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#HotDocs23 Review: Seven Winters in Tehran

May 1, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2023 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 27th to May 7th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

When Reyhaneh Jabbari was nineteen years old, she was sentenced to death in Iran for stabbing Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, to stop him from raping her. Jabbari was an interior decorator who was approached by Sarbandi to help redesign his office, but he brought her to his apartment instead, where he tried to assault her and she ended up stabbing him in self defence.

Sarbandi, who happened to be a former agent of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, died from his injuries, and Reyhaneh was charged with murder, leading to a tense legal battle as her family tried to get her freed from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison and stop her execution. In her documentary Seven Winters in Tehran, German director Steffi Niederzoll recounts Reyhaneh’s story, chronologically taking us through the seven years she spent in prison before her death by hanging.

The story is told through interviews with Reyhaneh’s mother Shole Pakravan, her father Fereydoon Jabbari and two sisters, as well as other prisoners. Reyhaneh was put through the country’s biased legal system, including threatening her younger sister to force a confession out of her. The judge even stated at one that she should have let herself be raped, and let the justice system deal with the man afterwards, as if he ever would have been punished.

The sentence itself, which is read out in the film, was riddled with contradictions. But Reyhaneh was still sentenced to “blood revenge,” an Iranian law that allows the family of the victim to carry out the death penalty by hanging, unless they choose to forgive the accused. Per Islamic Law, this choice fell upon Sarbandi’s eldest son, Jalal (a note in the end credits tells us that the Sarbandi family chose not to be interviewed for the film, despite several attempts being made).

The opening title card tells us that the film is assembled around footage that had to be snuck out of Iran, and this audio and video footage provides the backbone of the documentary. Actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who starred in the somewhat thematically similar Iranian thriller Holy Spider, gives voice to Reyhaneh in the film through voiceover. Elsewhere, the camera pans over meticulously recreated miniature models of the prison and courtroom to provide visual reference.

In the final stretch, Niederzoll documents the public outcry and international support that Reyhaneh received, as Seven Winters in Tehran creeps towards its inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion. It’s an infuriating look at how the justice system operates in a theocratic society that automatically punishes women for standing up to their attackers.

Screenings: Monday, May 1st, 1:45 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre; Sunday, May 7th, 3:15 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 7. Tickets can be purchased here.

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