Women's-Liberation, women's-studies