Steffi Niederzoll on Making Seven Winters in Tehran

The award-winning documentary offers a critique of Iran’s judicial system through the story of a woman who was executed after she spoke up about sexual assault.
Steffi Niederzoll on Making Seven Winters in Tehran

The first thing Reyhaneh Jabbari says in Seven Winters in Tehran (2023) is that she’s about to be executed. Her crime? She wouldn’t take back her allegation that a former agent of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence had attempted to rape her. Her act of self-defence — she attacked him with a knife — was interpreted by the Iranian judicial system as murder, despite evidence to prove Jabbari had been drugged and her waiting for an ambulance before leaving the site of the attack. After seven years in prison, Jabbari was executed by hanging in 2014. 

How do you make this story something more than a bleak account of a life cut tragically short or a dry account of frustrating legal processes? Seven Winters in Tehran never loses sight of the injustice, but at the same time, the film is a celebration of the Jabbari family — of a father who still stands by his daughter, in spite of all the dangers; of a mother determined to not see her daughter as a victim; of a woman who refused to be broken by an oppressive system. 

For Steffi Niderzoll, this story was as challenging as it was compelling. The German director doesn’t speak Persian and she wasn’t able to travel to Iran while making the film. However, what she had was the cooperation of Jabbari’s family as well as a league of well-wishers and filmmakers in Iran, who smuggled out footage for the film. After the film’s release, Jabbari’s father was called in for an interrogation. He’s forced to remain in Iran while the rest of his family has been able to leave. “From the beginning, my greatest concern was for him, the only protagonist of our film still living in Iran,” Niederzoll told Film Companion. “I knew that Reyhaneh's family had made a conscious decision to speak out and not be intimidated, but I was still worried.” 

From carefully researching well-guarded details, like what the inside of Iranian prisons look like, to getting award-winning actress Zar Emir Ebrahimi (of Holy Spider (2022) fame) to read the letters Jabbari wrote in prison, Seven Winters in Tehran is a masterclass in documentary filmmaking. Given below are edited excerpts of an interview with Niederzoll.  

When did you come across Reyhaneh Jabbari's story? 

I read about Reyhaneh in the newspaper. Coverage of her case was particularly high in Germany, because an uncle of Reyhaneh's lives here. Still, back then it was just one of many harrowing news stories on my radar. Then, in 2016, through my Iranian partner at the time I met Shole's (Jabbari’s mother) cousin and his wife in Istanbul – they had fled Iran and were now stuck in Turkey. They left Iran to rescue video material related to Reyhaneh Jabbari's case that had been shot covertly. I found one video particularly moving: it shows Shole sitting in a car in front of the prison waiting to see whether her daughter will be granted clemency or executed. This moment full of hope and exhaustion left an indelible mark on my consciousness. Over the course of multiple months, I travelled repeatedly to Turkey, we slowly became friends and they asked me if I could make a movie with this material.

A still from Seven Winters in Tehran
A still from Seven Winters in Tehran

What drew you to the story? 

Up to that point, I had considered myself more of a fiction-feature director. I was working on a screenplay for my fiction-feature debut, but was in a phase of stagnation at that point in time. That's why I wanted to avoid making empty promises at all costs, so I offered to take the material back to Germany, in order to have it translated and to reflect initially on how I could possibly make a documentary film out of it in the first place.

While I was copying the video material, I was looking out the window and caught sight of a woman in a blue headscarf watching the sea. Shortly thereafter, she was standing in front of me: it was Shole, Reyhaneh's mother, who had also just left for Turkey with her youngest daughter. 

The first moment was awkward. I felt very familiar with her, having seen her in the most extreme, personal moments through the video material. To her, I was a stranger who she was seeing for the first time. After a while, I told her exactly that. She looked at me, sizing me up, then smiled and hugged me. This hug was a magical moment and after the hug she began to tell stories, we drank tea, looked at childhood photos of Reyhaneh. I knew right there that I had to make this film.

What were your first impressions of Shole Pakravan and Jabbari’s two sisters? 

My first impression of Shole Pakravan was that she is a very strong woman on a mission to uphold her daughter's story, which unfortunately exemplifies so many other stories, and to fight against the death penalty in Iran. She was very cautious at the beginning because she was monitored and spied on by the Iranian government for years. I also realised that she didn't feel safe in Turkey and was always worried about being betrayed and taken back to Iran. But when we hugged, she opened up — following her intuition — and slowly began to trust me. 

Shahrzad, on the other hand, was much more suspicious and withdrawn towards me. It took months of contact before she slowly opened up to me. And although I wished very early on that Reyhaneh's sisters and her father would also appear in the film and talk about Reyhaneh, it took perhaps a year before I even asked them this question. The movie is the first time the whole family talks about Reyhaneh. Everyone except Shole never spoke openly about the case before the movie. 

The relationship that Reyhaneh had with her parents is an important part of the film. Can you talk a little bit about this? 

I believe that the connection between Reyhaneh and her family, especially her parents, helped her to get through the difficult time in prison emotionally. It is significant that Reyhaneh made a false confession the moment she was falsely told that her parents had disowned her during the solitary confinement in which she was tortured. The moment she understood that she had been lied to, that her family was behind her, she was able to regain her strength. 

Not many women and men in Iranian prisons have the support that Reyhaneh experienced from her family. The family never missed a single visit. They have built their entire lives around visiting times, some of which have been arranged spontaneously. The feeling of not being alone gave Reyhaneh the strength to stand up for herself. However, towards the end of her time in prison, her relationship with her parents was reversed; Shole always says that she is one of the mothers who learned from her daughter and not the other way around. Her experiences in prison have given Reyhaneh a glimpse behind the scenes of the beautiful Iranian cities that her parents could not have had. She passed on this knowledge and her resulting activism, which she used to stand up for her fellow prisoners, to her mother Shole Pakravan, who continues Reyhaneh's fight to this day. 

A still from Seven Winters in Tehran
A still from Seven Winters in Tehran

When Reyhaneh was in prison, did she have any idea that she might be the subject of a documentary?  

No, neither she nor her family ever thought there would be a movie about her. Shole and her family members took the footage so that when Reyhaneh was released from prison, they could show her everything they had done to support her and save her from the death penalty. The footage was never used to make a documentary about the case.

Especially in 2014, Shole began to record more and more of Reyhaneh's phone calls from prison. This was partly so that Reyhaneh could smuggle parts of the self-defence letters she wrote during this time past the prison authorities by reading them to Shole over the phone. Shole then typed them up and published them, but also recorded herself to spread Reyhaneh's voice on social media to draw attention to her case.

Do you remember how you felt when you first saw the Jabbari family's home videos?

The first time I saw the Jabbari family's home videos, one particular scene struck me deeply. It was the moment when Shole, Reyhaneh's mother, is shown sitting in front of the prison, anxiously awaiting news of her daughter's fate. What made this scene incredibly powerful for me was Shole's expression of hope and positivity towards Jalal, the person with the authority to decide her daughter's destiny. However, in that same shot, her hopes are shattered as she learns that her daughter has been hanged.

From the moment I witnessed this scene until now, it has remained ingrained in my memory. It evoked a profound sense of connection with Shole and her family. Despite Jean Luc Godard's assertion that reality is like a poorly written script, I believe this scene disproves that notion. It's a raw and poignant depiction of the harsh realities faced by the Jabbari family, and it left a lasting impact on me.

What were your biggest challenges while making Seven Winters in Tehran? 

The biggest challenge was to keep everyone safe. So protecting my team members and my protagonists was the highest priority. To that end, I never spoke about the film, I always kept what I was working on a secret, I communicated using secure channels, encrypted passwords, used fake details about content. …

The second big challenge was the language and the culture. I don't speak Persian and have never been to Iran. So making a movie entirely in Persian that is set almost entirely in Iran comes with a lot of obstacles. On the one hand, I did a lot of research, read books and tried to gain a deeper understanding of the culture and cultural codes. On the other hand, of course, I also needed a lot of support from Iranian filmmakers, which fortunately I always got. Since it would be very dangerous for Iranian filmmakers to make a movie about Reyhaneh, but they really wanted her story to be told — that helped me a lot. 

What was the most difficult part of her story to translate to film? 

The most challenging aspect of translating Reyhaneh's story into a film was condensing it into a runtime of less than 100 minutes. Her story is incredibly complex, with numerous details and subplots that we had to omit due to time constraints. Personally, it took me a considerable amount of time to make the decision to exclude much of the evidence supporting Reyhaneh's claim of self-defence.

There were various elements, such as, for example, the presence of drugs in her drink that she hadn't consumed, a phantom image she created of Sheikhi that vanished, condoms found on the bed, and her phone call to the ambulance after the incident, during which she waited until the ambulance arrived before leaving the scene. However, at one point, I realised that my role as a filmmaker wasn't to prove Reyhaneh's narrative but rather to illuminate the discriminatory structures at play behind her story. Therefore, I made the conscious decision to focus on highlighting these systemic issues rather than delving deeply into the evidentiary aspects of her case.

A still from Seven Winters in Tehran
A still from Seven Winters in Tehran

Is Fereydoon Jabbari still in Iran? Do you think he could face any repercussions for participating in this film?  

Yes, unfortunately Fereydoon Jabbari has still not been able to get his passport back, which was taken from him when his wife and youngest daughter left Iran. Unfortunately, the chances of him being able to leave Iran legally are not good. From the beginning, my greatest concern was for him, the only protagonist of our film still living in Iran. I knew that Reyhaneh's family had made a conscious decision to speak out and not be intimidated, but I was still worried. 

All the Iran experts who advised me predicted that it would be dangerous, especially while the movie was still in the public domain. But once the movie is released, the attention will be a kind of shield for Fereydoon. 

Thank God it has worked so far. Fereydoon did have to attend an interrogation once after the film's release, where he was asked to influence his wife to keep her mouth shut, but he only replied that he couldn't order his wife to do anything in Germany. Since then, Fereydoon has not been interrogated again, and I very much hope it stays that way.

Can you talk about the letter that is used for the voiceover?    

The voice-over is entirely composed of Reyhaneh's self-defence letters and diaries. Reyhaneh had written over 1,000 pages of diary, which I was allowed to read, and in 2014 she wrote several self-defence letters in which she tells her side of the story publicly for the first time, after years of sometimes hair-raising media coverage of her case. There were even excerpts from the letters, which Reyhaneh herself read to her mother on the phone and which she had recorded. This was one of the ways to get the letters out of prison as quickly as possible. Shole then typed up these letters and published them. But I didn't want to limit myself to just taking the excerpts that Reyhaneh had spoken herself, and then it was simply clear that someone else had to record them. I really wanted someone who had a political agenda and grew up in Iran, not someone who had Iranian roots but grew up in exile. I had the feeling that I could now look for an actress worldwide and then Sina Ataeian suggested Dena Zar Amir Ebrahimi to me, they are friends.

… We then spoke on the phone and she saw a rough cut, which was also important to her. Because I think it's always strange when someone from outside makes an Iranian movie. But she thought the rough cut was great and when we spoke, it clicked immediately. But that was before she won the Palme d'Or, so before her big success in Europe. 

And of course I also gave instructions on how to speak the text. It was a lot about filling the text with emotion without dramatizing it.

Can you talk about the smuggled footage from Iran?

Over the years, material for the film was repeatedly smuggled out of Iran. Of course, that was very stressful for me every time because I was always afraid that someone would get into real trouble because of the movie. But thank God, everyone remained unharmed. 

The film was specially shot in Iran by Iranian filmmakers who shot it as an act of resistance, so to speak, so that Reyhaneh's story could be told. These are some of the most dangerous images, for example the infamous Evin prison from the outside. You can be punished with at least five years in prison for such an image.

A still from Seven Winters in Tehran
A still from Seven Winters in Tehran

Can you talk a little bit about the miniature model of the prison?   

It was important to me to give Reyhaneh's story its own visual level. However, I didn't have any suitable shots. 

Relatively quickly, I had the image of an empty room in my head that plays a role in Reyhaneh's story: The apartment where she was almost raped, the holding cell, the isolation cell, the prisons and the court. All places to which I have no access. 

It was also important to me that the moment Reyhaneh is almost raped, it's clear: This is her story. I don't know what happened in this apartment. When I started the movie, the two people who were there were already dead. That's why I show an empty apartment. 

We tried to do as much research as possible. For example, for the prison rooms, I spoke to various people who were in solitary confinement in Evin Prison. Of course, the cells in Evin Prison and Shahr-e Rey Prison don't look as empty as they do in the movie. 

For Reyhaneh's family, this process was definitely very exciting, but at times also very painful. Although they visited Reyhaneh in Share Rey for years, they never knew what it was like in the prison lounges where the prisoners live. For example, that there is not a single window. No air conditioning, no heating (it is very cold there in winter and very hot in summer) was a shock for them.

Would you say your perspective, as the director of the film, is an objective perspective?   

As the director of the film, I would say that my perspective is not purely objective. I don't believe in the concept of complete objectivity; rather, I acknowledge that my personal views inevitably influence my work. Throughout the process of making the film, I became personally invested and involved. While the documentary is based on a plethora of documents, my own subjective viewpoint undoubtedly shaped the narrative. However, I made a conscious effort to scrutinise every aspect of the story and maintain a level of careful consideration in my approach. Over time, I found myself gradually distancing from Reyhaneh's family narrative and developing my own interpretation of the events portrayed in the film.

Would you describe Seven Winters in Tehran as a feminist documentary? 

I identify as a feminist, believing strongly in gender equality. In Seven Winters in Tehran, we delve into the systemic oppression experienced by women in Iran, making it apt to be labeled a feminist documentary. However, personally, I refrain from strictly categorizing it as such. To me, it's a documentary recounting the journey of a young Iranian woman, emblematic of the struggles endured by numerous individuals in Iran, irrespective of gender.

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