Director about executed Iranian woman: “A film against the death penalty”

Steffi Niederzoll’s documentary “Seven Years in Tehran” is stirring. She tells about a young Iranian woman who was executed.

The director and author Steffi Niederzoll in Berlin Kreuzberg Photo: Wolfgang Borrs

Wochentaz: Frau Niederzoll, your documentary about Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was hanged in 2014 because she defended herself against being raped and fatally injured her attacker, a secret service employee, with a knife, lives from the audio documents that Reyhaneh records in prison. How could all these recordings and texts be smuggled out?

Steffi Niederzoll: Most of the time, Reyhaneh could talk on the phone for two minutes every day. Most recently, in 2014, her mother recorded their conversations. In this way, texts from the prison could be taken out of the prison quite quickly, bypassing the prison administration.

was born in Nuremberg in 1981. “Seven Winters in Tehran” is her debut film, which is screened in the Perspective section. She co-wrote the book How to Become a Butterfly (2023) with Shole Pakravan.

The phone line was not monitored?

Yes, sometimes it didn’t work either, they were bugged.

Even photos from inside the prison, from Evin, can be seen in the film.

It’s insane how much these people risked smuggling phones in and photos out. I could never have made this film without the many courageous Iranians.

How did the story find you a few years later?

That was random. I met family members of Reyhaneh in 2016 in Istanbul, where I was often at the time, through an Iranian friend. We became friends and at some point they asked me if I would like to make a film from the audio and video recordings from Reyhaneh’s time in prison. In Iran they didn’t find anyone who dared to do that, for me as a German it was much less dangerous. That was quite a leap of faith. Then in 2017 I met Shole Pakravan, Reyhaneh’s mother. At that moment I knew that I really wanted and had to make this film.

Shole and her two daughters had recently left Iran.

Yes. Shole has continued to campaign against the death penalty after her daughter’s execution. Along with other mothers, some of whose children were shot dead at demonstrations during the 2009 green movement, she has campaigned against arbitrary arrests. They were repeatedly interrogated and their daughters threatened. When a friend and comrade-in-arms of Shole’s was arrested, it was clear that she had to leave the country.

Is Reyhaneh’s father Fereydoon Jabbari still in Iran? In the film, he’s the only one you interview via video call.

Yes, he is being denied a valid passport and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. But he still decided to talk about his daughter. All the others, including Reyhaneh’s former fellow inmates, are no longer in Iran. Talking to me would have been just too dangerous. “Seven Winters in Tehran” is a film against the death penalty. The death penalty is based on the Sharia, i.e. on the Koran. This means that the film is directed against the word of God.

Reyhaneh Jabbari in front of a microphone in a courtroom

Reyhaneh Jabbari in court in “Seven Winters in Tehran” by Steffi Niederzoll

They remain very close to the Jabbari family at all times. Did you also try to interview the family of the killed Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi?

I couldn’t get to her. But it’s not journalistic work either, I clearly take on a perspective, namely that of the Jabbari family. A film is always a decision. A film cannot do everything.

“Seven Winters in Tehran” is also a film about the Iranian judicial system, about the concept of blood revenge, according to which the family of the victim, in Reyhaneh’s case the family of the rapist who was prevented, determines the punishment. What is remarkable about your film, however, is that you get to understand Jalal Sarbandi, the eldest son, even though he has decided to let Reyhaneh down.

That was one of the things that drew me to Reyhaneh’s mother, Shole. I was really touched by how she tried to relate to Jalal and show understanding. In my opinion, Jalal is also a victim of the patriarchal system in Iran. But of course, Shole keeps wavering, because in the end he’s the one who decided that their daughter shouldn’t live anymore.

To the last, there was a chance that he would forgive her. Ultimately, however, he was not only responsible for her execution, but also had to press a button himself, which pulled the pedestal away from under her.

It is extremely perfidious that a state should pass on the decision about a person’s life to a citizen. This raises huge questions. What is life, what is forgiveness, what is revenge? The hesitation of Jalal, who on the one hand shows understanding and wants to forgive, but on the other hand wants to avenge his father. You have to remember that the family has also lost someone, they also have to deal with their pain.

The perfidy of the Iranian legal system is also evident when the partisan judge tells Reyhaneh that she should have allowed herself to be raped and then filed a complaint.

In Islamic law there are hadd punishments, which also apply to extramarital sex. Reyhaneh was given a 30 lashes before her trial for having “contact” with Sarbandi outside of marriage, without sexual intercourse. Had that taken place, consensually or not, it would have been 100 lashes.

After Reyhaneh was sentenced to death, it was five years before she was actually executed. is this common

February 18, 6.30 p.m., Bundesplatz cinema. February 19, 9:30 p.m., Filmtheater am Friedrichshain. February 25, 7 p.m., Kino International

It’s not uncommon in this extremely corrupt system. Reyhaneh’s family has also paid bribes for years to keep her file sliding down.

Nevertheless, it was above all the mother’s protest that caused a stir and put pressure on the regime. One is currently asking oneself again: How much fear do angry women frighten the regime?

There are those who fear that Western media involvement could lead to an execution more quickly, which is of course also propagated by the regime. On the other hand, the regime has come under tremendous pressure from the outcry in the West over Reyhaneh’s case. In the end, however, she was executed. So opinions differ.

Are you still in contact with Reyhaneh’s family?

Yes, we are very close. It wasn’t until September that we finished the book “How to become a butterfly” together, which explains Reyhaneh’s case again.

Protesters are currently being executed in Iran. What impact do you hope your film will have?

I hope that the film makes it clear that behind the numbers there are individual fates. Behind every executed protester is a mother like Shole Pakravan, is a father like Fereydoon Jabbari. I want to show the reproduction of violence. The protests have made people around the world aware of the status of women’s rights in Iran. But this institutionalized violence didn’t start now, didn’t start with the fall of Reyhaneh, it’s been going on for years.