Seven Winters in Tehran: Reviews

• The Unfinal Say by Amarsanaa Battulga

• A chronicle of seven winters by Dora Leu

• Pain and Perseverance by Gayle Sequeira

• That we still dont know by Han Tien

• Systemised misogyny collides with family trauma by Jerry Chiemeke

• Empathy or compassion? by Lorenna Rocha

• Seven Winters in Tehran by Luise Mörke

• Stillness and Movement by Teresa Vieira

The Unfinal Say

Opening this year’s Perspektive Deutsches Kino section, Steffi Niederzoll’s Seven Winters in Tehran retraces the trial of Reyhaneh Jabbari and the toll it has taken on her and her family.

Amarsanaa Battulga

A sheet of white paper with black letters on it appears on the screen. Followed by others, the pages quickly cover the blank background, at which moment the title Seven Winters in Tehran appears on the papers in red letters in a rectangle, like a stamp.

Written to her family and to the world from inside the prison, these are the letters of Reyhaneh Jabbari. In her debut feature-length documentary, opening the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section at this year’s Berlinale, German filmmaker Steffi Niederzoll tells the story of Reyhaneh, a 19-year-old Iranian woman who was arrested for stabbing a man who attempted to rape her and hanged to death after spending seven years in prison.

It is depressing how very topical the film is – a harrowing glimpse of Iran’s patriarchal, political, penal, and piety systems seen through the fate of one young woman – given that the events retraced in it date back to 2007. The summer of that year, Reyhaneh meets Morteza Sarbandi, a potential client for her work as an interior designer. But when he lures her into his apartment and sexually assaults her, Reyhaneh stabs him in the back and escapes. An arrest ensues, followed by a death sentence, by blood revenge more than two years later, and its execution in 2014.

“I’m about to be hung but I’m not afraid”, Reyhaneh serenely says over the phone. “I want [people] to know what happened to me at 19 that made me no longer fear death.” On the other end of the phone is her family: her father Fereydoon, mother Shole, and younger sisters Sharare and Shahrzad. These recorded phone calls – combined with Reyhaneh’s letters read aloud by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2022 for her role in Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider – prove more poignant and evocative than the film’s visuals.

The lack of the latter is understandable, however, as we’re told before the film properly starts that it was made from “secretly recorded video and sound material that was smuggled out of Iran” and that “unauthorized filming of public facilities is punishable by a prison sentence of at least five years”. Nevertheless, the film does have some moving shots, including a video of Shole sitting in a car outside the prison before her daughter’s execution, desperately waiting and hoping for a miracle.

To the mix of various, albeit often unclear and brief, visual materials – ranging from cellphone videos, home movies, news clips, and recorded video calls of interviews with Reyhaneh’s family members, her lawyer, and acquaintances – Niederzoll adds miniature dioramas to assist the narrative, a choice as much practical as aesthetic. A sculpted empty court room and a prison filled with rows of bunkbeds fill in for the absence of such footage. Their artificial nature also captures the Kafkaesque absurdity of Reyhaneh’s interrogation and trial, which involved planting and destruction of evidence, threats to both her and her family, torture and extortion of false confessions, all while she was denied legal counsel. But in the middle of the miniature grey prison, we also see one colourful pillow with a flower pattern that seems to symbolise Reyhaneh’s resilience and strength until the end.

The documentary has its shortcomings as well, not in painting outside the lines of a faithful retelling of Reyhaneh’s case, but in not being able to paint it fully. Reyhaneh’s and Shole’s activism from both sides of the prison walls is briefly told in bits and pieces, but not adequately shown. Moreover, what can’t be made up for, even with the most elaborate diorama, is the inevitable missing half of the story. Without the perspective of the Sarbandi family, who unfortunately but expectedly didn’t respond to requests to be included in the film, the significance of Seven Winters in Tehran is largely personal and familial: a glimpse, rather than an examination. While it is understandable that the unchangeable practical circumstances may have prevented the filmmakers from giving a fuller picture (Fereydoon, Reyhaneh’s father, is still unable to leave Iran to join her family in Germany and remains subject to persecution), they do not change the film’s effect. Thus, the stamp in the title sequence feels unfinal.

A chronicle of seven winters

Seven Winters in Tehran does not ask for tears from the audience, offering instead a portrait of a strikingly dignified woman and her empathetic family.

Dora Leu

I want to tell everyone my story. I want people to hear it and then judge it as they wish. So  asks a calm, unshaken Reyhaneh Jabbari of her mother in a voice recording taken shortly before her execution in 2014.

Opening the 73rd Berlinale’s Perspektive Deutsches Kino, Seven Winters in Tehranrecounts Reyhaneh’s trial and the seven uncertain years leading up to her unjust death, after being accused of premeditated murder when she was only 19 and trying to defend herself from rape. Director Steffi Niederzoll acquaints us with Reyhaneh the person more than the involuntary icon she has come to be, yet the film is both the story of an individual woman and an account of an oppressive and flawed judicial system. In light of the recent political developments in Iran and the new wave of systemic and active violence committed against women, the lessons that we should take from Reyhaneh’s fate and legacy have turned ever so more acutely relevant.

Niederzoll’s film acts as a vehicle for further relaying a story that was already there, piecing together narrated excerpts from Reyhaneh’s letters and diary (voiced by Holy Spider’s Zar Amir Ebrahimi), recorded phone calls from prison and secretly filmed footage, home movies and video cassettes, as well as testimonies from Reyhaneh’s family members and friends. At the intersection of this all, it feels like Reyhaneh is talking to us herself, even if she is most often only talking to her mother. Going through the family members’ comments and recollections, and through the materials they recorded throughout the seven-year trial, we get a glimpse not only of Reyhaneh’s suffering but also of how it affected her family’s daily lives. Their constant mediation of events through filmed material brings up a strange and upsetting thought: they have recorded their own lives just in case they might have to keep and provide it as evidence someday, for Reyhaneh’s trial, and possibly for themselves.

Although it sometimes relies too much on the emotion to be derived from the sincere testimonies provided by Reyhaneh’s close ones, Seven Winters in Tehran does not ask for tears from the audience – as is often so easily the case with films treating similar, grave subjects. Instead, we are offered a portrait of a strikingly dignified woman and an empathetic family who have processed grief and fought oppression with the same level of dignity. The film keeps a respectful distance and frames Reyhaneh’s legacy in a way that we are not supposed to feel pity, but to take inspiration from her resistance and be scandalised by her unfair treatment, trial and execution.

However, despite the valuable accounts from family and friends and the seriousness of its story, Niederzoll’s documentary still borders at times on an uninventive form of talking heads, bricolage and reportage that blocks full emotional depth – an emotional depth that the film is otherwise able to achieve through the recordings and excerpts from Reyhaneh’s letters and diary. It can be difficult throughout the film to identify from when and where each piece of visual material is coming from and Seven Winters in Tehran’s aesthetic explorations could have gone just a bit further, towards an approach that blends the personal and the functional much more organically. The film does show much potential for it, as proven through some more experimental moments in the documentary where the camera lingers in anxiously still shots over scale models of the prison and of the crime scene. There’s a sentiment of incommunicable horror that the emptiness of these shots and the placid tone of the voice over manage to convey, a feeling of immense anger and paralysing grief that is so intrinsically tied to Reyhaneh’s fate.

But perhaps it might be very improper to ask for aesthetic immersion or experimentation from a film like Seven Winters in Tehran. The urgency of its subject may matter more than its aesthetic shortcomings. Content uplifts form. Seven Winters in Tehran is extremely valuable in what message it delivers and whose story it tells, and a more informative approach could very well be the preferable one here, especially for someone who might be learning about Reyhaneh Jabbari for the first time through the film.

Pain and Perseverance

Steffi Niederzoll’s powerful documentary tells a story that began with Reyhaneh Jabbaris birth, and will continue long after her death.  

Gayle Sequeira

A powerful, piercing documentary about an Iranian woman whose voice is stifled — and the ultimate cost of her reclaiming it — Seven Winters In Tehran begins with a chilling bit of narration. “I want to tell my story”, begins 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari, who is to be hanged on the charge of murder. “…and if they wish, they can pull the rope tighter around my neck”, she continues. There’s a defiance there, but also a devastating resignation. Reyhaneh may have been sentenced to death, but as the documentary gradually reveals, her life ceased to make sense a long time ago.

At 19 the interior decorator was lured into the apartment of plastic surgeon Dr. Sarbandi on the pretext of helping him redesign his clinic. When he attempted to rape her, she stabbed him in self-defence. He died. She would spend the rest of her life behind bars. Through interviews with her family and former cellmates, German director Steffi Niederzoll pieces together the seven years of Reyhaneh’s imprisonment and eventual death sentence. What emerges as the larger picture is not only an indictment of Iranian law and culture, in which women are scapegoated, but also a harrowing personal account that speaks to the universal fears of women.

Despite the story’s threads of psychological torture, destroyed evidence and transferred judges, the documentary resists mining these topics for their thriller potential. In one scene, as Reyhaneh’s former cellmate arranges to meet the girl’s mother to discuss her suspicions of phone-tapping, the accompanying visual is that of a park in broad daylight with children playing and laughing. These scenes of ordinary, everyday Iranian life, interspersed with those in which Reyhaneh’s case is discussed, point to a city in which life must go on despite the innumerable threats it faces. Niederzoll’s juxtaposition of images and audio contrast the facade of a run-of-the-mill society with the horrors that it conceals. With every shot of sprawling vistas and open skies, she reinforces what Reyhaneh can only imagine from the confines of her cell. Grey models of prison barracks pinpoint a loneliness made more acute with each scene of a loving home video shot by her family.

Seven Winters in Tehran, which opened the 73rd Berlinale’s Perspektive Deutsches Kino section, also calls to mind last year’s release, Holy Spider, which captured, in dread-inducing detail, the crimes of serial killer Saeed Hanei, who murdered 16 sex workers in Iranian city Mashhad between 2000 and 2001. This overlap extends far beyond the movie’s actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi providing Reyhaneh’s voice in the documentary. In both films, women are victimised, first by men, then by a society that justifies and minimises these crimes. While Hanaei’s status as an Iran-Iraq war veteran fuelled his ‘calling’ as a murderer, Sarbandi’s role as a Secret Service member safeguards his reputation in the public sphere. Unlike Holy Spider, which ended grimly envisioning Hanaei’s young son re-enacting his crimes and perpetuating the system of violence, Reyhaneh’s mother empathises with Sarbandi’s son Jalal throughout — it’s him who’s burdened by the decision to sentence Reyhaneh to death. The doctor’s family doesn’t appear in the documentary, but through the eyes of Reyhaneh’s mother, it humanises them.

Seven Winters in Tehran is full of cruel ironies. To Reyhaneh birthdays and New Year celebrations only serve as markers of time spent in incarceration. Her ordeal starts with her being silenced — Sarbandi tells her that nobody will hear if she makes a sound. In the end, it’s once again her silence, and her refusal to absolve Sarbandi of his crimes, that seals her fate and leads his son to stand by her execution. Reyhaneh, whose story is distorted and maligned in the Iranian newspapers, finally reclaims her voice and narrative in telling the truth, only for it to come at a cost. A more heartening parallel, however, emerges. In one scene, Reyhaneh’s father talks about promising to protect her when she was a baby. In the other, her cellmates speak of the courage she gave them to fight their own incarcerations, and finally, lines of text inform the audience that her mother carries on the fight for imprisoned Iranian women. This is a story that began with Reyhaneh’s birth. This is a story that will continue long after her death.

That we still dont know

What kind of documentaries should we expect to present and represent issues of gender inequality, cultural cross-talking, and transitional justice?

Han Tien

In the documentary Seven Winters in Tehran, unveiled in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino sidebar of the 73rd Berlinale, Reyhaneh Jabbari tells her story – through telephone recordings, home videos, voice re-enactment of her letters, interviews with her family members and inmates – of how after stabbing a man to death, her 19-year-old self was tortured during detention and interrogation, and whipped for being accused of extramarital adultery according to Islamic law. Regardless of whether her act was excessively self-defensive or premeditated, she was sentenced to death despite insufficient evidence and an incomplete investigation. This kind of death penalty was seen as a ‘blood feud’ to repay the families of victims.

Her death penalty was carried out in 2014, before the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017. Perhaps due to the political and cultural limitations of visual journalism, Seven Winters in Tehran mainly took on the perspective of Jabbari and her family. I found engagement with the film somewhat difficult. It neither, in its content or form, provided a panoramic view of the women’s rights movement at the macroscopic level, nor did it impart a localised, detailed examination concerning its regional and cultural aspects, or tried to bring criticism to the movement per se as well as to its back flow. I was especially troubled by the simplicity of its form, such as the insertion of stereotypical scenic ‘B-roll’ shots, the juxtaposition of contrasting between shots of public (i.e. Tehran street scenes, court scenes, prison scenes) and private space (a dimly-lit house, voice-over describing the rape), the attempt to connect private misfortune with institutional oppression by adding eerie or sentimental soundtracks, or, through substantial amounts of home videos and interviews, the artificialness of trying to create a singular image of a lively, generous and brave girl who, even while suffering in prison, managed to empower others and became an icon of Iranian women’s rights movement. Only through some quite well-organised scenes, such as her cries of pain from the letters voiced by an actress, or her mother’s statement many years later, can I take a glimpse of some of her struggles and shadows.

And if one views it as an anti-death-penalty documentary, Seven Winters in Tehran is unlike those from the west, it does not revolve around the issues of procedural justice. Instead, though the lack of substantive justice, this documentary leaves no room to discuss the issue of people living under Sharia law. The fact that for those whose right to live is not given but a struggle, the struggle for further substantive justice can seem at times plainly absurd. What room is there to discuss cultural relativism, to reflect upon Eurocentric perspectives of law and culture, to make accusations against the destruction of legal evidence, as well as the human rights oppression in this Islamic society? In that light, the straightforwardly accusatory approach taken by the documentary seems more naturally reasonable.

But does it really come that naturally? What kind of documentaries should we expect to present and represent issues of gender inequality, cultural cross-talking and transitional justice? I am still unsure. But for me, one of the punctum of Seven Winters in Tehran is the beautiful make-up worn and the impeccable lighting shone on the mother during the interviews. I found it difficult to empathise with her, beneath the surface, about how she managed to transform her sadness, anger, and refusal to accept, to the willingness to conduct sacrifice. And what is the opposite to believing in and struggling with a set of discourses? How can a culture, while being criticised for being full of inequalities, be accepted or not be accepted naturally? I don’t know, and I still don’t know much about it after watching this film. I am not able to connect to this beyond the case being more than just unfortunate and sad. If anything, a message from the eldest son of the killed man was more touching. Responding to Reyhaneh’s mother for seeking his forgiveness to revoke the penalty, while still holding on to his father’s honour: “What am I supposed to do? Don’t make me suffer anymore.” In this system, even the men are victims, the supposed perpetrators are victims, and the oppressors representing the system are also victims, crushed into a mould of ‘stainlessness’, oblivious to what humans should be and are: flawed, error-prone, and multi-faceted.

Systemised misogyny collides with family trauma

In light of the waves of unrest sweeping across Iran, Seven Winters in Tehran is a timely, scorching cry for justice.

Jerry Chiemeke

The year is 2007. A nineteen-year-old Iranian lady is pursuing a degree in Computer Science, and in a bid to gain more work experience, takes up a job as an interior designer in the office of a family friend. One day she gets off a call with a client for whom she’s designing a booth with respect to a forthcoming trade fair, when a middle-aged man approaches her. This fortuitous meeting would go on to change her life, her family’s trajectory, and conversations in her country forever.

This rueful and tragic unfolding of events is what German artist and filmmaker Steffi Niederzoll, director of short films like One Short Summer (2006) and Lea (2008), sets out to capture in her debut feature-length documentary Seven Winters in Tehran, which opened the Perspektive Deutsches Kino sidebar at the 73rd Berlinale. Produced by German producers Melanie Andernach and Knut Losen, this film tells the story of a young woman who becomes a victim of a repressive government in the saddest way possible.

Reyhaneh Jabbari, the eldest of three daughters and aspiring computer scientist, sees her dreams grind to a halt after she mortally wounds a man who tries to violate her. When the man, who turns out to be a member of the Secret Service, succumbs to his injuries, she is detained by police authorities, tortured, and denied any legal representation.

Reyhaneh is ultimately convicted and sentenced to death, and in spite of pressure from international civil rights groups, she is sent to the gallows after seven years of confinement. However, the circumstances surrounding her incarceration and execution spark intense conversations about gender discrimination, corruption and systemised misogyny in Iran.

In telling this poignant story, Niederzoll enlists the help of Nicole Kurtlocke, whose editing helps with narrative direction, and Julia Daschner, whose role as Director of Photographer serves to evoke and maintain the flow of emotions that run through the 96 minutes of this heart-wrenching documentary.

Reyhaneh knows that she is going to die, but she also has a lot to share with the world before the Iranian government takes her life. While in jail, she recounts her experiences, vividly describing the inhumane conditions she was subjected to, as well as the kindness she experienced at the hands of other women whose lifestyles she previously sneered at, women who were also victims of the systematic oppression that characterises the Iranian administration. Her words are captured in voice mails and secret recordings (infused per Kurtlocke’s edits), and secret texts brought to life by the voiceover narration of Iranian-French actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, whose performance in Holy Spider (2022) earned her the award for Best Actress at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Reyhaneh’s imprisonment leaves a huge vacuum in the lives of her sisters Sharare and Shahrzhad, her mother Shole Pakravan, and her father Fereydoon Jabari. They experience twice the sadness, as they are subjected to constant harassment during Reyhaneh’s trial, and even after her execution they have targets placed on their backs, individually and as a unit. They are forced to migrate (with the exception of Fereydoon), and they know that sharing their stories translates to endangering their lives, but their bravery is what has birthed this documentary.

The opening montage featuring the clustering of papers suggests the secrecy involved in piecing this story together, but Shole, her daughters and her husband will not be denied.

Their individual narratives (captured brilliantly by Daschner’s closeup shots) provide insight on Reyhaneh’s efforts in advocating for gender-based reforms, just as video footage from her younger years (delicately woven by Kurtlocke’s editing) open a window into the kind of woman she was. Credit should go to Niederzoll too, for getting this grieving family to trust her with their story, heavy hearts notwithstanding.

When Reyhaneh headed out to that ice cream parlour nearly 16 years ago, martyrdom was not what she or her family had in mind. A corrupt judicial system and a misogynistic government cut her life short, but the truth, her truth, has not died with her. Seven Winters in Tehran is relevant now more than ever as a body of work, taking into consideration the current happenings in Iran. The women of Tehran will not be silenced, even in the face of death. One family’s ordeal unfolds as a microcosm of what it means to be female in Iran. There are conversations to be had, and the world needs to hear, even if it means sneaking recorders from behind prison walls.

Empathy or compassion?

For all its interest in dissecting the patriarchy and misogyny plaguing present-day Iran, Seven Winters in Tehran never truly rescues its subject from her status of victim.

Lorenna Rocha

How to produce images on sensitive themes, which are cross-cultural, social and political issues, without falling into an overly dramatic narrative? That was the question I asked myself when watching Seven Winters in Tehran, screening as part of this year’s Perspektive Deutsches Kino at the 73rd Berlinale. The documentary directed by Steffi Niederzoll paints a portrait of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a young woman who was raped, then killed her attacker in self-defence and ended up being arrested. Despite investing in a critical perspective on the misogyny present in the Iranian judicial system and a close look at male power dynamics, the film chooses to create a narrative based on pain, which reduces its character to the situation of violence experienced.

The film brings together letters written by Jabbari, interviews with the victim’s family and friends, and archival materials, forming a timeline of the case that occurred with the young Iranian woman. Niederzoll’s film revisits the story of Reyhaneh Jabbari to denounce gender violence and create a tool to claim women’s social and political rights. In addition to introducing us to the episode that occurred with Jabbari and the judicial reverberations surrounding the murder of the rapist, we can get in touch with other victims who suffered sexual violations. By trying to make viewers aware of ‘the pain of the other’, the film ends up bringing together a set of reports that, despite being significant and having their political importance, insists on touching on the trauma of these women, without making them leave the place of victims.

Instrumental music is used to intensify the feeling of pain that is present in the women’s reports and in the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari. Slow camera movements and the use of fade-in images that represent parts of the prison cell where the young Iranian woman was arrested created an excessive dramatisation of the film. In the same way, it reveals a particular insistence on creating a sensitisation of the spectators in face of what they watch. The attempt to produce a place of empathy in the face of the pain of the other and to make visible the struggle for women’s rights gives rise to a narrative that stimulates more feelings of compassion than a critical and assertive perspective in relation to women’s struggles.

While trying to create a representative narrative in relation to gender issues, the film abandons the cultural, political, and social specificities of the Iranian territory, imposing a Western perspective on Jabbari’s case. Without the displacements of cultural differences, the film has a universalising tendency: the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari is used to defend a feminist perspective that seems to come before the material itself and the main story being told. Rather than delving into the complexities of Jabbari’s case, Seven Winters in Tehran crafts a reiterative and overly dramatic narrative with almost advertising overtones.

Seven Winters in Tehran

Drawing from the tragic fate of Reyhaneh Jabbari, Steffi Niederzolls documentary pulls its viewers into the devastation that the Janus-faced nature of the law can wreak.

Luise Mörke

The law is a pliable thing. Those who know its ins and outs can bend the rules in their favour, silence whoever threatens to disrupt the order, trap them in a thicket of contradictions. From inside that thicket, the law closes in on itself, begins to appear unyielding and rigid. Someone has made an irreversible decision about the fate of another, and no matter how hard you, this person both outside the law and swallowed by it, try to kick in the walls, the ruling is final.

Steffi Niederzolls new documentary pulls its viewers right into the devastation this Janus-faced nature can wreak: Seven Winters in Tehran reconstructs the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian teenager imprisoned in 2007 for stabbing a man who attempted to assault her. In line with the view held by government critics, the film suggests that police, government officials and judges manipulated the case in order to shield the posthumous reputation of Jabbaris would-be rapist, a former member of the Secret Service. The young womans act of self-defence was portrayed as the rage-fuelled murder of a lover; she was sentenced to death and eventually hanged in 2014, despite international protests against her imprisonment and execution.

Niederzoll tells this story in the style of a classic documentary. She
pieces together the past through interviews with Jabbaris parents, friends, and her lawyer, snippets of home videos from happier times, shaky footage taken outside detention facilities and inside government offices. Another womans voice reads out letters and notes jotted down in custody, which tell Jabbaris story in her own words. Gaps in the image supply are patched with slow shots of a textured wall or close-ups of a prison cell and a courtroom in miniature. When the writing describes assault and stabbing, the camera pans over the empty interior of a luxury apartment, as if this was the actual site of the incident.

Viewers learn right away that the woman is dead. She announces her imminent killing in a recorded phone call, addressing the world outside the prison: Im 26 years old, Im about to be hung.” What follows is a film that encircles Jabbari as a predetermined absence, like a True Crime show might grasp at the thin air left by a dead girl found in the ditch.

Here lies the issue with Niederzolls approach. Its conservative form,
lacking a single moment of refraction or irritation, drains all subversive potential from the subject. Seven Winters in Tehran hones in on Jabbari, while at the same time failing to grant her a presence free from stereotypes of the courageous, beautiful, but ultimately doomed heroine. The film revels in the eerie traces Jabbari has left, the letters, phone calls and nostalgic video tapes, the tears that well up as someone close to her recounts a detail. It induces the familiar shudders of imagining how a woman may be raped, murdered, stripped of her rights –– shudders that are also somehow comforting, as evidenced by the unquenchable thirst for detective shows, True Crime podcasts, and Twin Peaks re-runs.

Seven Winters is based, the prologue informs viewers, on secretly recorded video and sound material that was smuggled out of Iran” at the risk of at least five years in prison. A work that declares itself to be a subversion of the state should, at best, have more to say about the amalgam of law, religion, and patriarchy that reigns in Iran. It could scrutinise the specific constellation in which a girl, deemed ‘ready for a modern, 21st century life’, comes up against a fundamentalist government. It could ask whether the latters fervent anti-modern stance, the embrace of practices like blood revenge, may not firmly be a product of modernity. It could even, in this context, consider how economic colonialism – exerted in Iran mainly through the extraction of the countrys oil resources by companies such as BP – literally fuelled a Western” modernity which some Iranians in turn violently refuted. From there, such a film would be able to look outwards, ask a question about Iran that is also a question about the world at large: when ideologies are at war, who is the first to be torn to pieces?

Stillness and Movement

Steffi Niederzoll’s film chronicles Reyhaneh’s Jabbari’s story, as told in her own words, and those of the people who stood beside her.

Teresa Vieira

Stillness and movement intertwine at every moment we experience as individuals, as spectators of (the) moving images (of everyday life). As one walks down the street, individuality melts into a sea of anonymous unrest, of being a part of a sum we can’t seem to grasp. There’s a certain strength that can arise when connecting with someone else’s life: their struggles, their victories. A part of a sum that can resonates more than one can imagine, uniting (hidden) voices that are waiting (, waiting) to be heard. Sometimes, stories have the chance of being (re)told.

Opening the 73rd Berlinale’s Perspektive Deutsches Kino, Steffi Niederzoll’s Seven Winters in Tehran tells us the story of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a woman that spent seven years in prison after acting in self-defence against an attempt of rape. This film tells her story, giving a space for Reyhaneh’s voice: we hear her words, we hear her voice, we hear her side of her story. But as we don’t exist on our own, as we’re part of (blood and chosen) families, one’s life also connects with others. As such here we have also the chance to connect with Reyhaneh’s close ones: her mother, her sisters, her father and the people she shared her life with while in prison.

There’s a sense of natural expansion as we gradually contact further and further with all of these lives that were all moved in different ways by Reyhaneh (her actions, her words, her life). Even if sometimes music can be in the way of letting us go with the immense strength of what is being said and shown, the fact is that we’re nonetheless inevitably drawn to all of these people. As we are lead on a path that shows how Reyhaneh’s troubling, unfair case, trial and its resolution morphed into something that, in its tragic outlines, became something beyond herself: a plead, a demand for change on women’s rights in Iran.

The way stories are shown also inevitably plays a huge part in how we connect with them. Using home archives, general street footage and mockups, we delve into this universe with a plural set of approaches that allow us to feel Reyhaneh’s essence even if sometimes – like most people during this period of time – we can’t see her. There’s a constant sense of movement in stillness that resonates with how events unfolded during the seven years in which she was imprisoned. Combined with the duality of indoor and outdoor living, we are emotionally positioned in a way that reminds us that Reyhaneh’s life and its captivity originated a motion that went beyond the walls that separated her from others, uniting us all for the same goal.

Thinking about the moment in which her verdict is presented to us, we have a visual representation of the words that were (wrongfully) said about her coming on the screen with a sunset on the background. The fact is that, after everything (all the tribulations and inevitably tragically her death), we end up with a bright, after-sunrise sky. We get one more chance to hear her own words by her own voice: with her wishes for what’s to come, for a better life for women. That is the same sky that embraces her mother and two sisters, as we see them face to face to the camera. A final touch that should move us all, as this film does, to seek justice and change for the future. A drive to move for the sum we can’t grasp but are part of.