PARK CITY, Utah – Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars is an earnest and inspiring documentary about a teenage Iranian girl who dreams of being an astronomer. It’s been getting a lot of attention since its recent debut at the ongoing Sundance Film Festival, but for anyone not fortunate enough – or cold-resilient enough – to be in Park City, there’s a speedy alternative: iTunes.
It’s the first time Apple has ever distributed a new film at Sundance to its millions of users in the U.S. and Canada while the movie was still playing at the festival. It’s unknown how long iTunes, which also offered some films during last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, will offer the doc, but it’s currently $7.99 to own and $4.99 to rent.
Is it worth the money? In short, yes. Sepideh Hooshyar was only 14 years old when director Berit Madsen found her at an astronomy festival in Iran, and subsequently documented the girl — and her quest to become an astronomer despite the opposition of her family — for nearly five years. Initially inspired by Iranian-American space tourist Anousheh Ansari, Hooshyar continually finds new ways to pursue astronomy studies even when her uncle berates her for her aspirations and her mother says their family can’t afford to send her to college.
“Very early on I got a clue that she was struggling for something and that there was definitely a long way ahead of her,” Madsen said. “And I [knew] I would really love to take a part of that.”
Madsen also wanted to tell an uplifting story. There are many documentaries that deal with the difficult issues women often face in the Middle East, she noted, but those aren’t the only stories. Through Hooshyar and Iran, where growing pockets of the country’s huge youth population want to step outside the country’s norms, the director saw an opportunity to document a different kind of struggle.
When she began filming, however, Madsen didn’t know whether or not the story would end up being uplifting or become yet another reflection of the limitations experienced by girls like Hooshyar. In addition to the lack of support from her family, young women are discouraged from going out at night in Iran — even if they just want to look at the stars. There was always a chance that Hooshyar would give up, or simply not get the opportunities she needed despite her efforts.
Today, Madsen says the strong-willed young woman she met six years ago is still as determined ever, and is currently studying physics at a small university. “I had no idea how Sepideh’s life would develop, but I had a hunch that … wouldn’t be the story about suppression and victims,” she said. “I think it’s also very interesting to hear about meeting young people who dare to dream – those stories exist too.”