My Stolen Revolution: LAFF Review

My Stolen Revolution - P 2013

My Stolen Revolution - P 2013

The harrowing testimony and resilience of former political prisoners is compelling, despite the indulgent first-person perspective that frames this memory piece.

Thirty years after she fled Iran, a filmmaker reconnects with fellow activists who weren’t fortunate enough to avoid imprisonment.

Filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani was not yet 20, and a committed leftist, when the Islamic Revolution shook her native Iran to the core. She was able to escape the ensuing crackdown on dissidents, and took asylum in Sweden, but her brother was arrested and executed. In search of information about his final days, and struggling with her survivor’s guilt, she tracked down five of her fellow activists, all women, and recorded their emotional recollections of the torture they endured as prisoners of the Ayatollah’s regime.

The result is My Stolen Revolution, a film that places powerful material within a problematic structure. With Iran’s recent presidential elections fresh in the news, the documentary, in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, should enjoy heightened interest on the fest circuit and in cinematheque programs dedicated to women’s issues and human rights.

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In the opening sequences, via archival material and her own voiceover narration, Persson Sarvestani offers insight into what it meant to be a young idealist, and notes that Communists and Islamists fought side by side against the Shah’s dictatorship. But, she notes ruefully, the Islamists were better organized.

A nostalgia-steeped reunion with her former mentor, the first person Persson Sarvestani tracks down, speaks to this point in an unsettling twist. The filmmaker’s visit with the older woman, now living in San Francisco, sours when she discovers the gaping divide between them on the matter of religion.

But she finds common ground with five fellow ’70s activists who are living in various parts of Europe, and invites them to her home for a few days of talking before the cameras. There’s an unshakable sense of contrivance to this confessional setup, especially when the director seems to be biding her time until she can bring the conversation's focus back to her need for redemption.

But in their openheartedness and strength, her guests are deeply affecting. They watch, from a certain remove, when their host breaks down in self-reproach. Most served close to 10 years for their political activities. One was raped; others spent months blindfolded. They recall the details of their torture, the smells and cramped cells, the sounds of the twice-weekly firing squad on the other side of the wall. On a particular day when one woman counted 86 shots, she knew that one of them was for her brother.

Another woman still has a chador she was forced to wear in prison, and it becomes a prop in the film, used in artfully staged symbolic moments that are no less potent for being obvious. In terms of making art from anguish, the artist Soudabeh Ardavan shares recent work as well as extraordinary miniatures that she created while in prison, fashioning paintbrushes from toothpicks and hair, carving asphalt with glass and needles.

Ardavan’s story is an especially fascinating one, but all the women provoke curiosity about how they’ve lived their lives in the years since their prison ordeal. There are suggestions that some, if not all, are still vocal about conditions in Iran and politically involved. To know what they’re doing now would have given the film a better-rounded arc. But Persson Sarvestani makes clear from the get-go that the project is a quest to resolve her personal doubts and questions. As a result of her time spent with the five women, she finds some of the answers she needs. 

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production company: Real Reel Doc
Featuring: Nahid Persson Sarvestani, Parvaneh Aref, Nazli Partovi, Soudabeh Ardavan, Monireh Baradaran, Azar Al Kanaan
Director-producer: Nahid Persson Sarvestani
Writers: Nahid Persson Sarvestani, Zinat S. Lloyd
Directors of photography: Nicklas Karpaty, Makan
Music: Adam Norden
Editors: Emil Engerdahl, Nahid Persson Sarvestani
No MPAA rating, 75 minutes