By LINDSAY PERNA
c. 2009 Religion News Service
While chaotic post-election demonstrations threaten to tarnish the image of Iran and its hard-line Islamic government, Hollywood filmmakers are releasing a drama they hope will send an opposite message about Islam itself.
Centered around the stoning of a woman unjustly accused of adultery, the graphic and stomach-turning violence in "The Stoning of Soraya M." has the potential of sparking anti-Islamic sentiment, or at least giving Islam a bad name.
Yet producers of the film hope their drama, which hits theaters Friday (June 26), will not focus so much on the villains -- in this case, corrupt Islamic authorities -- as on the hidden martyrs: women beneath the veil.
Set in 1986 Iran, the film is based on the true story of a divorce-seeking husband who framed his wife (Soraya) for adultery, a misdeed punishable by death according to Islamic law. The governing clerics of the remote village wash their hands of the flagrant misuse of Islamic law, and the graphic stoning scenes have the potential to scar the viewer into thinking that Islam is a faith of extremists and murderers.
For the director, Cyrus Nowrasteh, the film actually attacks a perversion of Islam, not the faith itself.
"I don't see it as an anti-Islamic film or an anti-religious film," he said in a phone interview. "It's Islam versus Islam. There are those who will misuse religion for their own benefit and others who will see religion as their salvation."
Nowrasteh said his film focuses on women as second-class citizens in Iran who are subjected to gross misinterpretations of Sharia law. In fact, producer Stephen McEveety said the film's lead female characters "represent the best of a Muslim person."
"Soraya carries her 'cross' with dignity," said McEveety, who produced Mel Gibson's blood-stained "The Passion of the Christ," borrowing an image of Christian suffering. "The last thing she does is pray to her God."
Since the film is banned in Iran, McEveety said it is one of the few times he will condone underground piracy so that the "pro-Muslim" movie can be seen in restrictive corners of the Muslim world.
Michael Cromartie, a member of a federal watchdog panel that has singled out Iran for its religious freedom abuses, said the film is "anti-brutality" and "anti-mistreatment of women," not anti-Islam.
The film has a greater purpose, he said: "a redemptive effect in contemporary Iran."
"I'm all for stigmatizing corrupt evil actions by government authorities," said Cromartie, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "I have no problem with anything that stigmatizes these types of heinous acts."
The film, he said, does just that.
"One hope is that ... it will call attention to something that didn't just happen in the Middle Ages, but is happening now in the 21st century," he said.
Reform-minded female foot soldiers are gaining increased visibility after the murder of an Iranian woman in Saturday's (June 20) demonstrations was broadcast on the Internet. President Obama warned Tehran on the day of Neda Agha-Soltan's murder that "the world is watching."
Nowrasteh, the film's director, said the film's timing with the political unrest in Iran is largely coincidental, but a perfect opportunity to raise awareness about age-old injustices that are taking on new life.
"This movie is about reform," Nowrasteh said. "And the people who are demonstrating in Iran currently are seeking reform.