Danish director Berit Madsen didn’t set out to tell a story about feminism in Iran. She just met a pretty amazing 14-year-old girl who wanted to learn about the stars, and hoped to do justice to her story.
“I’d heard about this place which had an astronomy club going on and this teacher who wanted to build an observatory, and that boys and girls would go out alone to watch the stars,” Madsen, director of the Sundance documentary Sepideh, tells EW. “Even knowing Iran it was bizarre to me, because you’re not supposed to expect stuff like that to happen.”
Madsen’s film follows the life of the titular teenager, who grows from a young girl obsessed with Albert Einstein into a woman engaged to be married and heading to university to study astronomy.
Sepideh is screening this week at the Sundance Film Festival, and is also being released exclusively on iTunes in the U.S. and Canada, coinciding with its Sundance premiere.
We talked to Madsen about how she connected with Sepideh and how making this film over the past five years has lead her to work on new projects about the Middle East:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you find Sepideh?
BERIT MADSEN: My husband is from Iran so I’ve been there and been struck by the difference between the images of Iran and being in Iran. But this particular film occurred by coincidence. I’d heard about this place in absolutely the middle of nowhere. It’s more than 600 km south of Tehran. I’d heard about the place, which had an astronomy club and this teacher who wanted to build an observatory. So I did go as fast as I could down there really to find out what on earth was going on. And then one night I was at the physics teacher’s house, the guy who wanted to build the observatory, and there was a little group and among them there was this 14 year old girl with a telescope almost her size and shiny eyes almost burning on the outside of the skin and I think I just fell in love.
I met her family and opened the door to her room and it had all these posters of Albert Einstein looking over with his gray hair going everywhere. You know if you go to a teenager’s room, even if it’s in Iran, you expect a poster of a rock star, stuff like that, so Einstein, it was surprising.
Why do you think Sepideh was obsessed with Einstein?
When I was a teenager I wouldn’t find a soulmate in a dead well known physicist. She had been swapping her math books to get books about Einstein. She was reading a biography about him that said when he was a child people thought he was not really normal and he failed a math class. But he insisted always to go his own way and not care about it and just really go for what he wanted. And it was so clear to me there was an immediate connection [for her] with Einstein. She had read that Einstein played violin so she had actually acquired a violin and wanted to know what kind of feelings he was having.
She seems so serious in the film. But is Sepideh also a normal teenager?
The interesting thing about Sepideh is she’s not a dreamer. If you’re a teenager you can really dream of becoming a rock star or a supermodel or anything. She has her own special story because she lost her father and she made that promise that she would make it big in astronomy and she had the push from her physics teacher so there are some very special things in her particular story.
What does this film say about where Iran is today from a social standpoint?
Besides this love story of just really wanting to be with this girl, I also had a feeling it might give me an entrance to the other side of Iran, the youth of Iran, the open-mindedness where you find wishes for being part of the world, you know, bright people with a lot of positive energy. So I was telling an individual story about her, but also telling a larger story.
You must have freaked out when you heard that Sepideh was getting engaged.
When I first heard about it, I didn’t even see it coming. I thought she wouldn’t pay attention to guys. Of course I saw them flirting. When they are out there they are there to study the sky, but it’s also a space for freedom, so of course you see the flirting. But I never thought [it was] anything serious. In the beginning I was like ‘oh no, is that going to be the turning point? Are you going to give up?’ Also because when you’re married in Iran you have a lot of obligations. Suddenly you know that you have to take care of the family, cook food. She fell in love. She really, really fell in love and you can’t blame anybody for doing that. And he’s really supportive. I think he got scared because I was like ‘stay away from Sepideh!’ but that was only for 10 minutes and then I started getting to know him and he’s really a great guy.
What did Sepideh think of the film?
Sepideh saw the film and she liked it very much. She cried when she saw it, seeing these scenes taking place because suddenly that was a 20 year old girl seeing what happened when she was 15. It’s also been accepted at a film festival in Tehran.
Is this story representative of Iran today?
I think it’s representative in terms of what kind of youth we’re dealing with in Iran. Sepideh looks like an ordinary girl from the countryside but in her mind and in her will she can determine and decide her own future. And this is what you find among people in Iran, they are wanting to be part of the world and not wanting this separation in a way. It’s not a Sunday stroll in the forest to be a young person in Iran. I think we tend to hear a lot about women in the Middle East—about oppression, about victimization, but I think it’s really important we need to know the other story too. Otherwise we just think ‘oh these are horrible places.’ If we approach each other on a political level it might be quite nice to get to know each other on a human level. And in that way I can hope that aside from telling this story about this extraordinary girl it can also give us some insight into what kind of future we are making.
What’s been the best part of Sundance for you?
It’s been great. I couldn’t wish for more. People laugh and they cry. There’s an emotional reaction to the film. If you can touch people that’s the best . At the high school screening they had nice questions, and they decided to ask me to take something for Sepideh.