Seven Winters in Tehran tells the tragic story of Reyhaneh Jabbari’s fight for justice in a brilliant display of documentary filmmaking.
Seven Winters in Tehran is a documentary film about the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari. At 19-years-old, Jabbari was sentenced to death for killing her would-be rapist. Despite her acting in self-defence, the flawed Iranian criminal justice system refused to treat her fairly and she would eventually lose her fight for freedom on 25 October 2014. Seven Winters in Tehran follows the plight of the Jabbari family through secretly obtained videos and letters Reyhaneh wrote whilst in prison. Director Steffi Niederzoll intersperses this material between heart-breaking testimonies from Reyhaneh’s friends and family, as well as recreations of the events that took place. Handling this subject matter with care and consideration, Niederzoll offers a masterclass in documentary filmmaking whilst telling the inspirational story of one woman’s life.
Seven Winters seeks to expose a judicial system that is ruled by a patriarchal hierarchy and tainted by a lack of respect for women. This documentary film therefore interrogates the Iranian law and provides a platform for victims who have not been able to speak out about the injustices inflicted upon them. Women who end up imprisoned in Iran are beaten, framed, and extorted by the police as penance for crimes they likely did not commit. Although Reyhaneh may be gone, it is her resilience that has allowed light to be shone on this issue.
During her years in prison, Reyhaneh was called ‘mother’ by her fellow prisoners in Shahr-e Rey Women’s Prison. During her time there, she campaigned for her friend’s freedom through texts her mother Shole published on the outside and cared for everyone like they were her children. Reyhaneh was always cautiously optimistic about her own future but was adamant to stay true to herself until the end. Learning that, to improve her chances of freedom, she would have to retract her claims of assault against her attacker Morteza Sarbandi, she insisted that she would rather die an honest woman. Due to this, she became a symbol of women’s rights in Iran both in life and death.
In Seven Winters in Tehran, we meet Reyhaneh’s mother Shole, her father Fereydoon and her two young sisters Sharare and Shahzard. Each member of the family reflects Reyhaneh’s gentle temperament, despite their anguish. Through their accounts of those seven years, a clear narrative of events is determined, and the viewer gets to know Reyhaneh through the people that loved her most. Niederzoll weaves these interviews between audio recordings of the family’s phone calls with Reyhaneh and letters from Reyhaneh in prison (read by Amir Ebrahimi from Holy Spider), and thus builds a full picture of the case and an intimate portrait of Reyhaneh Jabbari.
Met with a lot of hurdles during the process of making Seven Winters, Niederzoll appears to have jumped over them all with ease. For instance, scale model replicas of Reyhaneh’s prison cell and the court room where she was convicted were created in lieu of visiting these actual locations, as this wasn’t allowed. This worked well in creating continuity and immersing the viewer into the story in a creative way that didn’t seem out of place. By doing this, Niederzoll seamlessly blends the art of documentary filmmaking with a story that is powerful in its own right.
Each element of Seven Winters in Tehran comes together to make a truly impactful viewing experience that is a must-watch for everyone. Neirderzoll’s work as a respectful and artistic documentary filmmaker here helps in continuing Reyhaneh’s legacy by elevating an already powerful story with an inspirational woman at the centre.
Seven Winters in Tehran premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on February 17-25, 2023. Read our Berlin Film Festival reviews!