Confronting a very personal trauma

When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979, he persecuted his opponents with severity. Maryam Zaree was born in a prison for political prisoners. With her film "Born in Evin" she breaks her silence. By Laura Doing

By Laura Döing

One day it just slipped out: her aunt revealed that Maryam Zaree did not see the light of day in a normal hospital, but was born in captivity in 1983. The aunt says she was horrified when she realised that Maryam didn't know.

She thought her parents would have long since told the twelve-year-old that she was born in Evin, one of Iran's most notorious prisons for political prisoners. But this was not the case. And even following the revelation, no clarifying conversations or joint reappraisals of the family history take place.

The story begins when Zaree's parents meet in Iran. They listen to John Lennon, read Karl Marx and are against the Shah and the monarchy in which they grew up.

But with the Islamic Revolution of 1979, one dictator is replaced by another, and they are declared enemies of the new Mullah regime. In 1983 the two are arrested – and Maryam Zaree with them, a foetus in her mother's womb.

Baby behind bars

This is where the big black hole opens up that the young woman meticulously tries to fill in her documentary debut "Born in Evin". It was a topic that was never discussed within the family: not when mother and daughter were allowed to leave prison and flee to Germany, nor even when the father was released after seven years of waiting for the death penalty, having survived the massacre of political prisoners which saw thousands of people executed in 1988.

Poster advertising Maryam Zareeʹs "Born in Evin"  at the Berlinale 2019 (source: Berlinale)
Casting long shadows: in Maryam Zareeʹs Film "Born in Evin" the scenes in which she exposes herself to her greatest fears to the point of despair, finally confronting her mother with her questions about the black hole in the family history, are painfully long

The silence persisted as Zaree's mother – now a psychologist and local politician with a doctorate – ran for mayor in Frankfurt and Zaree herself became a successful actress in Germany and Europe. And it continued when Zaree presented her mother with a trailer for a film during her summer vacation: an attempt at a cinematic reappraisal.

Tortured by suras

On a bus ride through Morocco, Zaree was made painfully aware of the horror of the infamous torture prison that she carries deep inside her: suddenly, the music in the bus just seemed to be going on and on. She started sweating in panic, thinking she was losing her mind. Finally she screamed at the driver to turn the music off.

Only later did she tell her father about the panic attack, which she was unable to explain to herself. He told her that prisoners in Evin were tortured acoustically using an endless loop of Koran suras, which were likely also being played in the bus. The experience she had had as a toddler had burned itself into her sub-conscious.

In her film, Zaree seeks out other children of political prisoners to find out how they deal with the trauma they have experienced – their own trauma and those of their parents. She meets, among others, the author Sahar Delíjaní, who was also born as a child of political activists in the Evin prison in Tehran and wrote "Children of the Jacaranda Tree" about her experiences.

A new generation

Mayam Zaree also meets the Iranian-French anthropologist Chowra Makaremi. She was eight years old when her mother was executed. Her grandfather wrote down what was done to her mother: her spine was broken, she had burns on several parts of her body, her intimate area had been scalded with boiling water, she had been hung by her feet and wires had been tied around her breasts for electric shocks.

In 1992, Chowra Makaremi presented these lines of her grandfather to the so-called Iran Tribunal in The Hague, a symbolic People's Court to investigate the state-ordered acts of violence in Iran in the 1980s.In conversation, the two women discover that they have more in common than they think: as the children of oppressed opposition members abroad, they were turned into successful and responsible adults – quasi as proof of the correctness of their parents' ideals. We witness their struggle to put this into words. The truth is too painful.

Merciless proximity

Zaree does not spare herself in the film in general. The camera is there when her father, as a manifestation of repression, pulls out a towel from under the bed that he has been keeping in a drawer for over 30 years: it comes from Evin Prison. Its previous owners were two of his fellow inmates. Both were 29 years old when they were hanged. After that it became his property.

The scenes in which Zaree finally confronts her mother about the black hole in their family history, exposing herself to her greatest fears to the point of desperation, are excruciatingly long.

Yet "Born in Evin" is not a self-discovery trip that is all about one family. Initially, she didn't even want to appear in the film at all, says Zaree: "it was a fine line: I have an actressʹ skills, but here I was aiming to show something very realistic and authentic. Then I realised that if I wasn't part of the film, I would be denying myself. If I wanted to make a film about repression that seeks to break open the structures and dynamics of repression, then I can't continue and pretend it has nothing to do with me."

Mass graves of political prisoners massacred in the summer in Tehranʹs Kharavan Cemetery (photo: DW/S. Montazari)
"Born in Evin" demonstrates what happens when there is no institutional reappraisal of a national trauma. The regime in Iran is not interested in a re-examination of the massacre. To this day, no one knows how many people were executed in the 1980s

The film shows what happens when there is no institutional reappraisal of a national trauma. The regime in Iran is not interested in a re-examination of the massacre. To this day, no one knows how many people were executed in the 1980s. Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate who was part of the commission that monitored the executions in 1988, stood in the 2017 presidential election.

"Born in Evin" raises the question of what narratives can the generation of children in exile create, how they can position themselves and pass on their history – and in doing so creates an analogy with the fates of today's refugees.

The work goes on

For Zaree, it is already the third part of her artistic examination of this topic: she has already written an award-winning play on the subject of speechlessness and repression and participated in an autobiographical project sponsored by Berlin's Gorki Theater.

She invested around four years in her debut film. But not full time. At this year's Berlinale, where "Born in Evin" premiered in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section, she was involved in three productions.

Now she is looking for a little breathing space. Nevertheless, she already has an invitation for the International Playwrights' Programme run by the Royal Court Theatre in London for the summer and a few acting engagements. Just as one would expect from successful and responsible adults. Catching herself mid-sentence, she is forced to laugh.

Laura Doing

© Deutsche Welle 2019