“Dancing with the Stars” has brought dance into the very center of popular culture. Each week b-listers don sparkly outfits and strut their stuff to huge ratings. Whether it’s the Cha Cha Cha or a Quickstep or the Paso doble, dancers are rated and celebrated by a panel of judges.
There is no “Dancing with the Stars” in Iran. Dancing of any sort has been banned in that country since the 1979 revolution, and it is against that backdrop that the story of “Desert Dancer” takes place.
But this isn’t a Middle Eastern “Footloose.” It’s the true story of a young Iranian man named Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie). Obsessed with dance as a youngster, he grew up in the shadow of oppression, hiding his passion from the world until he enrolled in university in Tehran. There he met a small group of like-minded people, including Ardavan (Tom Cullen), Sattar (Simon Kassianides) and the beautiful but troubled Elaheh (Freida Pinto), who poured over contraband dance videos and tried to emulate the moves of Rudolf Nureyev and Michael Jackson.
In the days leading up to the 2009 presidential election the underground troupe staged an illegal dance show, a rebellious act that gave them their first taste of true freedom but was also is a dangerous political act.
“Desert Dancer” contains important messages about human rights, cultural liberty and the significance of artistic expression but, despite the real-life source material, is weighed down with clichés. More background and a dose of nuance could have fleshed out the story, elevating it to a strong statement about creative freedom instead of simply a presenting a manipulative tale that put me in the mind of a dogmatic “Dancing with the Stars” episode.