Berit Madsen's IDFA documentary Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars.

Life in Iran is treated with a softer touch in a new documentary that had its International Premiere here at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Director Berit Madsen's Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars is a touching and unlikely story of a young Iranian woman who dreams of being an astronaut. She lives with her mother in a small town far from the bustle of the country's capital Tehran, and at night carries a heavy telescope atop a hill with friends to stare up at the universe.

The story of Sepideh comes just as an historic agreement between Iran and the West over its nuclear ambitions made headlines this past week. The movie is at once a personal story of a young person's dreams, but it also gives a glimpse at change — even if it's uneasy — in the Islamic Republic which has been at odds with the West and especially the U.S. since its 1979 revolution.

“I became aware of Sepideh by coincidence. She lives in a town about 600 kilometers south of Tehran,” said Madsen in Amsterdam following a screening of her doc. “Boys and girls go out at night together to look at the stars. It just sounded so bizarre to me that this could happen. So I went there and saw this group of people at [their teacher's house] and just sitting there with her military boots on was this quiet girl and it was love at first sight.”

At home, Sepideh watches recordings of the world's first female astronaut, Anousheh Ansari and at school takes lessons on astronomy along with fellow students from a fellow space fanatic. Her fascination began after the sudden death of her father six years ago. She believed she could feel closer to her father by watching the stars. But becoming an astronaut is not a normal goal for a girl in Iran. Despite lack of money and the concern of her more traditional mother and uncle, she's determined. But the roadblocks do appear even as the cameras are rolling. Her mother wants her to learn to cook and her lack of interest in marriage is also a concern.

Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars director Berit Madsen at IDFA following the screening of her film. 

Sepideh shares her dreams and cares in letters she addresses to another hero, Albert Einstein. Shared in the film, the letters reveal an emancipated woman whose ambitions are at odds with reality and societal expectations. She tells her weary yet nevertheless supportive mother that she can't understand “fish living in a gated pond who don't at least dream of the open sea.”

Documentary purists may take some exception to the close relationship between filmmaker and subject. Madsen has affection for Sepideh and admitted that one member of her team helped her get in contact with Ansari — one of her heroes — who ends up playing a pivotal moment in the film.

“This took close to five years to make this film and we developed a close relationship with everyone by spending a lot of time with them, which allowed natural conversations to happen freely,” said Madsen. “[Sepideh and her mother] argue all the time and it might happen that we threw some snowballs. There's a symbiosis happening… It's inherent in spending time together.”