June 23, 2009 / 8:47 PM / 10 years ago

Film set in Iran examines death by stoning

* Movie dramatizes book by French-Iranian journalist

* Gruesome stonings and lack of women’s rights addressed

By Christine Kearney

NEW YORK, June 22 (Reuters) - An Iranian woman is framed for adultery, then bound, gagged and buried to her waist in dirt before being stoned to death in a bloody and harrowing sequence in a new film in U.S. cinemas this week.

The movie, "The Stoning of Soraya M.," is a dramatization based on the bestselling book of the same name by a French-Iranian journalist about a woman’s death in an Iranian village in 1986.

The film opens in U.S. cities on Friday, amidst an international furor over protests and bloodshed in Iran over its disputed presidential election. Its director, Cyrus Nowrasteh, said the timing was not planned.

The film aims to give a dramatic condemnation of the practice, which still occurs in countries including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia, Nowrasteh told Reuters.

"This is overdue and it has been too long suppressed as an issue for open discussion," said the U.S.-born director, who is of Iranian descent and spent part of his childhood in Iran. "Fundamentally this film is about injustice."

The film was shot in Jordan and stars exiled Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, whose character tells a passing journalist the story of her murdered niece, who was framed for infidelity by her divorce-seeking husband.

"Those who say the stoning in this film is graphic should see a real one," Aghdashloo said.

Aghdashloo, who received an Oscar nomination for "House of Sand and Fog," called "Stoning" effective in "opening people’s eyes to what is going on behind the curtains in certain areas, especially in rural societies in the Islamic world."


The film is not critical of Islam or singularly of Iran, but rather those who surreptitiously use religion for their own purposes in several countries, Nowrasteh said.

"In a way this is about those who hijack the religion and use it to their own ends," the director said. In the film, local authorities use Islamic Sharia law to incite villagers to turn against their friend and neighbor.

It also addresses the issue of women’s rights.

"It shows that women are treated as second class citizens, still, in many countries and that needs to change," he said.

The Iranian authorities routinely dismiss charges of rights abuses, saying they are following Sharia, which has been implemented in Iran since the 1979 revolution. A spokesman for the Iranian U.N. mission did not return a call seeking comment.

Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi ordered a moratorium on stoning in 2002. In August 2008, Iranian judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi announced a suspension of some executions by stoning but has since said individual judges were still free to order stonings until laws were integrated.

Jamshidi confirmed that two men were stoned to death in the city of Mashhad last December and a man was executed by stoning for adultery this March in Rasht, in northwestern Iran.

Seven women and two men are known to be under sentence of stoning in Iran, but there may be other current cases, Amnesty International said last month.

Elise Auerbach, Amnesty International’s Iran specialist, said stonings were rare in Iran compared to executions by hanging and were usually carried out by government agents, not villagers as depicted in the film.

Afghanistan and Pakistan’s laws also allow stoning for adultery. And in October, Somali Islamists stoned to death a 23-year-old accused of adultery, who was killed while buried in a hole up to her neck in front of hundreds of people in a square of the southern port of Kismayu.

Freidoune Sahebjam, the French-Iranian journalist who published the book the film was based on in 1994, died as filming began, but had approved the project, which is in Farsi with subtitles.

Nowrasteh said he was confident that the movie would be seen in Iran on the Internet and via underground sources.

"Eventually people will have bootleg DVDs," he said. "Inside of Iran they know about the movie, and I believe there will be high awareness of it."

(editing by Claudia Parsons and Frances Kerry)

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