Iranian student reaches for the stars
January 18, 2014
Berit Madsen has traveled a great distance to bring her film, "SEPIDEH – Reaching for the Stars," to Sundance – from Denmark to Iran to Park City.
The journey began with a tip: that a physics teacher had inspired a small group of high school students in a small Iranian town to form an astronomy club and its members were trying to convince their local government to finish building a small observatory.
It seemed unusual, especially the fact that girls were also participating.
"It confused me to hear about such activity and I had a strong impulse to go there," Madsen said in a recent Skype interview from her home, shortly after learning her film had been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival.
Madsen who is both a filmmaker and a social anthropologist, said the story stirred her curiosity.
"Anthropology helps me gain understanding and filmmaking is my tool," she explained.
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She packed her rucksack and headed to southern Iran where she assembled an Iranian film crew and went about obtaining the necessary permits to make a film.
"If you come with a camera and if you just go out on street filming you are arrested," she said. With permits in hand, though, Madsen said she felt free to work without censure.
After spending a few evenings stargazing with the students, Madsen said she was drawn to one of the girls who was determined to go on to the university to study astronomy. Despite the fact that her mom, a widow, was struggling to keep the family afloat, and her uncles were discouraging her ambitions, Sepideh was undeterred.
"I found my little heroine," Madsen said.
Madsen’s film, which is screening in Sundance’s World Documentary Competition in Farsi with English subtitles, follows Sepideh as she faces down her uncles and competes for a scholarship to continue her studies. Interspersed with intimate scenes of Sepideh and her family, Madsen weaves images of the town’s stunning night sky.
The filmmaker wanted to show audiences exactly what had captivated Sepideh so she hired two Iranian astro-photographers who accompanied the students on a few of their stargazing field trips. She also obtained permission to use imagery from the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble images accompany scenes when Sepideh reads from her diary whose entries are a series of heartfelt letters to her inspiration, the legendary physicist Albert Einstein.
Madsen’s film, with its sweeping images of the heavens, offers a soaring message to young people around the world to pursue their dreams.
"I hope they take away this huge inspiration from Sepideh that no matter what kind of situation, their dreams is can actually come true."
But, she adds, they have to be willing to work for it. "You must be prepared to pay a price. Things don’t come easy You can make something big out of your life but only if you are prepared to work for it."
To help spread that message, Sundance has included "SEPIDEH" in its High School Screening Program where it will be shown to hundreds of Utah students during the festival.
Madsen noted that she is especially grateful to the Sundance Institute for their help in bringing the film to the screen. "Besides receiving funding for the film, I had the pleasure of joining a Composers & Documentary Lab last year when ‘SEPIDEH’ was still in the making – and I hardly ever experienced such generosity!"
"SEPIDEH" is screening in the Sundance Film Festival’s World Documentary Category at the following times:
- Friday, Jan. 17 at 3 p.m., Sundance Resort Screening Room, Sundance Resort
- Saturday, Jan. 18 at 3:45 pm., Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City
- Sunday, Jan. 19 at3 p.m., Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City
- Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 3:15 p.m., Temple Theatre, Park City
- Thursday, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
- Friday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema 4, Park City