Perseverance is at the heart of Sahar Mosayebi’s moving drama Orca, which is based on the true story of Elham Asghari, the Iranian open-water swimmer who defied the legal and cultural limitations placed on women in Iran by making and breaking world records. In the process, she’s helped bring attention to the challenges faced by Iran’s female athletes, who long for the opportunity to compete in all sports, not just the officially sanctioned ones.
Taraneh Alidoosti stars as Elham, whose story begins here as she’s hospitalized after her husband beats her so severely that she barely survives, then ends up in a coma. She gradually recovers physically, but her heart and mind are deeply wounded, and she tries to drown herself — only to find that the sea wants her to swim, not sink. As an experienced swimming teacher, she’s no stranger to the water, but this deep connection with the ocean feels different. Supported by her father, a former wrestler, Elham aims to set a distance record, only to be shut down by Nazar Abadi (Mahtab Keramati), the severe, inflexible woman in charge of women’s athletics in Iran, who believes it’s impossible for women to swim competitively while maintaining the proper behavior and dress required by Islam.
Elham begs to differ — and proves that she’s able to complete her swims wearing a modified hijab swimsuit — but her early attempts to set a record without official permission lead to more pain and suffering. All attempts to reason with Abadi fail, but eventually Elham finds a coach who’s willing to help her despite the potential repercussions, and she’s ultimately able to pursue her goal of the world record for the longest open-water swim while handcuffed.
The physical binding of Elham’s wrists for her swims is a powerful metaphor for the limitations she feels as a woman athlete in Iran. And it’s not really a spoiler to reveal that her eventual success in spite of those limitations feels like an absolute triumph. Mosayebi and Alidoosti work in harmony to make Elham’s journey visually and emotionally compelling. Physically, too — because especially for those used to Western workout gear, Elham’s commitment to training and competing in full hijab may bring to mind the old saying about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nell Minow: Director Sahar Mosayebi masters the smallest moments and the grandest sweep in the beautifully filmed Orca, based on the true story of endurance swimmer Elham Asghari. We see Elham, played by Taraneh Alidoosti, recovering from a near-fatal beating by her husband, reach her fingers across the tablecloth to touch the water from a toppled tumbler. It is a hint that she will find purpose and healing in the sea. And we see her in the vastness of the space under water, officiants on a boat nearby, reviewing her swim for the Guinness Book of World Records. She struggles to keep going against the voluminous “modesty” garments she is required to wear. What could be more suitable than a record for endurance in a story of an athlete surmounting the authorities that try to erase her achievements?
Loren King It’s a pretty safe bet you’ve never seen an empowering sports movie like Orca. Director Sahar Mosayebi, working from a script by Tala Motazedi that was inspired by true events, follows a triumph over adversity storyline but with a major twist. The obstacles that record-breaking swimmer Elham (the great Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, star of Iran’s Oscar-winning movies A Separation and The Salesman) is up against — domestic violence, discrimination, disenfranchisement— encompass the whole of Iran’s abusive patriarchal culture. Even though she swims in full hijab, Elham is not allowed to compete in Iran, a rule coldly enforced by the female autocrat who heads the sports federation. But there are helpers in Elham’a orbit including her kind, elderly father and Nazar (the excellent Mahtab Keramati), the supportive friend Elham meets at a seaside resort who bestows her with the titular nickname and pushes her to self-discovery. “Orca” mixes universal themes of overcoming obstacles with a unique setting and a culture of oppression. Stay for the credits which feature the real life Elham and a powerful coda that underscores her remarkable accomplishments.
Pam Grady: Just like any typical sports movie, Orca is an uplifting story of an athlete striving for excellence. But there is nothing typical about Elham Asghari’s (Taraneh Alidoosti) journey as an endurance swimmer in Iran that is typical. A domestic abuse survivor, she recovers her sense of self in the water, swimming in strong currents and over long distances. But when she reaches out to Iran’s sports federation for its blessing, the organization denies her. (This is, after all, a government body that won’t allow women to participate in kickboxing or Muay Thai because it might damage their reproductive organs – say what?). Read full review.
Leslie Combemale This is Iranian female filmmaker Sahar Mossayebi’s second outing as director, and she continues to focus on Iranian women defying discrimination and political obstacles in competitive sports. Her first was 2020’s Platform, and with Orca, she continues to push the boundaries of female representation both in front of and behind the camera. One look at the crew credits shows her commitment to raising female below-the-line talents along with her as she becomes more renowned. Orca is, at its core, a feel-good, beating-the-odds kind of bio-pic, which is just the kind of aspirational cinema centering women that is sorely needed in the Middle East.
Jennifer Merin ORCA is an excellent female-directed Iranian film about a female super swimmer who is adored and supported by her community but forbidden to compete by repressive authorities who actually attempt to drown her. She’s beaten by not only the authorities, but her husband as well. The story is gripping, the cinematic elements (including underwater photography) are superb and her refusal to give up is inspiring. No spoilers, but you can’t help become invested in the outcome of the drama — which is based on a true story.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Orca is a testament to the importance of pioneering women in sports, in this case distance swimming in Iran. Director Sahar Moyasebi’s absorbing drama chronicles the true story of Elham Asghari (Tarneh Alidoosti), who overcomes physical abuse and government intimidation to set world records – even as her own country resists acknowledging her accomplishments. After a summer featuring the women’s World Cup and the World Championships in Track and Field, this movie is a painful reminder of how difficult it is for women in some countries to simply compete. A beautifully acted tribute to a woman athlete’s personal endurance.
Nikki Fowler: Sahar Mosayebi’s Orca is a powerful film about self love and the sheer courage and determination of Elham, an Iranian woman who defies the odds to achieve a forbidden practice, competing to break a world swimming record. Faced with near death abuse from her husband, she divorced and finds solace in something the western world takes for granted, the right to swim freely and compete for a title in the vast ocean which exudes power, freedom and strength, everything that her society wants to mute and silence. She finds a path via a sponsor for the Guinness Book of World Records, attempting to break the record for longest to swim while handcuffed — which is poignantly symbolic of the oppressed life she’s lived, initially drowning under violence, religion, politics and patriarchy but then triumphing to beat the odds and the chaotic deck she’s been dealt. Taraneh Alidoosti gives a chilling performance as Elham. Sahar along with cinematographer Rouzbeh Raiga deliver breathtakingly warm visuals with gorgeous underwater scenes and hypnotic sound and music.
Liz Whittemore Director Sahar Mosayebi brings us a story of fierce feminist defiance. Orca tells the tale of a young, newly divorced Iranian woman whose husband beat her to the brink of death. Her only solace is her astounding swimming ability. The ocean is her peace and power. After facing backlash from a patriarchal sporting federation, Elham finds the strength and moral support to fight the system to become the most awarded female swimmer in her country’s history. Based on a true story, writer Tala Motazedi takes us on an emotionally cathartic journey through precarious social climates and a stunning reclamation of power. Rouzbeh Raiga’s breathtaking cinematography, particularly the captivating underwater footage, combined with the numerous decisions to have lead actress Taraneh Alidoosti look directly into the camera, hits you square in the chest. The visual and symbolic power of Elham’s challenge cannot be unseen. Orca celebrates the beautiful bending of rules and the triumphant release of trauma.
Director: Sahar Mosayebi
Release Date: September 1. 2023
Running Time: 107 minutes
Language: Farsi with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Tala Motazedi
Distribution Company: Blue Fox Entertainment
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin