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Iran Through The Eyes Of A Teenage Amateur Astronomer

Paul Wilson/Radiator Film
Sepideh is an Iranian teenage girl who is in love with astronomy and wants to be an astronaut.
Paul Wilson/Radiator Film

"Every day, every night, I dream of floating in space." These are the words of Sepideh, an Iranian teenage girl who is in love with astronomy and wants to be an astronaut.

Sepideh lives in a small town in the southwestern Iranian province of Fars. A physics teacher leads the local astronomy club, and girls and boys take out telescopes at night to watch the sky. The sighting of a bright shooting star leads to screams of joy and laughter amongst the teenagers.

These are not the Iranian images we usually see in the media. But these are presented in a beautiful documentary, Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars, released abroad in 2013 and available on iTunes in the U.S. Directed by Danish filmmaker, Berit Madsen, the film documents three years in the life of an Iranian teenager named Sepideh Hooshyar. It is through her eyes that we get a glimpse of Iran that we rarely see.

We first meet Sepideh when she is 16 years old. A few years previous to this, her father had died, suddenly. As an outlet to deal with this tragic loss, she buys a telescope and becomes enamored with astronomy. Instead of posters of teenage pop stars, Albert Einstein's image looms large in her bedroom. In fact, she is in a constant conversation with Einstein in the form of letters that she writes to him in Farsi. She has read his biography and connects both with his solitude and his fierce determination. In some ways, Einstein becomes, for her, a father figure. She recites some of her letters in the film, a device that allows the audience an intimate look into her innermost thoughts.

These reflections on loss and the meaning of life make sense when juxtaposed with striking images of her carrying a telescope almost as big as herself in the desolate hills of her hometown. Her telescope, after all, would have been able to detect galaxies like our own in the night sky, and she would have known that the photons from these galaxies hitting the retina of her eyes started their journeys long before the existence of humans on our planet. But Sepideh's desire to be an astronaut draws from the first Iranian in space, tech entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari. Like most Iranians, Sepideh closely followed Ansari's trip to the International Space Station in 2006, and now she repeatedly watches the footage of Ansari floating in space. This is what she wants to do one day!

We also meet Sepideh's mother in the film. She is caring but also has other concerns. A drought in the region has caused economic hardship on the family. She is unsure if she can support Sepideh's university education, let alone the study of astronomy. Her maternal uncle is also concerned about the in-town gossip about her leaving the house at night to see the stars. However, amongst all this, she has the support of a local physics teacher. He has been promoting astronomy in the area for decades and wants to finish an observatory that can house a telescope.

I do not want to give away the twists and turns in the story, as there are plenty (though, rest assured, no scenes were recreated in the film). But I should mention that more than any well-meaning political film, this documentary allows us to see the human side of Iran. We get a glimpse of life inside Iranian homes, mannerisms of family interactions, we see kids learning English in classrooms, Friday prayer at a mosque, the tomb of Cyrus, and the bureaucracy of a small town.

It would be too easy to say that there are no differences between Iran and the U.S. Of course, there are cultural differences. But these differences enliven and enrich the understanding of our world. A monoculture planet would be a boring place. Underneath the differences, however, we can also see a common humanity and we can recognize familiar fears, desires and hopes in this faraway place.

The love of the night sky is also universal. Sepideh finds solace in thinking about the vastness of space. Shot by award-winning astrophotographer Babak Tafreshi, the movie has beautiful time-lapse photography of the night sky, including the passing of the Milky Way over the Fars province of Iran. Indeed, our knowledge of the scale of the universe gives us an appropriate lesson in humility, and makes a mockery of our political rivalries on this rocky planet located 30,000 light years from the center of our own galaxy.

On the ground, challenges for Sepideh are real. She is trying to defy gender stereotypes and career expectations. A choice of a career in astronomy can be tough anywhere. I did not have to face the same barriers as Sepideh. And yet, when I decided to pursue astronomy for my own undergraduate studies (and again with graduate studies), I was met with resistance from my family in Pakistan with the refrain: "How are you going to feed your family in the future"?

Sepideh's determination to pursue her dreams is inspirational and transcends cultural boundaries. Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars is not only a hopeful film, but it is also a telescope that provides us with a view of a culture halfway across the globe from us.

Salman Hameed is Charles Taylor Chair and Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College. He is also the director of Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS). He runs "Irtiqa", a blog about scientific debates in the Muslim world and hosts "Science ka Adda," an astronomy web series in Urdu.