Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Every choice is the wrong choice

IRAN / Exposing the silenced voices of women in Iran.

Under trial for stabbing to death the man she was assaulted by in Tehran, she says it’s been self-defense, «What else could I do?» she says to the judge, and she is replied: «You should let him rape you. And then sue him».

She will be executed.

Perhaps you remember Reyhaneh Jabbari. In 2007 she is 19 and an Architecture student when Morteza Sarbandi, pretending to be a plastic surgeon, approaches her in a café with the excuse of the refurbishment of his private clinic, which turns out to be just a flat. He quickly locks the door. He starts fondling her. He squeezes her against a wall. She wriggles away. She seizes the first object she chances upon. And she strikes. She will be arrested in the night, and during 58 days without a lawyer, under torture, she will confess all, all that her warders want her to confess. From a clandestine affair to a political murder. Because Morteza Sarbandi was actually an Intelligence officer with powerful friends. And the international campaign for her liberation does not smooth things over. At all. It further hardens the government. Stressing it out. It is the heat of the nuclear talks with the United States: and instead, now all foreign reporters ask of Rayhaneh Jabbari. «You resist, and you are guilty. You fights back, and you are guilty. You obey, you comply, and you are guilty,» she says. In Tehran and any other Tehran of the world, you are wrong anyway.

You try all you can: and all gets even harder.

Seven Winters in Tehran Steffi Niederzoll
Seven Winters in Tehran , a film by Steffi Niederzoll

Perhaps you remember her story. Or perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you mistake Reyhaneh Jabbari with another appeal from Amnesty International. That’s why Seven Winters in Tehran, largely made of original audio and video, grainy recordings smuggled out of prisons, a Biografilm, according to the definition of Steffi Niederzoll, its director, stays with you for a long: it is a story absolutely out of the ordinary, and yet, told as if it were in the average. And because somehow, it really is. How many in the world, right now, are being told: «No one is here. No one can hear you» how many answer: «I’m fine. I’m breathing» – because that’s what their life has been reduced to?

And it is a domino effect. Because violence sparks violence. Endlessly. Not only the attempted rape sparks a murder, but the murder sparks another murder because Reyhaneh Jabbari is convicted, at last, and convicted under Sharia law, that is, the family of Morteza Sarbandi is entitled to blood revenge, eye for eye: and her hanging will be carried out by Jalal Sarbandi. The son of the victim. Who asks Reyhaneh Jabbari to withdraw all charges. To acknowledge the misunderstanding. To acknowledge that no aggression occurred. He asks her to restore his father’s honour, the honour of a Muslim man, of a believer, but Reyhaneh Jabbari is resolute, «And so,» she says, «if he really was so upright, why was he alone with a girl?», and rather than giving up, she goes straight to the death row because freedom is not just physical freedom, she says, «What I am doing here? Where is my home?», she says, and you realise that for home, she means Iran, because there is no home, in the middle of nowhere, there is no home without a country – no life without justice: or every winter will be just followed by another winter.

You try all you can: and all gets even harder.

Her mother is in touch via WhatsApp with Jalal Sarbandi until the last minute. For me, he is like a son, she says. He is about to kill her daughter, but she says: «He is alone, in this cold night, with all pressure on his shoulders. And he is about to scar his life forever.

His father ruined not only my children, she says, but his own too.

It is the Iran of Mahsa Amini. The Iran of a cosmopolitan, sophisticated society, the society you glimpse in the old Super 8 footage, houses of books, paintings, carpets, and pianos: but at the same time, the Iran of Islamic fundamentalism. And as if normal, a voice leaks from prison: Yesterday, 11 prisoners were sent to the gallows.

Seven Winters in Tehran Steffi Niederzoll
Seven Winters in Tehran , a film by Steffi Niederzoll

Prisoners who will never end up in an Amnesty International report.

They won’t even be a number.

Prisoners whose remnants will be just old Super 8 footage.

This movie is powerful, powerful beyond expectation, and its intensity is all here: it is filmed as a daily story. When it is over, in any foreigner you come across, any migrant, any refugee, you see Reyhaneh Jabbari. Will they have the same background as her? Will he come from a house like hers? You wonder. From a life, an ordeal like hers? And instinctively, you can’t but think: but maybe, without that international campaign, Reyhaneh Jabbari could be saved. Or with the retraction she opposed. Maybe she would be alive now. And her family wouldn’t be in Germany. It would still be in Iran. Struggling for it. Because if the best leave, who will bring change? How do you help better – by resisting or fleeing the country?

Every choice is the wrong choice.

And yet there is not even time for doubts. Our attention is already elsewhere.

In a year, at the Berlinale, we will have only Ukraine.

Winter after winter.

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Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Italian journalist and writer. She contributes regularly to Modern Times Review.

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