Sepideh, Reaching for the Stars (2013)

A Danish feature documentary following during four years an Iranian girl who is eager to determine her own life and live according to her own ideas, and who has also the perseverance to continue her efforts to realise her goal against all odds.

The camera is everywhere we want it to be in this magical documentary—charting the strained, yet devoted, relationship between daughter and mother and capturing unexpected moments that will change Sepideh’s life forever. Shots of breathtaking constellations are windows into Sepideh’s interior world and the vast universe that enthralls her.”
Source: Sundance Film Festival 2014, URL:
Sepideh is a young Iranian woman who dares to dream - of a future as an astronaut. At night, she stares up at the universe, and she is taking lessons from a space fanatic who teaches schoolchildren about astronomy. At home, full of hope and longing, she watches recordings of the world's first female astronaut, Anousheh Ansari. So it is possible! When her father died suddenly six years ago, Sepideh discovered that she could feel closer to him by watching the stars. And so her dream was born, but not everyone appreciates her boundless ambition. After all, becoming an astronaut is not exactly a normal goal for a girl in Iran, particularly because there's no money to pay for university and beyond. Her mother and uncle are worried about the emancipated young woman. She doesn't want to learn to cook, hardly ever visits her family and doesn't seem to be thinking about marriage at all. We follow this brave young Iranian woman as she watches the stars, as well as at school, in the mosque and at home, where tensions steadily rise. As we follow Sepideh, it becomes clear just how at odds her dreams are with her current reality and the expectations of those around her.”
Source: IDFA 2013, URL:
The struggle to determine your own life
The film offers a personal story with an universal appeal. Sepideh is a smart teenage girl, confronted by a lot of constraints. She lives in a conservative farming community, far away from the cosmopolitan society. Her father died when she was twelve years old, leaving her mother with little income because their land is barren and the family is apparently not willing to help. She still wants to study astrology at the university. Her idealistic astronomy teacher is her source of inspiration, but he is also an example of the limitations of living in a rural village. He is campaigning for more than twenty years in order to get his observatory financed, besides this he is obliged to take care of his old mother permanently. This lady does not want to be left alone for any minute and she makes this clear in a stunning way.
The young members of the astronomy club gather at night to gaze at the stars, bur also to look at each other. This is totally understandable, because in Iran it is rare that girls and boys have the possibility to have a good time being together, in this case making fires and passing the time chatting and roasting potatoes. Sepideh participates, but she is the only one who is truly ambitious. Sepideh is an outsider in her family and among her peers. The mother of Sepideh tolerates the deviant behaviour and headstrong decisions of her daughter, but she is very worried about their future. Her uncle expresses his feeling of responsibility and care for his niece wellbeing in a rather harsh and clumsy way. Perhaps he feels he has to do this in order to protect her. Sepideh wants to be independent and applies for an university scholarship, handing in an original astrological research about Pasargard, the famous tomb of Cyrrus the Great. However, her application is flatly declined.
The people around Sepideh are not helpful, either by force majeure or by their own choice. As an escape, she writes imaginary letters to Albert Einstein, and she watches again and again the documentary Space Tourists (Christian Frei, 2009), featuring in one of its three intercut narratives the paid spaceflight participation of the American-Iranian Anousheh Ansari. She was the first Iranian woman in space and therefore a role model to Sepideh. She writes a letter to her idol, never expecting an answer. Neither do we, as spectators of the film. It is therefore a big emotional surprise when Mrs. Ansari is suddenly on the telephone, talking friendly to her young admirer so far away. In the end, she offers Sepideh financial support. Another part of a happy ending to this story is the decision of Sepideh to accept the marriage proposal of a man who has a stable job and is several years older. He acts nice enough, stating that he will encourage her to develop herself and to choose her career as she wishes. 
So, it is time to say goodbye to her old life. When she visits her astrology teacher he warns her not to temper her ambitions. He expresses this encouragement as a complaint that he is very disappointed in her decision. This indicates that also in better circumstances, there are still a lot of constraints left for her.
Sepideh, reaching for the stars
Denmark, 2013, 88 minutes.
Written and directed by Berit Madsen. The film premiered in-competition at the 2013 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2013.
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