Berit Madsen's Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars is about the hopes and ambitions of a teenage girl. Despite social and political constraints, Sepideh, the film's 14-year-old subject, serves as a hint for change within the nation of Iran. Prior to the film's screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 21, Madsen took a moment to talk about her initial interest in Sepideh, to her hopes for what the girl may represent in the future.

FilmLinc asked the directors included in the upcoming Human Rights Watch Film Festival to give some insight on filmmaking and tackling issue-oriented work prior to the launch of the series on June 13.

Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars
Berit Madsen, Denmark/Iran/Germany/Norway/Sweden, 2013, 88m

Description: Sepideh is a young Iranian woman who dares to dream—of a future as an astronaut. At night, she stares up at the universe. At home, full of hope and longing, she watches recordings of the first female Iranian in space, Anousheh Ansari. When her father died suddenly six years earlier, Sepideh discovered that she could feel closer to him by watching the stars. And so her dream was born. But not everyone appreciates her boundless ambition. After all, becoming an astronaut is not exactly a normal goal for a girl in Iran. Her mother and uncle are worried about the emancipated young woman. She doesn’t want to learn to cook, hardly ever visits her family, and doesn’t seem to be thinking about marriage at all. As we follow Sepideh, it becomes clear just how at odds her dreams are with her current reality and the expectations of those around her.

Responses from Madsen:

On her introduction to the subject:
I heard about an astronomy festival in a small conservative town in Iran, far from Tehran. A physics teacher had been struggling for 20 years to build an observatory on the mountains behind town, and girls and boys were going out alone at  night to gaze at the sky. It really piqued my curiosity and I knew that I had to go find out why the young people were choosing to look at stars. How was that even possible? I immediately had a hunch that there was a story of a new generation in a state of transition, and an opportunity to peek behind the façade, past the system and the prejudice.

One dark night I met Sepideh, who was on her way stargazing, carrying a huge telescope in her arms. I detected a dedication and clarity of mind in her and knew that I had to make a film about her—a film about her vigorous dreams of becoming an astronomer and one day making it to space, a film about her insistence on defining her own life as a young woman in Iran.

On portraying a story of humanity:

Documentary films have the ability to bring people closer together. Once we get rolled up the more human aspects of the life we describe, the identification is very close. For me, the human story is very crucial and enriching when we want to broaden our knowledge of the world, and when we want to engage our audience beyond just watching a film. It’s in the human stories we find struggles, hopes, despair, and new ways of dealing with society, whether it's oppressive or posing other challenges to the individual life. Activism depends on engagement and I think there is no better way to engage people than when they watch a film that speaks to the heart, from human to human.

On her teenage subject:

Sepideh was only 14 years old when I first met her and it was clear to me that if the film really would have weight, I'd need to follow her life over a longer period of time, as she grew up from a teenager with wild dreams to a young woman who stood face to face with life's choices. At each recording I was told that this was probably the last time I could shoot. So there was a basic stress factor, if I could come back and be present whenever the story took a new turn. For four years, I woke up every morning thinking of Sepideh and how I would manage to take the film to the end.

It’s a big responsibility to make a film about a young girl in Iran who dares to challenges the restrictions and norms of society. It was a balance all along the way to keep an keen eye on all the challenges she was facing and follow it in the film, while at the same time making sure that the film never would bring Sepideh any harm.

On upcoming change:

In the west we have a tradition of making films about victims—and we need those too—but most of all, I wanted to tell the story of a headstrong girl, who is in the fast lane. This is a story you haven’t heard, the story of how change is coming. “There will be more after me,” Sepideh insists in the film. For me, Sepideh is a film about hope. I hope the audiences will be inspired by it.