Travel has always been a huge part of my life. It is something that my family always valued and encouraged. Growing up, I was lucky enough to explore places with them ranging from the Galapagos Islands to Israel; however, there has never been a trip that impacted my life more than the month I spent in Morocco a year and a half ago. Let me back up: in 2012 I was living in NYC and working eight hours a day (ok, often 12 to 14 hours a day) at a lovely, steady desk job. Life was good- stable and predictable- and I thought at 27 years old I had it all figured it out. Then one night at a movie premiere, I overheard my friend speaking to a young, engaging Brit about his time in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, and everything changed.
I interrupted, introduced myself, and asked him what he was doing there- as I had just spent a few days there. He responded that he was shooting a sizzle reel for a film he was trying to get off the ground about Afshin Ghaffarian- a young man who had a lifelong dream of becoming a dancer. However, in his country, Iran, dance is illegal and punishable by long prison sentences and sometimes much worse. Afshin started a dance company in a basement at university with his friends and they practiced in secret, finally putting on a performance in the only place they could- the desert.
I was very moved by this story as it connected to my work supporting aspiring artists with the National YoungArts Foundation and to my Israeli background , and the fact that half of my family lives in the Middle East. I felt it was imperative that this film was made and seen by people across the globe so that it could open their eyes to the reality of this extreme oppression against the most basic of human rights: freedom of expression. The director of the film, Richard Raymond, and I spoke for the next six hours, and I offered to help with the film in any way I could, thinking it would be a small side project for me… I was wrong.
We started gaining momentum, press and a lead actress in the wonderful Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire— which all led to the film finally being financed. At that point, I realized I couldn’t miss out on a single moment of the journey that was about to unfold. I wanted to be there for the whole shoot, for the editing, for the post-production, for the selling and for the promotion. So, I walked into my boss’ office one day in May and gave my notice— I was quitting to become a movie producer… a decision that could’ve been the most insane of my life but instead turned out to be the best thing I ever did.
We were shooting in November in Morocco— a month in Casablanca, using it as a stand-in for Tehran, and a week in the Moroccan Sahara, about 400 miles from any remote form of civilization, using it as a stand-in for the Iranian desert. Although Casablanca was dirty and rainy and the English of the crew and extras was less than stellar, the desert was visually the most spectacular place I have ever been- but certainly not the easiest place to shoot, with 99% of the cast and crew succumbing to food poisoning and/or heatstroke. (Richard was the only one never to succumb.) It became our normal practice to do a take, run behind a dune, throw up, come back to set and do the next take, but everyone was so passionate about this project there were no complaints.
We all became family, joined by our drive to tell Afshin’s powerful story. I remember coming back from a shoot in the desert one day- exhausted, sick, hot and dirty- so ready for a shower and to fall into bed for a few hours before our 4 a.m. wake up call. I walk into my room and come face-to-face with the largest, most aggressive cockroach I have ever encountered in my life. I could do nothing but laugh as I had an epic battle with this prehistoric beast using a flip-flop as my weapon, thinking about how far I had come from my desk job, and how much happier I was.
Flash forward to early in 2014 and we screened the film in private to Tucker Tooley and Relativity Media who shared in our belief that Desert Dancer was an important story that needed to be told. Relativity acquired the film for US theatrical release in early 2015. I have never been more proud of anything, and the director Richard and I are already at work on our next project—one that will bring us to new and exciting places halfway around the world and will no doubt be just as much of an adventure. Stay tuned.