On the heels of the news that Relativity Media founder and CEO Ryan Kavanaugh has secured $250 million in financing from San Francisco-based VII Peaks Capital in advance of his film and television studio’s speculated IPO, the company’s latest film, “Desert Dancer,” earned high praise at its New York premiere on Tuesday night at the Museum of Modern Art.
Famed ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, news anchor Katie Couric and “Friends” star David Schwimmer were among many guests who applauded the biographical film starring Freida Pinto and Reece Ritchie about Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, who risked his life to create an underground dance company in Tehran despite a strict ban on dancing set by Iran’s Islamic rulers in 2009.
“The film is more than ‘Footloose’ set in Iran,” director Richard Raymond told Variety at the screening hosted by Cinema Society. “It’s about the freedom of expression and how important it is to fight for human rights in our lives today.”
Raymond, who makes his directorial debut in this fact-based drama, found out about Ghaffarian’s story on New Year’s day in 2010, when he read an article in the U.K.’s Sunday Times about the 23-year-old University of Tehran student dreaming of becoming a dancer. “I couldn’t believe it and I strongly connected with Afshin,” said Raymond. “I fell in love with him and I believe it was my purpose to tell his story on film. You can never choose who you fall in love with, and what you fall in love with chooses you. And that began a long five-year journey.”
For British actor Ritchie, who plays Ghaffarian in the movie, learning about the secret dancer’s story has been life-affirming. “I was in awe and still am in awe of what he had been through and the lengths he was willing to go through to pursue his dream and his passion,” Ritchie said prior to the screening. “He is truly inspiring and one of my heroes. He is an example that dreams can come true.”
To accurately portray Ghaffarian, Ritchie met with the young artist in Paris — where he was granted asylum — a handful of times, watched hours of taped interviews to pick up his manners and speech patterns, researched Iranian culture and learned how to cook Iranian food in order to understand his essence. “I wanted to give the best performance that I could do to honor him,” said Ritchie. “The most challenging was seeing him dance, which was incredible, because I saw what kind of physical shape he was in and how much work I had to do, which was kind of scary.”
Choreographer Akram Khan, who created the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games, trained Ritchie and Pinto six days a week for four months, to master the modern dance moves required for the film.
For Pinto, learning the interpretative moves to play Elaheh — a tortured young Iranian woman who joins the secret troupe — was a rewarding challenge. “I’m not a trained dancer at all,” she said. “When I was little I thought I was a good Michael Jackson impersonator. I wasn’t; I was so terrible! Learning to dance for this project has been one of the most difficult things I have done. I still have scars on my leg that I have to cover with makeup. But after all the sweat and tears, it’s been worth it.”
In addition to pushing herself to the limit with this physical demanding role, the “Slumdog Millionaire” actress says Ghaffarian’s story has reminded her to take risks. “Talent is limitless and your creativity can’t be boxed,” she said. “And what I really take away from this project is, if I ever have a crazy idea in mind and I’m not sure whether I should do it because people are telling me no, then I should go ahead and do it. As Afshin has shown, the freedom of expression is so important and the sky’s the limit when it comes to following your dreams.”
Following the screening, guests walked across West 53rd Street to the opulent Baccarat Hotel and Residences to join the film’s cast and execs for the lavish after-party.
Couric and her husband, finance executive John Molner, held hands while greeting friends until they parked themselves on a fur-upholstered seat in a corner booth for the rest of the evening. “The Mysteries of Laura” actor Josh Lucas mingled at the bar with some female acquaintances. Nearby, supermodel Iman stuck close to her stylish pal Jay Manuel from “America’s Next Top Model.” The two joked around and posed for photos with admirers. Oscar nominee Ellen Burstyn admired the hotel’s grand crystal chandeliers. Guests were treated to mini plates of deviled eggs with caviar, sea bass with curry sauce, braised short rib and mushroom risotto.