Seven Winters in Tehran hits you like a tonne of bricks. This utterly fantastic documentary shows the medium’s power, providing us with a glimpse at a resilient and inspirational woman—an impactful and unforgettable film.
In 2007, Reyhaneh Jabbari, 19, was sentenced to death in Iran for the murder of a man who tried to rape her. The efforts her family and supporters undertake to open a window into the mass oppression and silencing of women in Iran and the risks taken by those who defend and support them.
Seven Winters in Tehran starts off as poignantly and powerfully as any documentary you will see this year as we hear the words of Reyhaneh Jabbari “I am about to be hung, but I’m not afraid. I want to tell everyone my story. I want people to hear it and then judge it as they wish. And if they wish, they can pull the rope tighter around my neck.” In just a few short sentences, we learn everything we need to know about this defiant woman, and that is just in the opening minute or so of this extraordinary film from Steffi Niederzoll.
As brought to our attention at the beginning, video and sound material have been secretly smuggled out of Iran for us to see, showing how much of an iron fist authorities want to implement on their people. They want to ensure that we get one side (State media viewpoint) of Reyhaneh’s story and the treatment of women through the Iranian judicial system. Her case is similar to many others in the country, coping with corrupt courts and placing innocent women with only the slimmest of chances of freedom.
Reyhaneh’s story should send a shudder down the spines of every person who hears it; a young woman is tricked into being alone with a man so that he can attempt to rape her. Somehow, she successfully defends herself, but in doing so, kills her attacker. To most of us in the West, this is a case of the attempted rapist getting what he deserved and thank goodness that a young woman could defend herself. In Iran, however, this is the exact opposite, and the injustice and the long torment for the Jabbari’s begins.
Niederzoll does something very clever in her film, interspersing family footage and interviews with family and fellow cellmates; we also get to see life in Tehran continuing on, the lights still glistening at night, fireworks and celebrations for New Year’s come and go. We see people getting on with their day-to-day lives, and all the while, we hear Reyhaneh’s words about her treatment. We are seeing what she should be experiencing, but it has been stolen from her. As such we grief for her in these moments; a young adult unable to live the life she should and will never have.
To show the pressure that exists within the country we see Shole (Reyhaneh’s mother) fight tooth and nail for her daughter and even resorts to talking to the international to show the injustice at hand. Then we cut to her husband, stating how worried he is for her. To step out of the line of the Government is not usually recommended in such a country, and he even says that he was told that such actions would be counterproductive to freeing Reyhaneh. Allowing the authorities to twist the story and have it about the West attacking the sentence of blood revenge, as we see on an archived State TV clip. Despite doing all she can for her daughter, her actions inadvertently play into the hands of those who wanted to see out Reyhaneh’s “punishment”.
Then we see a detailed model of the prison made for the documentary, panning through the grey of the building and the triple bunkbeds, we hear how she questions being whipped. For she was sentenced to receive 30 lashes for having a relationship outside of marriage, that relationship was attempted rape. How on Earth does that happen? These punches repeatedly come to the audience as we move through her time in prison. There is seemingly no hope for women in Iran once they are taken to court. How in any society can a woman almost get raped and ends up being the one convicted for adultery?
An important yet unseen cog in Seven Winters in Tehran is the attempted rapist’s son Jalal. As Reyhaneh has been sentenced to a blood revenge execution, she can be reprieved by the family if they so wish. Early on we see the conversations between Shole and Jalal; he is upfront about wanting revenge, but as the seven years go on, we see him change to the point that we can firmly surmise that he is now hesitant to do so, but due to the complications of the case and much of a strong arm the courts have put on Jalal, he may be forced to carry out the execution against his will.
As Shole and her family await news on what Jalal eventually does, your heart sinks for them; the hope is there. Still, a resignation that an innocent man is going to be forced to carry out the sentence on an innocent woman, their daughter, lingers in the air. Then, as the documentary ends, we hear again from Reyhaneh, her words as poignant at the start as they were at the end.
For as much as Seven Winters in Tehran is mournful, a glimmer of hope shines through. The fight that Jabbari’s family (Shole in particular) put up and the clear growth of her activism provides us with the dream that what happened here with Reyhaneh will be a less regular occurrence. That such people can find freedom.
Will we see this change in our lifetime? Of course, we can dream, but stories like Reyhaneh Jabbari’s in Seven Winters in Tehran can only inch us closer to it. Although she was resigned to her death, she knew her story would be felt around the world. Her mother has not given up on those women incarcerated in Iran, and we shouldn’t either.
All films at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival are screening at the Barbican, and available from 20-26 March to stream from the festival website. https://ff.hrw.org/london#festival_schedule
Coverage from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2023
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