Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Opening in select theaters today, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is a movie based on a true story, depicting how women behind the Muslim curtain are victimized by corrupt forces wielding Shariah law to justify and cover their tyranny.
WND interviewed Stephen McEveety, maker of cutting-edge films such as “An American Carol” and “The Passion of the Christ” and producer of “The Stoning of Soraya M.”
“When we started this movie, I had no idea that it would be as relevant as it has become today, on the date we’re releasing the film,” McEveety said. “Now, with the elections turning out the way they did in Iran, it’s particularly interesting because it gives an insight into the way politics can corrupt a society.
“This movie puts you right there in Iran,” McEveety continued. “It’s real, it’s honest, it’s truthful and you get a very good indication of what parts of society are like in that country.”
The film, based on the true account reported by an French-Iranian journalist who went undercover to reveal Soraya’s story, focuses on two women: Soraya, whose philandering husband disposes of her by manipulating the law into having her stoned for adultery; and Zahra, who pleads with the journalist to escape the village and tell Soraya’s story to the world.
McEveety insists, however, that “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is not an attack on Muslims, but on how wicked men use Islam and Shariah law to victimize others.
“In this film you see a woman who is a victim,” McEveety told WND, “not necessarily the victim of a corrupt religious system, but a victim of a corrupt political system that is using religion to empower abusers; and Iran is in a scenario right now where their political system is empowering tyrants and abusers.”
Shariah is a system of civil and criminal justice based on judicial tribunals acting to interpret matters of law in accordance with the Islamic faith. Widely practiced in Muslim countries, Shariah law has also been used informally in enclaves of Muslim population in some Western nations and formally as a binding court between willing parties – to great controversy – in the United Kingdom.
And while the film demonstrates how Shariah law can be used to abuse and repress, McEveety rejected any notion that “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is anti-Muslim.
“Soraya is the perfect Muslim,” McEveety explained. “She loves her god, she obeys her god, she prays to her god, she treats people respectfully, she does all the right things and she’s stoned to death for it. I don’t know what better example of a Muslim there can be, and she’s the title character.”
Furthermore, he said, as producer his job was to maintain creative quality, but the real people behind the movie are the men and women who have lived in Muslim nations and believe “The Stoning of Soraya M.” has an important story to tell.
“I simply empowered the filmmakers,” McEveety told WND, “but if you look at the credits, you’ll see the names are mostly all Persian, most of the actors were people from Iran who have moved here. The rest of the cast and crew – other than a few department heads – are from that part of the world. It’s their movie, it’s their story, and I just facilitated it.
“I don’t see anything anti-Muslim about it,” he continued. “I think there’s an indictment against the political aspects of Iran at the time – and in my opinion now – that take religion and manipulate it for political gain.”
A scene from “The Stoning of Soraya M.”
The film’s climax and most lingering scene is the brutal stoning of Soraya itself, a slow, deliberate and hauntingly cruel set of images that McEveety warned “doesn’t leave” audiences, but lingers in their thoughts and conversations.
A previous McEveety film, “The Passion of the Christ,” portrayed in a similarly graphic nature the crucifixion of Jesus, but, McEveety explained, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” doesn’t try to shock with gruesomeness. In fact, he said, it purposefully holds back from what really happened.
“We’re not as elaborate in the film’s stoning sequence by any stretch – it’s far more severe in the book than we depict,” he said. “The book details pieces of her face being ripped off, stones shearing pieces of flesh. …We didn’t want to go there. We couldn’t; people can only handle so much.”
That doesn’t make the horror of the stoning any less true, however, McEveety explained.
“Having read the script and checked it against the book to make sure the two are closely enough related, we also did all sorts of research to see how accurate is the book,” he said. “We didn’t want to get caught with a project that didn’t depict reality and make accusations about society that are inaccurate.
“And while there’s not much more evidence to be found than is depicted in the book regarding Soraya’s specific story, there are plenty of other incidences in Iran and other countries in the Middle East,” McEveety explained. “We researched, talked to specialists, talked to different human rights groups and concluded that we were perfectly accurate in our depiction in this film.”
The moviemakers’ mission to release the story of Soraya’s stoning was only reinforced when, weeks after the movie’s filming was complete, news broke about Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, a 13-year-old Somalian girl who was sentenced by a Shariah court to be stoned to death as “punishment” for being the victim of a gang rape.
“The village got together and condemned her of being impure, and they dug a hole and buried her up to her chest, just as Soraya is in the film,” McEveety told WND. “This film was already in the can at that time. The description was exactly as ‘Soraya’ depicts it, but we shot the scene before this ever happened. It confirmed that our depiction is accurate. Undeniably.”
McEveety told WND that the film, which placed third at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, will be released in 30 theaters to start, but he expects that number could grow to perhaps 500 theaters at a time. If people call their theaters and ask for it, and if word-of-mouth spreads, he said, it could stay on the silver screen for months, with a different 500 theaters at any given time.
“It’ll be controversial. It’ll have a political impact of some sort,” McEveety told WND. “It’ll have an effect on Iran, because there’s a whole lot of Iranians – and it’s obvious now with the elections – who will defend this film as being accurate.
“On a universal level,” he continued, “I hope it sheds light on victims, making people aware of those who are abused and realize that it happens both in the loud – with others witnessing and participating – and that it happens in the quiet, in the silence of our homes, where we don’t see it all the time, or if we do see it, we ignore it like many of the villagers in the film.
“It’s a movie for victims and it’s a movie for abusers – that’s what excited me about the film,” he said. “Victims really relate to this film, and it holds up a mirror to abusive people: They see themselves in some of the characters in this film, and they do respond, they do react, and for some it is horrifying to look in this looking glass.”
McEveety also gave WND a glimpse into how the film was made, explaining that he had hired the writer and director of “Soraya,” Cyrus Nowrasteh, to do another project, when a writer’s strike in Hollywood stopped the process. Then, at the urging of his partner, McEveety picked up Nowrasteh’s finished script for “The Stoning of Soraya M.”
“It was gripping, every page was a page turner,” McEveety told WND. “I started identifying with many of the characters in the movie: Am I like that? Do I know someone like that? Then, all of a sudden, these characters are stoning this woman to death, and they’re actually doing it, and it’s today, at this time? Absolutely frightening.
“But then,” McEveety said, “its conclusion was redemptive. So if this is true, if this is what really happens in other parts of the world – and our research showed it is – I realized it was also a universal story: I know people, women, who are in bad marriages and that are abused, and I know children who are psychologically abused by their parents, and it just related on all levels to me. ‘Soraya’ just became something I knew I should try to put to screen.”
“The Stoning of Soraya M.” stars actors Mozhan Marno as Soraya, Navid Negahban as her husband, James Caviezel – who portrayed Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ” – as the Iranian journalist and Shohreh Aghdashloo – who played Elizabeth in “The Nativity Story” – as Zahra, the fearless woman who defies the authorities to communicate Soraya’s story to the world.