Stargazer: Berit Madsen On Meeting The Inspiration Behind ‘Sepideh’

Leading up to the world premiere of her film Sepideh: Reaching For The Stars (the 2012 Spotlighting Women Documentary Award winner through the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund) at IDFA tomorrow, director Berit Madsen looks back on her first meeting with Sepideh, the young Iranian woman who is the subject of her film. Madsen follows Sepideh in her everyday life—an inspiring subject who is obsessively fascinated by the stars and hopes to one day become an astronaut—but the film is also a story about an Iran we’ve never seen, a place where young people are able to determine their own destiny.

The very first moment that I saw Sepideh, I knew that I wanted to make a film about her. She had arrived in the middle of the night at the house of Mr. Kabiri, the local physics teacher in the South Iranian town I was visiting. She was carrying an enormous telescope in her arms, and all set up to go to the hills to look at the stars. At first glance she looked like any other girl from this conservative area of Iran, as she was sitting there on the floor of Mr. Kabiri’s living room properly dressed in black chador. But it only took a second to realize that she might not be just any girl. Her heavy military style boots, the extreme determination in her eyes, the mere fact that she had come alone in these late hours to meet a group of boys, with no adult—it didn’t really make sense. I was puzzled enough to realize that I absolutely needed to find out who this young woman was and what she was up to.

I took off with Sepideh and her friends to the hills; all six of us squeezed together in an old rusty car, with Sepideh’s telescope sticking out of the trunk. It was in the middle of winter and freezing cold but that night I got the first sense of why these dark Iranian nights were so appealing to Sepideh and her friends. Out there in the deserted hills it was as if I myself finally could breath freely—as if I had come to another world, separate from the rest of Iran. It was a small space of liberty, of being able to relax and not having to care about proper appearance and self-control. This small world out there in the darkness, only illuminated by a bonfire and the starry sky, was simply magic.

I hadn’t come to this South Iranian town by pure coincidence. I was in Iran with my daughter and husband to pay a visit to his family, and had come across a story about an astronomy festival 400 miles south of Tehran, initiated by a local teacher who was trying to raise money to build an observatory and to engage the youth of the town in learning about the universe and the grandness of human existence. So even before meeting Sepideh I was quite curious to see what was going on in the town of Saadat Shahr – a place that no one I talked to in Iran seemed to know about, but which to me appeared quite unusual.

During my first night of stargazing, I didn’t get to talk much with Sepideh, as she was overtly obsessed with watching the stars and constantly moving around her telescope to find the best spot for observing. But the following day I visited her home and began to learn what was behind this ambitious and almost reckless attitude I had observed the night before.

Her father had passed away four years previously, leaving behind nothing but a small inheritance which Sepideh had spent on a telescope, making a promise that she would do anything to become a big astronomer and one day make it to space to make her father proud of her. While Sepideh was telling me this, I noticed the worried look in her mother’s face. The mother was keen to assure me that she had tried her best to stop Sepideh’s trips at night. The neighbors were gossiping and Sepideh’s uncles definitely didn’t fancy the behavior of their niece.

As I walked into her room I was met by the eyes of Albert Einstein, looking down at me from posters on the walls and behind closed doors. Sepideh told me that she had started talking to Einstein through her diary because she felt that he was the only person who might understand her; Einstein, who himself had been a weird kid that nobody really understood, had also insisted on going his own way.

Besides my increasing fascination of her, I had a strong feeling that I had just witnessed the first stepping-stone of a story that might unfold in unexpected directions, but which was fuelled with drama. A girl with a promise and a dream that seemed almost impossible to fulfill, who nevertheless was fully prepared to fight to determine her own life. During the next four years Sepideh invited me into an unknown Iran—an Iran of hope, of starry skies and of human creativity that cannot be controlled.

Dreams can come true and by taking destiny into your own hands we may reach the unreachable.

[Photos: Sepideh (top) by Paul Wilson; director Berit Madsen]