"Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars" - Berit Madsen (2013)


When we look up at the stars at night, we can’t help but marvel.  What lies behind their complex arrangement?  How are they connected to life below?  And we further reflect that everyone who has walked the earth has looked upwards so and perhaps had the same thoughts as ours. This universal wonder of the heavens and our connections to it are what lie at the heart of Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars, a feature-length documentary film by Danish social anthropologist Berit Madsen.

The setting is a provincial town, Sa’adat Shahr, in southern Iran, and the focus is on a teenage girl, Sepideh Hooshyar, whose obsessive quest to learn more about astronomy underscores the universality of the human imagination.  This woman in a faraway corner of Iran is not so different from the rest of us  – she is just like you and me.  Or at least like me.  I, too, was fascinated by astronomy at that age, and when I was 13-years-old, I had my own little planetarium and gave a lecture on astronomy at a school.  Of course, the social circumstances surrounding Sepideh’s situation are not negligible – they are of particular interest here and are key aspects to this tale.  Women in Iran, especially provincial Iran, are not supposed to go outside at night and gaze at the heavens.

The filming was spread out over some time, apparently about three or four years, and at various stages in the story, Sepideh is shown describing herself as 16, 17, and later 18 years of age [1].  As the film unwinds covering this period, the viewer learns some things about Sepideh’s personal life.   The town of Sa’adat Shahr, with a population of about 15,000 people, lies northeast of Shiraz and in between the ruins of two world-famous historical sites of some 2500 years in the past: the ancient ruins of the Achaemenid Empire capital at Persepolis and the royal tomb at Pasargadae of the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus the Great. Sepideh lives with her mother and brother, her father having passed away suddenly when Sepideh was 12. Sepideh had used her small inheritance at that time to purchase a telescope, which she now (at the time of the film) diligently lugs up local mountainsides to observe the heavens. Since her father’s death, their small family farm has fallen into disuse because of persistent drought, and the family needs support from relatives.

Actually, if you happen to go to southern Iran, you will find that the nighttime sky is unusually clear, and you will be able to see myriads of stars at night.  This is presumably due to the dry air and elevated landscape in the area.  Perhaps partly because of this clear nighttime visibility and, more importantly, due to the passions of a local high school teacher (more about him later), the people of Sa’adat Shahr have developed a passion for star-gazing – they have gone so far as to make contributions from their household savings in order to support the construction of their own local observatory.  It was in this environment that Sepideh became a passionate participant in the astronomical studies going on there.

Sepideh’s passion for the study of astronomy takes inspiration from two path-breaking figures who serve as her role models.  One of them is Albert Eienstein, and she has posted pictures of Einstein all over her bedroom walls.  He is such a hero to her that she feels a personal connection to him, and she writes messages to him in her diary about her goals and plans.  Sepideh’s other role model is Anousheh Ansari, a wealthy Iranian woman who self-funded her own personal mission to become an astronaut, which resulted in her becoming the first Iranian to travel in space.  Sepideh dreams of following in her footsteps and also become a cosmonaut.

For just about anyone this would be an extravagant dream, but Sepideh is clearly a capable and ambitious girl who believes in herself.  There are two roadblocks blocking her way, however.  One is a lack of money.  Her widowed mother doesn’t have the means to send her to a university, and her deceased father’s brothers are unwilling to help out financially.  So Sepideh, undaunted, applies for a government university scholarship by submitting a research proposal based on her theory that Cyrus the Great’s ancient tomb at Pasargadae was constructed to serve as an astronomical observatory.  This seems like an interesting and provocative idea – after all, similar notions have been proposed for reasons behind the construction of Stonehenge in England [2]. But the Iranian funding authorities brush off her proposal, and Sepideh doesn’t get her scholarship.

The second problem that Sepideh faces comes from her family.  Her mother doesn’t want Sepideh to be an astronomer or astronaut, she want her daughter to learn how to cook so she can secure a good husband.  This, of course, is typical of parents the world over.  They don’t want their children to be great; they want them to be normal.  And for an Iranian girl in a provincial town to be walking around on hillsides at night lugging a telescope, that is well outside the scope of normalcy.  But Sepideh is a determined girl and is unwavering in her ambition.  Her mother cannot change her mind.  An interesting response to one of her mother’s complaints about what she is doing reveals some of Sepideh’s erudition – she quotes former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh:
“My pain is not fences around the pond but to live amongst fish that cannot imagine the ocean.”

A more sinister opponent to the girl’s ambitions is her uncle Hadi, who warns her that it is dangerous for young girls to go out unaccompanied at night. But his concerns do not appear to be primarily about her welfare.  He warns her that if something “bad” were to happen on such an occasion, he would have to kill her. His primary concern is apparently for his own “honor” (although I have always been mystified by what kind of honor it could be that is supposed to be elevated by killing a female family member who has been intimate with another man). But this is the world that Sepideh inhabits.

Fortunately, for Sepideh and for her community, there is also a positive agent in the town that is selflessly working to promote not only education, but also self-realization on the part of his students.  This is the local high school physics teacher, Asghar Karibi.  He is the person who has promoted the local interest in astronomy, which he sees as a means for the people to look beyond their own local horizons. Sepideh is his star pupil, and he encourages her to go as far as she can in her quest.  Sepideh’s enthusiasm is further inflamed by an overseas phone call that she receives from her heroine, Anousheh Ansari, to whom she had sent a fan letter.  These two supporters want Sepideh to follow her dream.

As the film draws to a close, however, Sepideh is presented with a marriage proposal, and she is at a crossroads.  Marriage in her locale usually means becoming a housewife, having children right away, and abandoning any career.  In this case, though, the suitor belongs to the local astronomy club and appears to encourage Sepideh’s interests in studying.  Seeing a chance to get the rebellious girl to settle down, her family supports the proposal.  But Mr. Karibi is doubtful, and he thinks the girl would be giving in to the pressures of stultifying convention if she were to accept.  In any case, we learn that Sepideh apparently does go ahead and accept the proposal, but she still hopes to become an astronaut someday.

The filming of Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars is well-crafted but sometimes curious.  Berit Madsen is familiar with Iranian culture, since her husband is from Iran, and she manages to capture a good portion of Iranian domestic life.  But many of the scenes showing Sepideh spontaneously engaged in discussions with her mother and others appear to be staged – probably reenactments of previous encounters that Madsen deemed to be meaningful.  Also, of course, as is demanded by Iranian customs, the women are always shown in roosari, even though this would probably not always be the case inside the home.  Nevertheless, the most important element – the personality of the Sepideh – does come through, and that is important.

In terms of the film’s larger theme, though, we could say that it is more than just the story of one exceptional girl.  It also provides a metaphorical look at Iranian social culture, which is showcased by its women.  Sepideh is representative here, since she appears to be open, sensitive, passionate, and engaging. And the two principal males in the film, her uncle Hadi Hooshyar and her mentor Asghar Karibi, symbolize two polarizing social forces that are pushing the country in different directions. Hadi does not appear to be a bad person, but he embodies a rigid conservative tradition of suppression of all potential temptations in the name of “honor”. In contrast Karibi is dedicated to encouraging his students to explore the world, and by implication, their own imaginations.  Importantly, he does not appear to be a bourgeois Westerner. He is just another, different strain of traditional Iranian, and he devotedly adheres to his family duties of looking after his elderly enfeebled mother who requires near round-the-clock attention. It is wrong to say that Iran is just one of these two strains; it is both, and they are continually struggling against each other.  What direction that society will head is still uncertain.  This is why Iran seems to be a paradox – there are so many restrictions against women, and yet women make up about 60% of the university student population [3]. And, as demonstrated by the accomplishments of Anousheh Ansari and the recent Fields Medal (tantamount to a Nobel Prize in mathematics) awarded to Maryam Mirzakhani [4], Iranian women are amazingly capable. Despite those landmark achievements, though, there are ongoing concerns, as noted by Human Rights Watch [5]:
“Human Rights Watch has documented regressive [Iranian] policies that have been administered in recent years that have led to a rollback on women's rights, including gender-based policies in universities that disproportionately affect women.”
Let us hope that Sepideh, Mr. Karibi, and people like them manage to get the support they need for what they are trying to do.  Perhaps this film will help.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Berit Madsen, “Stargazer: Berit Madsen On Meeting The Inspiration Behind ‘Sepideh’”, Tribeca Film Institute, 21 November 2013.
  2. “Archeoastronomy and Stonehenge”, Wikipedia, (accessed 19 August, 2014).
  3. "Education in Iran", Wikipedia, (accessed 19 August, 2014),
  4. Dana Mackenzie, “Iranian Woman Wins Maths' Top Prize, the Fields Medal”, New Scientist, 12 August 2014.
  5. “Human Rights Watch Film Festival”, Human Rights Watch, 2014.

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