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Seven Winters in Tehran: Smuggled footage and Iranian injustice

Director Steffi Niederzoll about her documentary Seven Winters in Tehran, winner of Berlinale Perspektive award. Join us on March 6 for a special screening.

Following the publication of the book Wie man ein Schmetterling wird (“how to become a butterfly”) in January, Steffi Niederzoll brings to the Berlinale a film documenting the 2007 arrest of Reyhaneh Jabbari and the seven-year fight for her release that ensued, using footage smuggled from Iran by her mother and local supporters. Jabbari was hanged in 2014, at the age of 26.

Back in 2014, Reyhaneh Jabbari’s case outraged the world. How did you, a German filmmaker, become involved in making a film about it?

She started to write inspiring and amazing texts from inside the prison

Reyhaneh’s case was quite big, even in Germany. But I was a fiction filmmaker and never thought that I would make a movie about it. But then, in 2016, I got to know some of Reyhaneh’s family in Turkey, where my boyfriend was living at the time, and we became friends. They had just come out of Iran with some secretly-shot footage documenting Reyhaneh’s detention, the agonising wait for her potential pardon, the fight for her release. Then I met Reyhaneh’s mum, Sholeh, in 2017, when she fled to Turkey.

Reyhaneh was executed under ‘Qisas’ retributive justice, a Sharia precept still part of Iran’s penal code, by which the victim’s family may either choose to pardon or retaliate ‘in kind’ with a punishment equal to the crime. Did you know about it before making this film?

I did, because of my Iranian partner, but Reyhaneh’s case was special. It had several court hearings, it was followed from abroad and dragged on over seven years. I had listened to the testimonies of many women who were sentenced to death within five minutes. Take Samira, who appears in the film. Her sentence was later overturned, but it took a court half an hour to sentence her, her 11-year-old sister and their mother to death. That’s why it was important for me to show the systemic nature of this violence as well as the systemic nature of the oppression of women. Of course, men are also severely oppressed in Iran, but if you read the law, you will understand what systemic oppression of women means. That’s why women are at the forefront of the revolutionary movement.

Reyhaneh’s mother is one of the main protagonists of your documentary. How was meeting her?

It was a magical moment. I had already watched so much of the material that I had the feeling I’d lived through those agonising times with her – waiting to know if the other family would pardon her daughter or not. Although we’d never met, I felt so close to Sholeh. She was totally open with me: immediately, she told me so much about her daughter – and I knew that I wanted to make this movie. Then they fled to Germany, which was a beautiful coincidence and helped the process a lot. Sholeh now lives in Berlin.

It took five years to make this movie. Why so long?

It took a court half an hour to sentence her, her 11-year-old sister and their mother to death

It all took a lot of time: the financing procedure for Franco-German co-productions, the research part, the translation from Persian… and a lot of the audio and photo material was a total mess. The footage was never shot for a movie. It was shot because Sholeh had this idea that she’d be able to show her daughter what they all did for her release when her daughter came out of prison. So we had a million little pieces, and understanding what I had and how I could make a movie out of them took quite some time.

What were the challenges of working with people inside Iran, like those you mentioned in the movie credits?

The biggest challenge was to keep everyone safe. So we never talked about the movie, tried to keep it as secret as possible, all the documents were accessible only with passwords. Even in the film credits we used pseudonyms or just thanked “anonymous”.

You started this movie long before the revolutionary protest of ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’ in 2022. Can it contribute to what is happening in Iran right now?

I decided to work on this first because I felt it was important, and also my production companies liked it. Now I have a feeling it could change something. I hope that after watching this movie, people understand that behind all these executions we hear about everyday there are human beings, there are mums like Sholeh, there are fathers like Reyhaneh’s dad Fereydoon, there are siblings. It’s also about women’s rights, because Reyhaneh’s execution is not a special case. She herself realised it, which is why she started to write inspiring and amazing texts from inside the prison. I hope people can understand that this oppression is a whole system and that it is not just about the compulsory hijab. It is much more. It goes much deeper in so many layers

BIO: Steffi Niederzoll is a Kreuzberg-based German screenwriter and director. Her graduation film Lea premiered at the PDK/Berlinale in 2007. Seven Winters in Tehran is her debut feature length documentary. It won the Berlinale Perspektive (PDK) award in 2023.