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Film Review: The Stoning of Soraya M.

March 5, 2010

The Stoning of Soraya M. (a film based on the book of the same name) is based on the true story of Soraya Manutchehri, an Iranian woman who was stoned to death in 1986 based on false accusations spread by her husband. Having not read the book, I cannot comment on how the film compares to its source material. On its own merits, however, the film is decent (if flawed) and tells an extremely important story that highlights the ongoing issue of stoning in Iran.

To better understand the film’s relevance, the clip below (from the DVD’s “making-of” documentary) provides some context for understanding the reality of stoning today. (Approximate transcript is below the jump.)

Cyrus Nowrasteh (director/co-writer): I needed, uh, some men with pick-axes to, uh, dig the hole where the stoning was going to take place for our story. So I was selecting individuals. I had a translator there, and I was kind of showing him what I needed, which is I needed, you know, a hole dug right here. So one guy, a bearded gentleman, said, “Oh yeah, he knows how to do it. He knows how to dig a hole for a stoning. He’s done it before.” And, I thought, “Really?”

Bearded Man: Shukran, shukran, shukran, shukran, shukran.

As a condemnation of violence against women, The Stoning of Soraya M. is quite effective. The film’s release on DVD and Blu-Ray is even appropriately timed for March 9, the day after International Women’s Day. The message of the film is extremely clear throughout: stoning is a terrible, unjust practice, and it is often used against women even when the women in question have done nothing deserving of punishment. And though the film takes place two decades ago, it serves as a reminder that stoning is still practiced in Iran today. The topic of stoning is not nearly addressed often enough in media, and I am grateful that this film deals with the subject matter honestly and directly. The Stoning of Soraya M. functions as an excellent prompt in the global conversation about stoning, and it demonstrates better than many other films I’ve seen recently that media can be a powerful tool for fighting against injustice.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainmen

As one might anticipate, the majority of The Stoning of Soraya M. leads up to the stoning sequence. Seeing as one of the film’s producers also produced Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I had anticipated this film to be far more graphic than it actually is. Of course, the scene in which the stoning takes place is incredibly violent and disturbing, perhaps going too far, as Stephen Holden argued in his New York Times review in June. I do agree with Holden that this scene in particular blurs the line of moral outrage and exploitation; we understand where the scene is going rather quickly, and I admit I was a little surprised that it continued on for as long as it did. There is also something to be said for the theory that “less is more” — that, perhaps, if we didn’t see Soraya’s murder in as much detail as we do, the effect may ultimately have been more powerful. But subtlety is not in this film’s nature, and the stoning scene leaves not a single moment to the viewer’s imagination.

The film’s other weakness is that the characters lack complexity. With the exception of Hashem, the man with whom Soraya is falsely accused of having an affair (and who turns out to be a very interesting, layered, sympathetic character), all of the characters in the film’s world represent an extreme. As Richard Nilsen wrote:

A film might be made that examined the cultural history of the practice and the complex motives of those involved, but this film doesn’t do that. It simply creates a series of villains (mostly male and bearded) on one side and selfless victimized women on the other. There is nothing redeemable in the mustache-twirling blackguards who run the patriarchy for their own benefit and nothing of any complexity in the women who are their targets.

As I watched the events unfold, I kept wondering about the history of stoning in Iran. I wanted to understand what, if anything, the Qur’an says about it. Instead, we see only the horrors of stoning through the eyes of the perpetrators and the victims. The film reinforced the opinions I previously had about stoning — specifically, that it is a horrific practice. But I wish the film had educated me more thoroughly about the cultural history and current condition of stoning in Iran (and in other countries for that matter), so that my opinions would be based in the analysis of historic fact rather than simply in my personal morality.

Overall, I wish The Stoning of Soraya M. approached its subject matter with more subtlety and nuance. But, at the same time, how can one make a subtle film about stoning? The practice of stoning is so extreme and disturbing that, perhaps, to tone it down and present it in a fashion that’s easier to swallow would do a disservice to the material. Though I may have preferred a film that explored the topic with more depth, I am still very glad and grateful that this film was made at all. It tells a story that needs to be told, and it tells is well. And, most importantly, it opens up a conversation about an issue that needs to be discussed.

To learn more about stoning and how you can be involved in ending this practice around the world, check out The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women. Watching a film is the first step, but learning more and taking action is a critical follow-up.

  1. hmmm permalink
    March 12, 2010 12:42 am

    There has been a moratorium on stoning in Iran for almost 10 years, and the judiciary is now debating whether it should be outlawed altogether. Now, of course it would be foolish to think that this somehow makes Iran a paragon of woman’s rights. But this film is not seeking to invoke moral outrage – it’s seeking to produce political outrage. You’d think even mainstream feminist organizations would have learned after being instrumentalized by the Bush administration for the invasion of Afghanistan…

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      March 12, 2010 8:35 am

      You are correct that, officially, there is a moratorium on stoning in Iran. But that doesn’t mean that stoning doesn’t happen there. In fact, there have been several instances of stoning in Iran since 2002, when the moratorium was issued. So while I do agree with you that there may be an agenda to The Stoning of Soraya M. that isn’t obvious on the surface (a cursory glance at the director’s resume shows that his films tend to have a conservative bent), and while the film is probably not the paragon of women’s rights that it advertises itself to be, it does still raise awareness about the reality of stoning in Iran. It is, unfortunately, still a reality there, and if there’s anything The Stoning of Soraya M. does right, it’s highlighting that reality and opening a discussion on that matter.

  2. July 6, 2010 8:19 am

    Stoning is one of the most extreme expression of violence and surpression where women is the target

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