Reach for the stars: teenage girl defies Iranian society in new film

by Shanshan Chen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 16 June 2014 17:13 GMT

Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars

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"It is a universal story ... No matter where you are, it is about reaching your dreams. If we dare to dream big, even the impossible might happen."

Sepideh Hooshyar, a teenage girl from a small town in Iran, has a big dream: she wants to become an astronaut.

"We use the sky to vent the frustration that society gives us," she says in the documentary Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars, which portraits the girl’s stargazing ambitions in Iran’s conservative society.

Sepideh developed a strong interest in astronomy at the age of 12, the year after her father suddenly passed away.

"When my father died, my world fell apart. I have found a purpose again," she says. 

Filmmaker Berit Madsen met Sepideh at her astronomy club, run by the enthusiastic Mr Kabiri.

"The first time I met Sepideh was one dark night. She went stargazing with some boys and girls, so I followed them to her home," Madsen told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"She was 14 years old when I met her. I thought it was incredible to see a girl in her room with a big telescope."

Mr Kabiri encourages young girls to join his club - defying the rules that Iranian society imposes on women and girls.

"One of the problems for girls is that you ask: ‘Can girls go out at night?’" says Mr Kabiri in a meeting where he recruits new members for his club at Sepideh’s school.

"Our world does not end in the small streets in town. It does not end at your school or the shops two blocks away. Our world is much bigger."

However not everyone supports Sepideh in her quest to understand the universe. Her uncle threatens to kill her if she persists in her unladylike behaviour.

"Please stop. There’s nothing wrong with me looking at the stars," retorts the spirited Sepideh. "After me there will be ten more doing what I have done. I’m not alone."

The film charts Sepideh’s teenage years, and how, at the age of 17, her mother breaks some bad news: after her father’s death, the family had almost no income.

Her mother had taken loans and all the money must be used to fix the wells to recultivate the family’s land. There would be no money left over for a university education for Sepideh.


"It’s a story of an individual," says Madsen. "But to me it's a larger story, of the future of Iran, of the young generation, that won’t accept the limitations."

On the wall of Sepideh’s room, she had put up a poster of Albert Einstein, who ("Dear Mr Einstein") she frequently addressed to in her notes. Another "correspondent" of Sepideh was  Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space.

Madsen says at first she did not realise Sepideh had been writing to Ansari. When she found out, she managed to get the email address of the astronaut, so Sepideh could make contact with her idol.

When Ansari received the email, she decided she wanted to help Sepideh fulfil her dreams – she sponsored the young student to go to university.

"Sometimes this film makes me feel that I am in the middle of a fairytale," Madsen says. "I had no idea how her life would turn out, but I had this hunch that it would not be a typical story of women in the Middle East, which is often in the global media, suppressed by the society."

The documentary has been screened at the Sundance festival, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and the Sheffield documentary festival.

"Somehow people react in the same way, crying and laughing," Madsen said. "All over the world it has created the same kind of response. 

"Even though this is a particular story, it is a universal story somehow. It appeals to everybody: no matter where you are, it is about reaching your dreams. If we dare to dream big, even the impossible might happen."

Sepideh will be screened on June 21 2014 in London as part of Open City Docs.

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