In a world of secrecy, corruption and injustice, a single courageous voice can tell a true story that changes everything.
This is what lies at the heart of the emotionally charged experience of THE STONING OF SORAYA M. Based on an incredible true story, this powerful tale of a village's persecution of an innocent woman becomes both a daring act of witness and a compelling parable about mob rule. Who will join forces with the plot against her, who will surrender to the mob, and who will dare to stand up for what is right. It is both a classic fable of good and evil and an inspiring tribute to the many fighting against injustice all around the world, THE STONING OF SORAYA M. was a rousing runner-up to "Slumdog Millionaire" as the Audience Favorite at the Toronto Film Festival.
Academy Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog") stars in the heroic role of Zahra, an Iranian woman with a burning secret. When a journalist (Jim Caviezel, "The Passion Of The Christ," "Déjà Vu") is stranded in her remote village, she takes a bold chance to reveal what the villagers will stop at nothing to keep hidden.
Thus begins the remarkable account of what happened to Soraya (Mozhan Marnò), a kind, spirited woman whose bad marriage leads her cruel, divorce-seeking husband to conspire against her, trumping up charges of infidelity, which carry an unimaginable penalty. Moving through a minefield of scheming, lies and deceit, Soraya and Zahra will attempt to prove Soraya's innocence in a legal system stacked against her. But when all else fails, Zahra will risk everything to use the only weapon she has left - her fearless, passionate voice that can share Soraya's story with a shocked world.
THE STONING OF SORAYA M. is inspired by Paris-based journalist Freidoune Sahebjam's acclaimed international best-seller of the same name which, rife with intrigue and moral outrage, first brought global attention to the real Soraya, who in 1986 was buried to her waist in her hometown square and stoned to death by her fellow villagers.
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh, along with his wife and fellow screenwriter Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, saw in Soraya one story that stands for thousands of untold tales around the world, from Africa to Asia, from Europe to America, wherever people are battling prejudice and injustice. Their screenplay takes the hard facts surrounding Soraya's fate and carves from them a lyrical, fable-like passion play that gets under the skin by posing a provocative question: who among us would throw stones and who would take a stand against them?
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"At its heart, this movie is a human drama filled with tension, peril and hope - but it is also a true story that I felt strongly had to be told, a story the whole world needs to know."
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh
A Woman Speaks Out, The Story Begins
It happens every day all over the world. Someone breaks the deafening silence. Someone stands up against injustice, risks her very life to defy a tyrannical government, to battle corruption and deceit, to aid an innocent victim, to tell a shocking story that the world must hear to a journalist. And yet, these inspirational, emotionally gripping stories, while often told to journalists, rarely come to the powerful medium of cinema. THE STONING OF SORAYA M. takes one such astonishingly true story - that of a fearless Iranian woman and a probing war correspondent who brought the stoning of a woman by an entire village to the world's attention - and transforms it into a moving and suspenseful movie parable about how mob rule turns some into villains. . . and a few into courageous heroes who will risk everything to bring hope to others. Read more
From Real-Life Conspiracy to Movie Parable: The Adaptation
From the beginning, Cyrus and Betsy made the decision to focus the tale's suspense around Zahra, the savvy, outraged village woman who attempts to protect Soraya and ultimately tells her story in the hopes of saving others. Her quest for truth and justice amidst lies, betrayal and fraud became the driving force of the story. Meanwhile, Soraya and her accusers were etched as the two opposite poles of innocence and corruption between which each of the villagers must make a choice.
As they wrote, the Nowrastehs compacted the actual events into a grippingly tight time frame. "It's a ticking time-bomb story so we really wanted to concentrate the drama," says Cyrus. "We always saw it as the story of an accusation, trial and execution that occur all in one day. Likewise, Zahra tells her story all in one day, heightening the tension."
The Nowrastehs stayed true to the real-life characters, but Sahebjam's portrait of the men in the village was so unremittingly villainous that the couple actually worked to add more shading to characters and to more broadly reflect how different people react under the extreme peer pressure of mob rule.
"Frankly, we humanized many of the male characters to show their inner conflicts and dilemmas, whereas in the book they are all evil to the core," explains Cyrus. "We wanted the mayor, Ebrahim, to be a man caught in a changing time, who knows that the ultimate authority is now the Mullah, and despite his better judgment will do whatever he must to maintain his political position. With Hashem, we gave him the afflicted son to put him in more of a bind, because it's so hard to understand why he would testify against Soraya, to understand the kind of male unity that goes on in such villages from birth and the ways in which people are discouraged from ever defying the group."
Some of the most seemingly fanciful scenes came straight from reality, including the playful traveling circus that shows up in the midst of Soraya's execution day. "Of course, people ask if we invented that circus, but it's very much in the book," notes Cyrus. "My jaw dropped when I read about it. There's something so Felliniesque about it, so surreal, that it could only have really happened that way."
The Nowrastehs maintained their commitment in the screenplay to have the characters speak in Iran's native Farsi. "One of the things we always felt was important stylistically was to really bring audiences into this Iranian village, to have a very raw, human, immediate quality to the surroundings," says Cyrus. "We fought for the film to be shot entirely in Farsi, despite the challenges, because I always felt that actors speaking English in an Iranian village would take people out of what was happening, would detract from the authentic and the pure emotional response as the scheme against Soraya builds. Of course, we understood that it was going to take a production company willing to take a considerable risk if we were going to be able to make the film."
Enter Mpower Pictures: A Movie Company With A Mission
Finding the right producing team happened faster than Cyrus Nowrasteh ever dreamed. The script wound up in the hands of John Shepherd, President of Mpower Pictures, the company started by Stephen McEveety, Shepherd and Todd Burns with a compelling mission: to make films that profoundly impact culture and empower audiences through high entertainment value. Shepherd felt THE STONING OF SORAYA M. encapsulated all those qualities, and he brought it to CEO McEveety's attention.
"John kept saying you really have to read this script," recalls McEveety, "and when I finally did, I was blown away. My first thoughts were two-fold: I wondered 'who in the heck is going to finance this story?' and I simultaneously knew it was a story that absolutely had to be told."
McEveety is no stranger to risky, provocative filmmaking. As an executive at ICON collaborating closely with Mel Gibson, his films as executive producer include not only the Oscar®-winning "Braveheart," "We Were Soldiers" and "What Women Want," but he also produced one of the most intensely media-covered productions of all time: "The Passion of the Christ." For McEveety, the power of a good story has always been worth some jeopardy - and Soraya's story was a prime example of a story that called for courage in the telling.
"This is a story that will mean different things to different people and can be talked about on many different levels," he notes. "For me, it struck a universal theme, about how human beings abuse one another - especially how women are abused around the world - and about how too often most step aside and let it happen. I hope it serves to create a desire for justice and protection of the innocent in all walks of life, and in all parts of the world. Personally, I get angry every time I watch the movie, but I think it is also empowering for audiences to understand what is really happening. There are bad people in every culture but it is also exhilarating to see there are always those who strive to do the right thing."
Driven now by his own passion for the subject, McEveety accelerated into high gear. "He managed to set up the financing amazingly quick," says Nowrasteh, "unlike anything I've ever been involved with. I've been so glad to be in business with Mpower, because these guys move."
None of the production logistics, from the rugged, far-off location to shooting in Farsi, were the least bit intimidating to McEveety. "Oh, I've been down that road before," he laughs. "In this case, we all agreed that it was essential for audiences to really believe in the world the movie enters, so having the locations and language be authentic was vital. It's a story that you can't simply watch - you have to experience it and that was the key to making it."
His overriding production concern, however, was the cast and crew's safety. "I spoke with each person individually about the dangers, but they already understood," he explains. "Our cast and crew are brave people who put their lives and careers on the line to make sure this movie would be seen."
In the end, McEveety says, as strongly as he felt about making the film at the start, the movie's visceral impact on the screen still took him aback. "It's a powerful entertainment that packs an epic punch, inside of a tiny, lovingly made film," he says. "The story is engaging but it's the artistry of the film and the magnificence of the performances, some of them pure evil and others full of hope and light, that really took me by surprise. We ended up with a movie that you cannot watch without being strongly affected - and that is the true measure of its success."
It Takes A Village: Assembling The Cast
One of the most stunning things about a stoning is that it takes an entire village to pull it off - it is the only form of execution in which no single person delivers a fatal blow, but the community itself becomes the de facto executioner of one of its own. Fascinated by how this dynamic can come to pass, it was always key for the Nowrastehs to create a group of starkly drawn characters who each wrestle viscerally with the dilemma Ali raises when he decides to falsely accuse Soraya and condemn her. Read more
The Secret Shoot: Journey to an Undisclosed Arab Nation
With the film moving ahead, Cyrus Nowrasteh was faced with another daunting challenge: finding a location that could authentically stand in for a remote Iranian village and fulfill his criteria for a starkly transporting realism -- all without raising any local controversy. Ultimately, he discovered a discreetly tucked-away hamlet in an undisclosed Arab country in the Middle East that fit the bill. Read more
How Far Do You Go? Filming the Stoning
Cyrus Nowrasteh and Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh had made a vital decision while writing the screenplay for THE STONING OF SORAYA M.: they would reveal Soraya's experience on the day of her stoning in raw, gritty detail, no holds barred.
For Cyrus, the truth itself was so searing, there could be no other way. "No one had ever shown a stoning on film before so I felt a real responsibility to make it something the audience will never forget," he states. "The question was always: how far do you go? I didn't want to have anyone mistake what they were seeing for standard, popcorn movie violence but I also didn't want it to be so graphic that it overwhelmed the audience. The entire scene was carefully designed so that there is a kind of cathartic poetry to it that goes to another level beyond the simple horror of what is happening." Read more
The World Will Know: Bringing Soraya's Story To Global Audiences
Cyrus Nowrasteh had a singular guiding principle throughout the making of THE STONING OF SORYA M.: the world will know. "Yes, the film is a gripping drama," he says, "but more than that it is a form of bearing witness, much like Zahra does in the movie. It becomes a liberating story about the power of breaking a silence and hopefully will encourage others to add their voices."
As an Iranian-American whose family was exiled, the story has a personal angle for Cyrus, but it also transcends the specifics of current politics or regimes. "I'm not in a position to change any governments or laws in other countries, but the one thing I can do is to make people aware that this is happening wherever women are still treated as second class citizens. It is hard to conceive of this still going on, but my obligation was to getting the truth out there - again, so the world will know. My biggest hope is that people will fall in love with these women and their courage." Read more
STONING IN THE 21st CENTURY: WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The powerful events depicted in THE STONING OF SORAYA M. are likely to inspire audiences to want to learn more about the issues of stoning, honor killings and the persecution of women around the world. As the first film drama to offer a stirring and eye-opening glimpse into the reality of public stonings, THE STONING OF SORAYA M. has been embraced by advocates for human and women's rights as a way to raise consciousness about the plight of women at risk of abuse, injustice and death in legal systems stacked against them. Read more
A number of organizations are deeply committed to the fight for the fair and humane treatment of women under all legal systems, including such international groups as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Additional web resources include:
The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women: www.stop-stoning.org
The International Campaign Against Honour Killings: www.stophonourkillings.com
The International Committee Against Stoning: www.stopstonningnow.com
Stop Stoning Forever (an Iran-based Group): www.meydaan.com/english/default.aspx
KAFA (Lebanese-based Women's Advocacy): www.kafa.org.lb/advoc1.html
The Network Against Honour Related Violence: www.minheder.nu
Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan: www.rawa.org
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
CYRUS NOWRASTEH (Director, Co-Writer)
Cyrus Nowrasteh was born in Boulder, Colorado of Iranian parents, and lived in Iran as a young boy. A graduate of the USC cinema program, he has worked in the motion picture and television business for over 20 years.
He has worked as a writer on a number of TV series, most notably developing and writing the pilot for the hit USA network show, "La Femme Nikita" which ran for five years (1996-2001) and was the most successful series on USA up to that time.
In the following years, Cyrus focused on docudrama and history. In 2001 he wrote and directed the highly acclaimed Paramount/Showtime feature presentation, "The Day Reagan Was Shot." To this day it is Showtime's highest-rated movie and is available on DVD. The film was executive produced by Oliver Stone and starred Richard Dreyfuss, who earned a SAG best actor nomination for his portrayal of Alexander Haig. It also received an EDDIE award, as well as the Golden Satellite Award for Best Cable Motion Picture of 2001.
The following year he reteamed with Showtime to write "10,000 Black Men Named George," starring Andre Braugher. It brings to the screen the true story of activist A. Philip Randolph who led the famous Pullman strike of the 1930s.
For both of the above films, Cyrus received the PEN Literary Award for best teleplay, becoming the only writer in the history of the PEN awards to win two years in a row in the same category.
In 2005 Cyrus was recruited by Steven Spielberg to write an episode of the Dreamworks/TNT miniseries "Into the West," which was nominated for 16 Emmy awards and winner of three.
He has also performed production rewrites for Paramount Pictures on such notable movies as "The Hunted" (2003, starring Tommy Lee Jones), "Beyond Borders" (2003, starring Angelina Jolie) and "Shooter" (2007, starring Mark Wahlberg).
Cyrus became a national figure as the writer and producer of the acclaimed and controversial ABC docudrama, "The Path to 9/11," which aired on September 10th and 11th, 2006, to an audience of 28 million viewers. The DVD release of that film has been suppressed to this day.
BETSY GIFFEN NOWRASTEH (Co-Writer)
Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up in Shaker Heights. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio and moved to Los Angeles when she was 22 where she worked as a production artist and copywriter in film advertising.
Her career in movie advertising included work on such movies as "The Road Warrior," "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Prizzi's Honor," and many more.
In 1981 she married Cyrus Nowrasteh. Their two sons, Alex and Mark, were born in 1983 and 1985 respectively and while focused on motherhood Betsy started to write screenplays. Her first produced screenplay was for Largo Entertainment and HBO, entitled "Under Pressure," a dark suburban drama about a mother protecting her children. It starred Charlie Sheen and Mare Winningham and aired on HBO in 1997. She continued to write screenplays, but forayed into production design on "Norma Jean, Jack and Me," an independent film that played the festival circuit and on HDTV in 1999-2000.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An international reporter, world historian and diplomat, Freidoune Sahebjam led an extraordinary life bringing stories to the world. He met with Che Guevara in Africa, conversed with General De Gaulle in Iran, interviewed John F. Kennedy in Hyannis Harbor, spent time with Salvador Allende in Chile and with Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, met with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, and was personally known to every Muslim sovereign across the globe. He accompanied Arthur Rubinstein to Persepolis and Audrey Hepburn to East Africa and consorted with numerous U.S. Presidents.
He also made his mark in investigative reporting in Iran. Sahebjam was the first to report on the crimes of the Islamic Republic against the Baha'ii community, as well as on the use of underage children in the Iranian Army during the 8-year Iran-Iraq War.
For his controversial reportage, he was sentenced to a death fatwa in absentia by the new Iranian Revolutionary Court. Despite this, he returned to the country incognito to investigate sensitive issues regarding the Tehran Islamic Regime, which is when he was exposed to the story of Soraya's stoning. More recently, he covered the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for the French daily Le Telegraph.
An aristocrat of Qajar heritage, he was also the author of a several novels in French, including La Femme Lapidée, Le Dernier Eunuque and Le Vieux de la Montagne, as well as a recently published biography on his mother entitled Une Princess Persane.
Since its publication in 1994, The Stoning of Soraya M. has become one of the landmarks of Sahebjam's storied career, published in countless countries and translated into a dozen languages, as well as used as a teaching tool in classrooms throughout the world.
Sahebjam passed away at his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine in March of 2008 at the age of 75.
THE ART OF ADAPTATION
THE ART OF WORLD CINEMA