Sepideh—Reaching for the Stars

Berit Madsen
2013 | 91 min | Denmark, Iran
Director in Attendance

This is a story of longing, dreaming, and ambition against all odds. When teenager Sepideh discovers an unquenchable interest in astronomy, she finds there are more than a few barriers between her lifestyle in the Iranian countryside and her professional aspirations—including an aggressively conservative uncle, marital expectations, and financial struggles. Yet she is able to peek through the clouds of circumstance at the great beyond, finding inspiration in the work of Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian woman in space, and expressing herself in a series of letters to her late hero, Albert Einstein. The action on the ground is interwoven with breathtaking shots of constellations, a reflection of Sepideh’s aspirations.

Presented in partnership with the  7th annual Imagine Science Film Festival

Co-presented by Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the Consulate General of Denmark

Preceded by the Mead Mixer, a daily happy hour in Cafe on One from 6-7:30 pm

Sepideh—Reaching for the Stars plays with the following short films:

Green Matters (Mia Mäkelä, 2011, Sweden, 11 minutes)


Algae is an essential source of oxygen on earth, yet an excess in the Baltic Sea is leading to eutrophication. Artist and filmmaker Mia Mäkelä takes a close look at algae and some potential and practical uses for it.


The Lion's Mouth Opens (Lucy Walker, 2013, US, 14 minutes)

Four apparently upset young adults seated at a table with partly-consumed food and beverage containers in a cramped messy kitchen.

A courageous young woman takes the boldest step imaginable to confront her risk of having inherited the fatal, incurable Huntington's Disease.

The Lion's Mouth Opens has been shortlisted for the 87th Academy Awards®.


Deep Weather (Ursula Biemann, 2013, Switzerland, 9 minutes)


Climate change, exasperated by projects such as the Canadian tar sands, puts the life of large world populations in danger, but some Bangledeshi delta communities are finding ways to fight back. 


Past Forward, My Perspective

"When making the documentary SEPIDEH - reaching for the stars, I highlighted one particular event in Sepideh’s past and gave it a predominance to other events: The death of her father when she was only ten years old and the promise that she made to her father that she would become a big astronomer and one day make it to the sky. As the film unfolds, more and more layers get into play – but still, this one event becomes a main axis. An event of the past having a determinant influence on the future of Sepideh, the protagonist, such as I see it, such as I decide on it in the final editing of the film. Happily, my choice resonated with how Sepideh herself sees her life trajectory, as she told me after seeing the film. But I could have put spotlight on other important aspects of her life as a young women in Iran, shifted focus on what would be foreground and background – giving the past another role in her life. And maybe even Sepideh would tell me, that “yes, this is my life” such as she said to me after watching herself on the big screen. But it would be another story and maybe even Sepideh’s own memory of her past and it’s influence on her coming-of age that the film follows, would chance if the film had “frozen” other elements of her life.

All of this is really basis knowledge and basis headache-inducing decision processes for every documentary filmmaker, especially in the editing process where the most cruel and crucial choices are to me made. But to me, it also hits on a fundamental issue about “past-present”. The past is not just something living its own life and that we can choose between breaking with or carrying into the present. The past is much more organic, it’s what we highlight, shape and choose to remember and give importance. When I was a young student of anthropology, some of the first teachings were about “the making of history” or “the invention of tradition”. Not to be seen as a radical construction-approach, that everything is constructed and nothing has any primordial existence beyond our human invention. It’s a complex process but definitely, there are power issues and construction involved in defining what’s to be remembered as our history or past, for the individual as well as in larger identity processes such as shaping a nation’s national identity. Traditions are not on edge with modernity – most often traditions are made or re-invented as a process of modernity. I think these larger-scale issues are really of the same kind as the small-scale decisions we take in documentary films – like the decision I took in the editing process of SEPIDEH when choosing how to connect Sepideh’s present with her past.

I am asked to reflect on how “the history and traditions of a person (myself), a place, a culture affect them (me) in the present”. To do so, I too need to “edit” my life. What affects and guides me in my present, on a personal level and in my work? Or – as the question goes: “Are traditional ways of life a guide or an obstacle in our modern connected world?” Well, I grew up in the country side in the middle of Denmark and when I was a child, I envied my smart cousins living in Copenhagen, living a much more modern city-life than me. They listened to music on their cassette players that I had never heard of, they wore smart clothes, had smart accents, ate untraditional food. But I also remember how I could spent hours sitting on the floor, studying the many exotic coins that my father had gathered on travels around the world in the 50s - coins from Egypt, Panama, New Zealand etc. and imagine how big and alien the world was. And I remember that in wintertime we often watched my father’s slides from the same travels. Especially one picture made a great impression on me. It was taken on the quay in Liverpool in 1956, where the ship “Tamarora” which my father went with to New Zealand berthed for picking up passengers who had decided to emigrate to the other side of the globe. It’s a photo of a small family - two adults and two small children and two suitcases. There is something strong yet fragile over them, as they stand there next to the big ship with these two tiny pieces of luggage. When I think of the photo today, I wish that I could look into the suitcases and see what they had chosen to take with them from their old life into their new. What material objects they had brought with them, to enable them to think back on what they came from? Maybe they didn’t take anything with them than the desire for a better life, and from now on had to rely on the memory entirely to retain the past. Maybe they would put pride in celebrating all traditions from their country of birth and turn even more British than they were before they left the country. Maybe they would settle next to other immigrants to New Zealand from e.g. the Netherlands and those two families would mutually highlight some unique qualities in each other, which over time would evolve into each family's respective "traditional" way of being.

Perhaps this one picture tells a larger story - or aspects - of human life. We are moving in all ways, physically and mentally, we are trying to create a life that makes sense and we’re probably also stiving for what we believe to be a good life, and we have a “suitcase” in which we choose to put some things - or maybe we have decided to throw out all remedies from the past. But no matter what, we try to understand ourselves in a larger context and create some fix-points that can help us in this process. There is really so much in human life which is thrillingly interesting to study."

- Berit Madsen | Director, Sepideh—Reaching for the Stars