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FIRE DANCER(director/writer: Jawed Wassel; cinematographer: Bud Gardner; editor: Bill Gertenmeier/Lizzie Donahue/Jeff Marcello; music: Wayne Sharpe; cast: Baktash Zaher (Haris), Mariam Weiss (Laila), Samira Cameron (Zohra), Yunis Azizi (Rustum), David Azizi (Sunny), Omar Arzo (Farhad), Naqi Sani (Zari), Abdullah Jewayni (Laila’s Suitor), Ali Popal (Little Haris), Atia Jewayni (Laila’s Mother), Omed (Sunny Jr.), Freshta Sadeed (Sunny’s daughter), Naghi Mohammad Sanie (Haris’s Father), Hafiza Khadeem (Fortune Teller), Fahima Nasseri (Haris’s Mother); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producers Khaled Wassel/John G. Roche/Kate Wood; Silk Road Pictures; 2002-Afghanistan/USA-in English and Farsi, with English subtitles when appropriate )
“Similar to many immigrant pictures that tell of their universal struggle.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jawed Wassel’s urban immigrant drama Fire Dancer was Afghanistan’s first film submitted for Academy Awards consideration. The film was shot mainly in New York by mostly Afghans. It chronicles the story of Haris (Baktash Zaher), whose parents sent him to America in 1979 away from his small Afghan village when the Russians invaded, as they sacrificed their lives to save their only son. After the opening shots in Haris’s native Afghanistan village, the film jumps to 2000 and New York City. Haris is a westernized twentysomething struggling painter/sculptor showing his work, “Hanging Ropes,” at a downtown Manhattan art gallery. The handsome bachelor suffers from recurring nightmares from his childhood days in his homeland. He feels unsettled because he lost track of his roots, which he seeks to rediscover.

Without family and Afghan friends Haris introduces himself to Sunny, an immigrant Afghan hot dog vendor in his neighborhood. Sunny invites him to his home for a traditional home cooked meal where Haris meets his traditional daughter and westernized son, an aspiring rapper. Sunny also gives him the number of a fortune teller, who humorously predicts his future while filling him in on Afghan customs.

The attractive westernized Laila (Yasmine Weiss) also lives in New York and comes from a conservative Afghanistan family, who practice the patriarchal traditions of their homeland. Her taxi driver father tries to arrange her marriage to a local Afghan man (Abdullah Jewayni), a distant cousin, who happens to be a brute and a thug. Laila rejects him, though he doesn’t take no for an answer and has his cronies follow her. She works in Manhattan as an aspiring fashion designer and is determined to be independent. When Haris meets her in the neighborhood and shows an interest, she at first turns him down telling him she doesn’t date Afghan men. But her heart softens when her old man shocks the family by bringing home his Hispanic mistress and her stable family life begins to disintegrate. She soon finds that she has much in common with Haris and accepts his advances, at last finding someone she loves when she had all but given up hope.

Fire Dancer is similar to many immigrant pictures that tell of their universal struggle and their trials and tribulations in trying to fit into the new-world culture. It’s a less obnoxious and a more sincere version of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” It accurately reflects the Afghans’ old country customs of arranged marriages and the gossipy nature of the immigrant community.

The feature debut of the 41-year-old writer/director Jawed Wassel has some bad karma to deal with. On October 3, 2001, the night after the screening of Fire Dancer, police found Wassel’s body parts in two boxes in Nathan Powell’s van–one of the film’s producers. His head was found in the refrigerator of Powell’s apartment. Powell was an old college acquaintance who had become involved with the film’s production. The star of the film, Baktash Zaher, said the two men had not been getting along. He said Powell wasn’t spending much time on the film and that Wassel told him he didn’t want to work with the producer any more. Wassel’s creative team (Vida and Baktash Zaher-Khadem, Khaled Wassel, and John G. Roche) completed the film and brought it to Kabul, where it was the first film screened publicly after the Taliban regime was toppled. It was shown in the same stadium where the Taliban had executed its enemies. The filmmakers told of the strange battleground scene between fundamentalists who were protesting women in modern western dresses and moderates who cheered the same western clothing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”