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Processing Iranian Revolution trauma in film

Laura Döing als
February 13, 2019

When Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979, he harshly persecuted critics. Maryam Zaree was born in a prison for political opponents. With her film "Born in Evin," she sets off to break the silence of the past.

Maryam Zaree stellte auf der 69. Berlinale Ihren Debütfilm "Born in Evin" vor
Image: Stefan Klüter

One day, the story just slips out of her aunt's mouth: Maryam Zaree did not come into this world in a normal hospital; instead, she was born in captivity in 1983. The aunt said she was horrified when she realized that the girl wasn't aware of that. She thought Zaree's parents had long explained to the 12-year-old that she was born in Evin, one of Iran's most notorious prisons for political prisoners. But this was not the case. And even after the revelation, there were no further conversations to discuss and process this part of the family history.

Baby behind bars

The story begins when Zaree's parents meet in Iran. They listen to John Lennon, read Karl Marx and are against the ruling shah and Iran's monarchy. But with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, one strong man is replaced by another and they are declared enemies of the new religious regime under Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1983, Zaree's parents are arrested and Maryam Zaree along with them —  as a baby in her mother's belly.

Outer wall of Evan Prison in Teheran
Outer wall of Evan Prison in TeheranImage: picture-alliance/dpa

This is where the big black hole opens up that the young filmmaker Zaree meticulously has tried to fill in her documentary debut Born in Evin. Her parents' imprisonment was never discussed in her family. Not when mother and daughter were permitted to leave prison and fled to Germany. And not even when Zaree's father was released after seven years of waiting for the death penalty. He had survived the massacre of the political prisoners in which thousands of people were executed in 1988. The silence was also not broken when Zaree's mother — who had meanwhile become a psychologist with a doctorate degree and and a local politician — ran for the mayor's office in Frankfurt. And not when Zaree herself had became a successful actress in Germany and Europe. The silence also continued even after Zaree, during a summer vacation, presented her mother with the trailer for a film, an attempt at a cinematic processing.

Quran surahs as torture

On a bus ride through Morocco, Zaree realized that she was carrying some part of the horror of the infamous torture prison deep inside her. She suddenly could no longer stand the music playing inside the bus. Breaking out in a sweat and panicking, she thought she was losing her mind and screamed at the driver to turn off the music. Only later did she tell her father about the panic attack. She couldn't figure out where it came from. He told her that prisoners in Evin were tortured acoustically with an endless loop of surahs, or chapters of the Quran, which were also probably being played on the bus. An experience she had as a toddler had managed to bury itself inside her.

Maryam Zaree speaking with Iranian women in exile  at an international conference in Florence
Maryam Zaree speaking with Iranian women in exile at an international conference in Florence Image: Tondowski Films

In her film, Zaree searches for more children of political prisoners to learn how they have dealt with the trauma they have experienced —  both their own and that of their parents. She meets, among others, author Sahar Delijani, who was also born of political activists imprisoned in the Evin prison in Tehran and who wrote the book Children of the Jacaranda Tree about these experiences.

A new generation

Mayam Zaree also meets Iranian-French anthropologist Chowra Makaremi, who was eight years old when her mother was executed. Makaremi's grandfather wrote down what had been done to her mother: Her spine was broken, she was burned on several parts of her body, her private area had been scalded with boiling water, she had been hung by her feet and wires were tied around her breasts for electric shocks.

In 1992, Makaremi read aloud these lines her grandfather had written down to the Iran Tribunal in The Hague, a symbolic people's court established to investigate the state-ordered acts of violence committed in Iran during the 1980s.

As they talk, Makaremi and Zaree discover that they have more in common than they think. As children of oppressed opposition members abroad, they developed into successful and responsible adults — more or less as proof of the correctness of their parents' ideals. One sees how their words get stuck in their throats as this assessment becomes so evident.

Unbearably close

Zaree tends not to go easy on herself in the film. The camera is there when her father, as a manifestation of repression, pulls out a towel from a drawer under the bed. He has kept it for over 30 years: It comes from Evin Prison. The previous owners of the towel were two of his fellow inmates. Both were 29 years old when they were hanged. After that, the towel became his property.

The scenes in which Zaree faces up to her greatest fears to the point of despair, in which she finally confronts her mother with her questions about this big black hole in family history, are painfully long at times.

Maryam Zaree with her mother in the film "Born in Evin"
Maryam Zaree with her mother in a scene from the filmImage: Tondowski Films

But Born in Evin is not a self-discovery trip exclusively about one family. At first Zaree didn't even want to appear in the film at all, she said in in an interview with DW.

"It was a very, very thin line. Because, having worked as an actress and knowing all the skills of an actress but wanting to do something that is super truthful and authentic, the danger was that being in front of the camera can so easily be interpreted as narcissistic. And that was the last thing I wanted," she pointed out. "But then I realized that that was eventually a denial of myself. If I wanted to do a movie that deals with denial and steps out of the structures and dynamics of denial then I couldn't continue a process that was denying my own participation."

Iran refuses to address issue

The film shows what happens when an institutional processing of a national trauma fails to take place. The regime in Iran is not interested in revisiting and processing the murders. To this day, no one knows how many people were executed in the 1980s. In 2017 Ebrahim Raisir ran in the Iranian presidential election against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and secured a significant part of the vote. Raisir had been part of the commission that made decisions regarding the executions during the 1988 massacres.

Born in Evin raises the question of what sorts of narratives the generation of children can create in exile, how they position themselves and pass on history. In so doing, the film also creates parallels to the fates of today's refugees.

The work continues

For Zaree, the film is already the third part of her artistic examination of suppression. Previously, she wrote an award-winning play on the subject of speechlessness and repression. She has also participated in an autobiographical project with Berlin's Gorki Theater. She invested around four years of her life into her debut film, but not full time. At this year's Berlinale, where Born in Evin premiered in the Perspective on German Cinema section, she was also involved in three different productions.

Now she wants to give herself some space to breathe. However, she already has an invitation for the International Playwrights' Programme of the Royal Court Theatre in London for the summer and a few acting engagements. That's just how successful and responsible adults plan. When she comments on this herself, she just has to laugh.