As a young Marxist, Nahid Persson Sarvestani participated in the Iranian Revolution, but fled Iran in 1982 after Khomeinist revolutionaries began to arrest and execute members of the other groups, including leftists, that had helped to overthrow the Shah, among whom was her brother Rostam. She lived illegally in Dubai for two years before moving to Sweden in 1984. She has since made acclaimed documentaries about Iran, including Prostitution: Behind the Veil (2004), which tells the story of two Iranian women supporting their children through the sex trade, and The Queen and I (2008), a critical if empathetic profile of Farah Pahlavi.
Now, in My Stolen Revolution, she revisits her political past, seeking out old comrades, women who survived imprisonment during the Islamic Republic’s anti-leftist campaigns, and documenting their traumatic memories of physical and psychological torture, sexual abuse, brainwashing and overcrowding, as well as their grief for loved ones who had been executed. She spoke to IranWire about the long-lasting effects of trauma, continuing abuse in Iran, and the country’s future.
The Open City Docs Fest will host the UK premiere of My Stolen Revolution in London on Friday June 20th at 18:00.
The title of your film suggests your personal relationship with, or your role in, the Iranian Revolution of 1979. What were your political commitments at that time, and what was your vision for Iran’s future?
The title is addressed to all who contributed to the revolution. When I was very young, just 17 years old, in my last year in school, there were a lot of groups that were very secretive. I was very curious about what they did, and I asked them. In the beginning they didn’t tell me. I was very stubborn and I just continued. I heard there was a meeting at the university.
I knew there was injustice in Iran because I’m from a working class family and although my parents worked a lot, we didn’t have much money. I saw at the same time that people lived well, especially when we saw the Shah and the Queen on TV. I didn’t know that I had the power to change things, but then I met students who wanted the same things I wanted. It was heaven for me to meet them and be with them, and to struggle against the Shah’s dictatorship. We were very young and thought we had the power in our hands. We had a theory and wanted to put it into practice. Primarily we wanted equality for all people. My vision when I participated in the revolution was not only to alter Iran. Our aim was to change the world.
What was the name of the group you belonged to?
It was Etehad ye kommunist haya Iran, the Union of Iranian Communists. It was a small group. We didn’t believe in Russia; we believed Russia was imperialist and that China was better. But we believed in a country like Cuba. We thought Cuba was what we wanted, but that we could do better than them.
I was in Cuba four years ago, and I saw that, like in Iran, people couldn’t talk about politics because they were afraid. When I went to Iran in 2003 and saw how it was, with prostitution and drug addicts, it was so much worse than before. It was the same in Cuba. I was very sad that we believed when I was 17 that Iran could be like Cuba.
Your secularity, and the secularity of most of your old comrades in the film will be very striking to western viewers who are used to hearing about an Islamic Revolution. How did you imagine that Marx and Muhammad would coexist after the revolution?
It’s a very good question. The revolution was absolutely not an Islamic revolution, it was a people's revolution. It wasn’t about religion, because Iran is not a fanatical country. From the beginning it was not at all meant that Marx and Muhammad would cooperate. Khomeini had sent the message that it didn’t matter whether you were a communist or if you were Islamic, that we were sisters and brothers, and we were going to have freedom. What we didn't know was that Islamists were very cunning and would exploit us.
There were so many communist groups! One group believed in Mao, one group believed in Lenin. Our group didn’t believe in armed struggle, we wanted get people to understand our ideas. There were many leftist organizations, with Marxist ideology, but we all worked differently in practice.
The Islamists, however, were united and had a leader, Khomeini. When the revolution happened, everybody in Iran was so happy. Everybody cooperated on the first day of the revolution, but on the second day, everything was the opposite. As soon as Khomeini landed in Iran, it turned out that everything was a lie. Dissidents were jailed and executed. The same misery continues even today.
The women you interview present accounts of the traumas they endured after they were arrested following the revolution: Torture, rape, brainwashing and forced religious conversions, being threatened with execution, being made to witness torture and executions in various ways. Throughout the film, there are instances of people re-enacting aspects of that trauma: We learn of a little girl who re-staged her mother’s torture with a doll. We see your friends putting on blindfolds and chadors they kept from their prison days. How do you interpret these forms of re-enactment?
The people in the film were in prison for most of their youth. Prison became their home, and their prison time affects their lives today. It is a trauma that never disappears.
The child who was in prison, the only life she saw was in prison. She knew that it was wrong to hit someone, but you learn what people do, not what people say to you. There were a lot of children in prison, and women told me that it was very common for them to play interrogator and victim. It was like a theater for them.
One of the women in the film, Nazli, told me that she was much closer to her cellmates than she is with her daughter today. Her daughter has own room, her own friends, her own private life, but in prison they were together 24 hours a day. Nazli always has her fridge and freezer full of food, for fear of being hungry.
When Parvaneh was arrested she was just 17, and when she was released she was 26. It was the only life she knew. When she goes to the bathroom, she always hurries out, because in prison they had just one minute to use the bathroom. Parvaneh says she longed for her cellmates when she was released from prison.
Sodabeh makes art about her time in prison. She says it's like being close to her friends.
Azar still has nightmares. When she was at my house, she screamed in the middle of the night.
Many prisoners who came out after so many years became suicidal, because life outside was strange, it wasn’t what they had learned. A lot of them killed themselves.
Your film is partly a project in memory. What is the level of national memory in Iran about what prisoners experienced after the revolution?
Even I didn’t know how it was in prison, so I’m not sure that all people in Iran know about that. Before I made this film, when my younger brother was released from prison after three years, he didn’t want to talk about what happened to him in prison. I’m sure a lot of ex-prisoners don’t want to talk about what happened to them because it’s very painful.
When the women in my film talked about their torture, I couldn’t believe it. Most political prisoners left Iran after they were released, and they don’t want to tell their friends and relatives what it was like. For example, Azar, who was raped in prison, didn’t even tell her husband after she was released. I think she only told him three or four years ago.
Your subjects’ accounts of the extreme mistreatment they endured raise the question of where the perpetrators are now, and whether they will ever be held accountable for their conduct. Did you have a sense that your friends hoped to see Iranian leaders and former prison employees held accountable?
Of course, all Iranians dream about this. The ex-prisoners who saw their friends get executed and those of us who lost relatives and friends wish that one day those responsible will be brought to justice. But the prisons in Iran are still full, and executions have doubled [since the beginning of] Rouhani’s presidency. In January 2014, I think more than 50 people were executed.
Do you think there is anyone in the Iranian government or in the parliament who cares about human rights?
Even if they do, they don’t talk about it, because the Koran is the law, and if somebody says something opposite, they are not safe.
What are your hopes for the future? Can the regime be reformed?
I don’t think so. I don’t have much hope, especially after Rouhani came to power. All the Western countries are very happy that Iran has opened its doors, but nobody thinks about the Iranian people, and we are not going to see a free Iran because powerful countries are just interested in oil, and in an economic relationship with Iran that’s good for them.
People are afraid to do anything. In 2009 people came out into the streets and everybody hoped that we were going to change the regime, but nothing happened. What can they do? They can’t do it by themselves. The job problem is huge in Iran. People have to have a lot of jobs just to get by and buy food for their children. And they have seen what happened to the Arab countries after their revolutions—they weren’t so lucky.
I wonder if there is any meaning to making films about Iran, because I don’t believe that people can decide its future. If the U.S.A. and other countries are in power, they will decide if the regime is going to be there or not. I think it helps if other countries push Iran. They have the power to affect Iran.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.