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Film Spotlights True Story of Iranian Woman's Stoning

Many of us think of stoning as a form of punishment practiced in ancient societies. But the stoning of women - and sometimes men - is still happening today in many countries in the Middle East and Africa.

That is the focus of a new film, The Stoning of Soraya M. It is a drama based on the true story of a young Iranian woman who, after being falsely accused of adultery by her estranged husband, was stoned to death by her fellow villagers.

Persian film star Shohreh Aghdashloo says when she was approached to play the role of one of the major characters in the movie, she didn't hesitate.

"I have seen a real one [stoning] on tape, and since then, I've been dying to shed light on this [topic], to do something about it as a woman, as a feminist, as an activist."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" - Martin Luther King Jr.

The film, starring the Academy Award-nominated actress and a host of other Iranian actors, is based on the best-selling 1994 book, The Stoning of Soraya M., by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam.

The film's director, Cyrus Nowrasteh, recounts how Sahebjam first learned of the killing.

"A journalist wanders into this village quite by accident, and this woman beckons to him. She's got a story she wants to tell him about what happened to her niece just recently in this very same village."

Aghdashloo plays the role of Zahra, Soraya's aunt and surrogate mother, who stands up to her fellow villagers in defense of her niece. Zahra had done everything in her power to try to stop the stoning. But when things didn't work out, she did the only other thing she could think of.

"She makes a promise to her niece when it looks like it's not going their way that she's going to tell the truth about what happened, and she's going to let the world know what happened," says director Cyrus Nowrasteh.

Film about importance of telling the truth, actress says

Aghdashloo says playing Zahra's character, as aunt, surrogate mother and ultimately, as storyteller, was all-consuming.

"At one special moment, I think it was the third or fourth day [of filming], I had an incredible feeling. I opened my eyes and was not quite sure whether it's reality or cinema. I'm a method actor; I usually try to put myself in the character's shoes. But this one is like, 'I am her now.'"

Aghdashloo believes Soraya's story is important, for two reasons.

"It is an important film, first of all, because we need to clear the air. We need to tell the world that stoning has got nothing to do with Islam, that stoning is not in [the] Koran. Those people who have hijacked Islam, or are manipulating people using Islam, are trying to tell them this is part of the religion, which is really not, first of all.

"Second of all, it's about people who do not keep quiet when it comes to a time of crisis. This is not about the woman who was being stoned. It's about a woman who refuses to be silent. And she takes all the risks to do it and to tell the world, and she does."

Critics take issue with film's approach

Despite the brutal form of execution the movie spotlights, The Stoning of Soraya M. has received criticism, most notably from a leading human rights organization. Elise Auerbach has been the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International USA since 2000. She objects to the film's message that implies that the only way this problem can be addressed is by intervention from the outside.

Auerbach says Iranians themselves are the ones who have been campaigning very intensely to eradicate the practice of stoning.

"There's an End Stoning Forever campaign that's actually being run by Iranian human rights activists and, in particular, women's rights activists, such as the very prominent woman's rights activist Shadi Sadr."

But despite such criticisms, actress Shohreh Aghdashloo says the film has evoked strongly positive reactions at advance screenings.

"We have had incredible, incredible screenings, and incredible response[es]. I'm so proud of Iranians; one by one, they came to us and thanked us for doing this. We had Iranian women who would stand up, cry and say, 'Thank you Shohreh, thank you for making this film,' and Americans, stunned, shocked, they come to us and tell us, 'We thought this happened in Biblical times; we had no idea this was happening in the 21st century.'"

Graphic - and moving - portayal of violence

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh thinks he knows why audiences have been so deeply affected by his film.

"It's a great story, first and foremost. It's dramatic, it's emotional, it's heartbreaking, it's inspiring. My wife was a screenwriter and I, we read this book years ago, and it stuck with us."

Many viewers who have seen the film in private screenings say the images depicting the stoning sequence itself are gut-wrenching. For some, they are unbearable to watch. Nowrasteh defends the graphic portrayal.

"As far as the depiction itself, I felt it was important to show what a stoning is really like so people will never forget it. To water it down would be a disservice to those thousands of women who've suffered this way."

Stonings persist despite efforts to end practice

While the film focuses on the stoning of a woman in Iran, both Nowrasteh and Aghdashloo are quick to note that the stoning of women - and sometimes men - is also practiced in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2002, the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Shahrudi, announced a moratorium on stonings. But Amnesty International's Elise Auerbach says that despite the announcement, stonings of both men and women, though rare, still take place in Iran.

"Amnesty International has recorded six stonings since 2002 - five men and one woman."

Auerbach adds that Amnesty International also has information that nine people are currently under sentence of death by stoning in Iran - seven women and two men.

Film director Cyrus Nowrasteh says he hopes audiences leave the The Stoning of Soraya M. both moved and enlightened by this powerful drama.

"Fundamentally I want people to respond to this as a movie experience, but also to walk out maybe activated in a sense to what's going on and why this is important and the way things are going on in the world, in Iran and other countries - that it just sort of comes home to them a little bit."

The Stoning of Soraya M. will soon be released internationally.