Saturday, April 05, 2014

Sepideh - a starry eyed teenager whose stubborn pursuit of her dream to study the heavens is an inspiration

Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars is a beautiful film about a very special teenager who has a passion for astronomy.

Teacher Mr Kabari runs an astronomy club for boys and girls and started to build an observatory on a hill just outside the town, 800km south of Tehran. But with support not forthcoming from the Ministry of Education the buildings were never finished and instead Sepideh lugs her 14 inch telescope up to observe the constellations.

He believes in expanding girls’ minds so they know that “the world does not end at the end of the street, or the end of the block, or the town’s edge”.

Sepideh’s late night trips up to study the stars are viewed with suspicion by neighbours and family. While her mother covers for her absences from family meetups and wedding parties, she is torn between appreciating Sepideh’s drive to excel, and wanting a traditional route into adulthood for her daughter.
“Those who have learnt to cook – what have they become?” asks Sepideh.

Her father is dead, and her uncles have not gone out of their way to take responsibility and stand in his place to help her mother. The field inherited from her dead husband is the only source of income. Yet the men in the wider family have blocked the repair of the water well. While all their fields around are lush green with produce, Sepideh’s mother’s field is brown and barren.

While astronomy is her passion, the peace and tranquillity found in the open space and time outdoors is also a vent for Sepideh’s frustration. Her entry to a prestigious Kharazmi Project that could have granted her a free place in university was outright rejected.

She’s not easily defeated or deflated. Mr Kabari may have spent 20 years not getting assistance from the Minister of Education, but Sepideh’s gets their support to buy a larger 16 inch telescope and accessories. Jokingly the official asks if she can guarantee to find a new supernova with it. She replies that she will, but can’t say how long it will take.

Despite Mr Kabari’s reassurances that famous historic astronomers didn’t have an easy time – it was 400 years after Galileo’s death that the Catholic church changed their minds about his discoveries – he too ends up trying to selfishly constrain Sepideh’s plans and prospects.

Aged 18 and nearing the end of school, Sepideh receives a marriage proposal from an older man in the Astronomy Club. He studied astronomy, has a PhD, works for the local municipality and is supportive of Sepideh’s dream. Her teacher believes that engagement and marriage will divert her attention away from the stars to more earth-bound distractions. And when she comes to Mr Kabari to explain that she needs to move on from amateur astronomy to study it more seriously at college, he conspires to clip Sepideh’s wings and expresses how let down he feels that she won’t he around as a role model for the younger students in his club.

It is heart-breaking. One of the early heroes of the film exposes his feet of clay.

One of the film’s devices are letters that Sepideh writes to “Mr Einstein” in her diary. But it was on the back of an email sent by Sepideh that she received a phone call from the first astronaut of Iranian descent Anousheh Ansari who paid to spend eight days on the International Space Station in September 2006. And by the end of the film we see Sepideh meeting Anousheh in Dubai and read in the closing titles that the astronaut is going to guide this inspirational Iranian women through her studies.

The film Danish director Berit Madsen explained to Wall Street Journal’s Barbara Chai that the intervention of Anousheh was unexpected:
Q: Did you know that Anousheh Ansari would befriend Sepideh and support her, when you began filming?

A: No, not at all. It was a surprise. Actually, that’s why it kept taking so long to finish the film. It was already done before all this happened about Anousheh. We had finished the shooting, even the ending. Which of course now is different. It was new and made me hurry back to Iran and see what was going to happen. The last scene is shot in Dubai a year ago, and that was the first time I talked with Anousheh.

While some scenes feel unnatural and staged to summarise developments and drive the story forward, this afternoon’s screening in the Queens Film Theatre on the closing day of Belfast Film Festival was a very encouraging story of hope, a zeal for learning and a yearning to make a difference. I wasn’t alone shedding a tear or two during the film.

It is well worth seeing this film if it is playing in at a festival near you or is being screened on general release this summer. We need more girls (and boys) around the world like Sepideh who can dream big and dream long. And we need parents and teachers and adults to mentor young people and help them fulfil their potential.

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