Sepideh — Reaching for the Stars begins with its main character watching another documentary, Christian Frei’s excellent, under-seen Space Tourists. That film follows, in one of its three intercut narratives, the paid spaceflight participation of multi-millionaire Anousheh Ansari. She was the first Iranian in space and so became a hero to Sepideh Hooshyer, a tremendously bright teenage girl with dreams of becoming an astronaut, maybe the second from their country. Sepideh has been interested in astronomy since she was 12, around the time her father suddenly passed away, and likes to spend her nights staring up at the stars, many of which she can name. The problem is, where she’s from, girls aren’t supposed to go out at night alone.
Her uncle reminds her that girls out alone have been killed before, then he states, very seriously, that if she continues to go out that he will kill her. “Do you think God chose you to fight for astronomy for Iran?” he angrily asks Sepideh. Her mother would also like her to finally learn to cook, as that is what Iranian women are supposed to do. But even if Sepideh had approval and encouragement to go to university, she just doesn’t have the money. Thanks in part to a drought, and in part because her mother can’t get any help from her late husband’s brothers, the family farm isn’t producing and so they’re without income, going further into debt. At least there’s a local astronomy club led by a physics teacher, Mr. Kabiri, who has kind of taken Sepideh under his wing.
The interesting twist there in this otherwise familiar-seeming tale of of female suppression in the Middle East is that the teacher, as supportive of her interests as he is, would rather Sepideh not achieve her goals because of his own dream. He has been trying to build an observatory for the past 20 years and clearly sees her passion as what’s needed to help get the project completed. The guy might even be in love with the girl, who is 16 at the film’s start and 18 at it’s conclusion. His home life is pretty miserable, due to his needy and nagging elderly mother, and later he shows jealousy when another suitor comes Sepedeh’s way. Sepideh is a good enough movie when documenting the title character’s emotional triumphs of self-empowerment, but it’s an especially rich work due to what Kabiri brings to the story.
Danish director Berit Madsen sprinkles her film with spectacular shots of the heavens, telescopic visuals comparable to those seen in Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light. Even more impressively, she maintains an observational quality that keeps the film in the story, almost never reminding us that what we’re watching is a documentary. But her greatest achievement has to be finding the story itself in the first place and, of course, its remarkably determined subject. The film has a plot too perfect to be written and themes often so on the nose that if it were fiction we’d find it overstated. And at the center is this appropriately gleaming star of a girl. I’ve rarely rooted for a documentary character as much as I wanted to see Sepideh have a happy ending, even if one of fortune as much as earned and maybe even if there’s compromises or altered priorities — I don’t want to say more and spoil anything, which is something I also rarely think necessary with docs.
Because it’s real life, the destination is important to the narrative, but Sepideh is also a wonderful and infuriating journey leading there. The former partly in the way we’re let in on some of the girl’s thoughts by way of a journal she writes, each entry addressed to her other hero, Albert Einstein, shared in voiceover. The latter as we see how Iranian society piles on obstacles for someone with ideas like Sepideh’s, no matter her gender. For example, she sees one way out of her predicament in applying for a scholarship and comes up with a strong theory about the ancient ruins at Pasargadae, only it’s a touchy topic in that it could challenge certain religious beliefs about the site. It almost seems ridiculous when someone later compares the girl to Galileo, but it’s not so much who she’s aligned with in the comment as it is what’s being likened to the Roman Inquisition.
Sepideh comes across her very wisest and most perceptive not while discussing astronomy, though, but when early on she recites, to her mother, a marvelous quote from former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh from when he was imprisoned following the 1953 coup: “My pain is not fences around the pond but to live amongst fish that cannot imagine the ocean.” She is a perfect discovery, and for a storytelling standpoint she is from a perfect place that is so limiting in contrast with the infinite vastness she wishes to explore. With Madsen, primarily a social anthropologist who was initially curious about the astronomy club, who so flawlessly presents this young woman and her story, everything is just in perfect alignment here for a truly extraordinary film.
Sepideh — Reaching for the Stars is now available on iTunes. Rent it asap.