Sunday, December 1, 2013

MY STOLEN REVOLUTION: smiling through the unthinkable

[This originally appeared on]

At first obvious judgment, the documentary MY STOLEN REVOLUTION  may seem a feminist rebuke to Iran's troubling recent history with crimes against women.  But this film, at times a little rough around the edges, is also about other things. It is foremost a love-letter from the filmmaker to her brother. And the entire film is also in many ways her attempt at the exorcism of guilt.

In our routine dealings with the world, we interact with countless strangers: people in whom we may invest attention only for the short term, and others we may outright ignore. But, this film asks: how many of the strangers we encounter on a daily basis harbor histories of the unbearable, the unthinkable?

The filmmaker (Nahid Persson) a former student activist in Iran, who belonged to a liberal counter-establishment revolutionary organization in her youth, managed to leave the country just barely before the government started to crack down on members of the group. Now living in the United States and watching the recent resurgence of violent student-led protests in Iran more than three decades later, she is driven to reach out to the other members of her original radical group. This leads her to travel around the world to reconnect with these individuals, who like her, have settled into mostly quiet, domestic lives. It is surprising how unremarkable and ordinary the eventual destination can be for a path that started out with an unquenchable revolutionary fervor. As she meets these other women, they begin to recount, in frank detail, their experiences in the Iranian prison system after getting arrested in their youth, a fate the filmmaker narrowly escaped. The weight of her guilt becomes more evident when it is revealed that her younger brother, recruited into the revolutionary group for barely a month, was subsequently arrested and suffered the worst of outcomes. Unlike her, his fate did not allow for fleeing Iran prior to imprisonment.

All documentaries carry the burden of being truthful even as we know that the presence of a camera in front of a person fundamentally alters their behavior. This film presents several filmed interactions between individuals that couldn't possibly be entirely authentic. How could a lack of spontaneity and an inevitable rehearsed-ness not have crept in with the best of intentions.  But ultimately the film transcends those concerns and manages to pack an emotional wallop because it has the good fortune to have as its subject, these women of remarkable strength. Whose ideological passions, burning still after all these years, cut through the limitations of the documentarian's camera.

Weeks after having seen this film, what has stayed with me is this. It is the smiling face of one of the women: a face of uncommon peace that against all odds retained a calm grace even when recounting particularly horrific transgressions at the hands of Iranian prison guards. The five women who speak candidly to the camera in this film have all made peace with their past lives. How is it conceivable that individuals who have been through the unspeakable can have their future lives not irreversibly haunted by those experiences? How can bitterness not poison everything that follows for those who survive the horrific. Every person who makes it through a holocaust, who has been a political prisoner, who has been victim to military human rights violations, who has seen genocide first hand -  must have had to grapple with this. MY STOLEN REVOLUTION gains most power when demonstrating the seemingly insaturable human capacity for mending after surviving what would seem a wholly destructive experience.

'My Stolen Revolution' was screened at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival and is awaiting distribution.

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