"Desert Dancer," a film coproduced by a Kings Point venture capitalist about underground dancing in Iran, has screened at Lincoln Center, the Chinese theater in Hollywood, and at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
But it's showing in a small theater in Great Neck, home to thousands of Iranian refugees who fled Iran after the 1979 Revolution, and has drawn full-house crowds. Its theme of rebellion elicits knowing nods, smiles and tears.
The independent film coproduced by Daniel Roubeni, 46, is based on the story of Afshin Ghaffarian, a college student in Tehran who started a secret dancing club in 2009. That year, a tumultuous presidential election caused riots as the oppositional Green Movement challenged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who went on to win a second term.
In the film, Ghaffarian and his peers meet and dance in hidden locations but hope to hold a concert in public. Armed guards pressure them to stop.
For Dr. Farshad Shafizadeh, who lives in Manhattan, seeing the film at Bowtie Squire Cinemas on Middle Neck Road brought memories of his own rebellious act 30 years earlier: listening to smuggled cassettes of American pop artists Madonna and Michael Jackson, as well as Britain's Duran Duran.
"It was moving for me, to bring some past reality that a lot of us who fled from the country don't want to really go back to," said Shafizadeh, who as a teenager stayed in Iran until 1985. Like the characters in the film, he enjoyed art and popular culture out of the public eye. A poster of Olivia Newton-John hung over his bed, Shafizadeh said.
"Desert Dancer" was released on DVD, on demand, and digitally last week after screenings in cities across the country, including San Antonio and Salt Lake City. Roubeni said producers are negotiating for it to play in India and the United Kingdom. It is to be available on Netflix in the fall.
Roubeni, making his debut as a producer, said backing the film with a $4 million budget was a "risky, early stage venture."
The film grew out of an eight-hour taped conversation with Ghaffarian, the screenwriter Jon Croker and director Richard Raymond.
Roubeni said he was inspired to produce the film because his son, 10, aspires to be a performer. "If he was born in Iran, this would be a whole different story."
For many Iranian refugees who settled in Great Neck after the 1979 Revolution that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and led thousands of his supporters to flee, the film has evoked memories painful and positive.
"They came to see this as a lot of nostalgia," Roubeni said. "They hadn't been back in Iran since 1979, and this brings them back to those days."
Some said they want to visit Iran with their children who were born in the United States. But many said they worry about political retribution.
"It's a little sad for us," said Anna Kaplan, a North Hempstead councilwoman who emigrated from Tehran when she was a teenager in 1980. "I'd love to show our kids the country I knew, but obviously it's very different than it is right now."
Kaplan said she was pained to watch a scene at the end of the film in which Ghaffarian, performing onstage in Paris, broke character to admit to the audience he was a political refugee.
"That did bring back a lot of emotions," Kaplan said of the fear of being exposed. She left Iran on a student visa and was later joined in the United States by her family, which applied for political asylum.
Yasman Shafizadeh, Farshad Shafizadeh's wife, was 9 when her family arranged flights out of Iran in 1979 on the same January day the Shah left. She said she hopes the film changes the perception of Iranians as strict social conservatives.
"Iranian people are a lot different than the government of Iran," Dr. Shafizadeh said. His wife added, "They're fun-loving people; at their homes they dance, and they're into Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson."
Iran bans many forms of dancing in public. Six young men and women were arrested last year after producing a video of themselves dancing on a roof to "Happy," the pop song by Pharrell Williams that inspired thousands of imitators. Each of the six received suspended sentences of up to 6 months in jail and 91 lashes, but those punishments are to be carried out only if they reoffend.
"There's a part of me that wants to know more about my country," said Roubeni, who was born in Iran in 1968 but grew up largely in Hamburg, Germany. "The film was a discovery for me as well."