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DENMARK: Interview with Filmmaker, Berit Madsen of SEPIDEH

Photo Credit: Mikkel Völcker

Danish filmmaker Berit Madsen documents a story of a young Iranian girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut in-spite of the hurdles. In Conservative Iran, women are encouraged to prioritize and pursue marriage and family. The film Sepideh- Reaching for The Stars which is Madsen’s first long feature documentary reveals a girl by the name Sepideh, who's a young dreamer and faces some level of ostracization. However, she is fueled by the support of her mother, friends and astronomy club teacher who is depicted throughout the documentary championing her efforts.

Sepideh does the unthinkable. She ventures out late at night to gaze at stars with fellow young astronomy enthusiasts- many of them being male accomplices. These are are not traditional activities for any girl in Iran.  This is what led filmmaker Berit Madsen to explore the controversial activities of the astronomy club.

I heard about that there was this very particular place- we are talking about 800 miles south of Iran, you know its quite far away from big city stuff, where there was astronomy activity, where there was this physic teacher wanting to build an observatory and especially I noticed that rumor that boys and girls would go out at night.  I was like whoaaa. It was one thing when people do in secret but this was publicly known so I just had to go there,” says Berit

Berit wanted to particularly document Sepideh. She was keen on becoming an astronaut, regardless of the obstacles. Sepideh rigorously indulged in astronomy research and anticipated winning a contest to fund her attendance to a university. She was well beyond her years in her studies and insistent on ascertaining her goals. In times of desperation, she sought inspiration by journaling to Albert Einstein. For filmmaker Berit Madsen, the story just seemed intensely ambitious.

...this tiny girl, I was really surprised that she was there and coming on her own. She was working, almost being obsessed being out there at night, watching the stars and moving the telescope. So I came to her family house the next day and I opened the door and saw images of Albert Einstein on the wall, then started to get the first pieces of information that about her life and this crazy dream of becoming an astronaut. And the father had died and the promises she had given to her father to go find life,” adds Berit.

Madsen expresses that this documentary is paramount in introducing other models for girls and women in conservative countries like Iran. It wasn’t another grim story about a woman who was defeated and subdued by her family and culture. Sepideh’s story was a beacon of hope for more girls like her.

Be that as it may, paths like these clearly have a certain level of complications, especially in places that restrict girls and women from having careers and ambitions. The young stargazer’s mother was supportive of Sepideh’s intentions, even though she worried about the consequences of her daughters actions. She was widowed and relied on the aid of extended family. These actions incited disapproval which ultimately toughened the circumstances for the two of them, and intensified the lack of support they were already getting from Sepideh’s uncles.

On one hand she wants her daughter to do what she is doing but on another she is trying to pull her back because she is afraid that there is going to be consequences and if she is going make too much rumors about her. Because in Iran is a country even though it is a -------- state in a way where you have to rely on good will from people and if you lose that and if you misbehave and lose that, life could be difficult for you,” says Berit.

With that being said, Sepideh’s story is no different than any other ambitious young person who may be attempting to overcome some sort of difficult situation.  They are determined to beat the odds and refuse to succumb to some sort of restriction being imposed on them. This story is universal to all young people or anyone that dares to step outside of certain boundaries.

There were many challenges in making the film. Throughout a five year span, Berit Madsen traveled back and forth to Iran over nine times. Each time she was told that it would be the last shoot. But she would later decide that she needed more footage. A co-producer was even arrested for charges unrelated to the film and spent months in jail. There were many restrictions for journalists and filmmakers throughout the country. It was a time that incited a lot of fear because things seemed unstable within the country.

In Iran, we were facing more and more challenges like the media houses were shut down, all the guilds were shut down. It became more and more difficult for everybody in Iran probably because after the green revolution, it sort of became obvious that there was a lot of uncontrollability in media. You can send images to the rest of the world and I think they made a focus on the filmmakers,” notes Berit

The film Sepideh is a victory and a token of things taking shape in Iran. Madsen discusses how this new generation of Iranian women are truly setting the tone for the country and how the recent campaign that started on Facebook, which champions Iranian women that are removing their hijabs is relative to this sort of change.

“It tells a story about the young generation of Iran, you know women of Iran, just wishing to be in control of their own lives. They want to decide their own future. They are full of energy and spirits and pushing borders their way with a wish of being able to live their life which is according to how they’d like to live their life. And I think that kind of movement of young generation, you will find on many levels,” says Berit.

The girl day-dreamer is omnipresent in almost any culture, which is why a filmmaker from Denmark felt that it could inspire women across the globe. Having been seen in more than 20 countries, Berit says that people respond in the same way everywhere. They walk away with tears and triumph.

Madsen finally adds that, “I am sitting here in my own easy society and though we may have our own challenges, I think it’s fantastic when women can cross continents and be inspiration for each other.

The documentary Sepideh continues to be seen around the world and has been featured here in Chicago at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Also it has been selected for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival- World Cinema Documentary Competition. The film’s site can be found at

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Julene Allen