In a culture where girls are not allowed out at night to observe the skies, how does a tenacious 16-year-old astronomy student like Sepideh Hooshyar even begin to dream of viewing Earth from space? That’s one of the many challenges posed in Sepideh, a powerhouse Iranian documentary that kicks off this year’s Human Rights Watch Festival at the Museum of Photographic Arts.
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Elders’ demands that teenagers renounce the “worldly temptations” that await on the internet don’t faze Sepideh. A computer represents nothing more than a means of bringing the dauntless stargazer one step closer to her calling as a career astronaut. It’s a lifelong pursuit that first found her contemplating the cosmos at age six — not coincidentally, the same year her father died suddenly. When not probing videos of her real-life idol — the astronaut Anousheh Ansari — Sepideh can be found in the town square, penning lovely personal disclosures to her departed deity of choice, Albert Einstein, while seated at the foot of a never-finished telescope.
Ansari is not only the first female private space explorer, she holds the distinction of being the first astronaut of Iranian descent. An unexpected phone call in enthusiastic response to a fan letter that Sepideh sent her intergalactic icon is just one moment of divine exhilaration sewn into the drama of our young adventurer’s life. It acts as a driving mechanism, spurring ambition to a level of intense productivity.
Every day brings new struggles, each one captured with candor and authenticity through writer/director Berit Madsen’s determined lens. While the camera rolls, one particularly fidgety uncle pounces on the opportunity to denounce his niece’s dreams of one day conquering space. A visit with her mother to another, wealthier relative — this time requesting money for water to irrigate a small patch of land her husband left them — is met with one piece of sound, problem-solving advice: “Pray for rain.”
Apart from its robust feminist leanings, Sepideh is a resounding celebration of the importance, not perils, of getting a good education. (Call it an anti-Whiplash). Remember career day, a time set aside for representatives from various fields of endeavor to visit high schools and act as human recruitment posters? Asghar Kabiri, an astronomy teacher in a small, rural town about 400 miles south of Tehran, acts in a similar function. He represents one of the few positive male role models she encounters, a bridge to humanity that our fireball refuses to singe while riding her meteoric pathway to the cosmos.
Together, our astrophysically inclined pair trade and nurture dreams: hers to fly, his to disentomb and ultimately place the finishing touches on the town’s unwrought “starry messenger.” It’s important to note the invention of the telescope that first set in motion Galileo’s passion for astronomy also resulted in his imprisonment. Just a reminder that Sepideh, in her current state, might want to (and for the sake of idealistic visionaries everywhere, won’t) heed.
Sepideh, which screens Thursday, January 22 at 7 p.m., is the opening-night attraction of this year’s four-day festival with an eye “for films with a distinctive human rights theme.” Jennifer Freeman will moderate a post-show Q&A featuring assistant director Mona Rafatzadeh and researcher Faraz Sanei.
Other features include The Return to Homs, a detailed documentary account of a group of young Syrian men who use peaceful demonstration as a means to justice, and Out in the Night, a searing portrait of four African-American women, dubbed “killer lesbians” by the media after a violent, sexually charged threat made against them goes public. For tickets and more information, visit MOPA.org/hrwff.