Film Reviews

Review: ‘Born in Evin’

Hot Docs 2019


Born in Evin
(Germany/Austria, 98 min.)
Dir. Maryam Zaree
Programme: Persister (International Premiere)

Maryam Zaree opens her extraordinary film by narrating a Talmudic story that immediately bonds you to her and sets up the doc’s storyline. All children are born with a candle on their head, goes the story, signifying that they know everything. But an angel blows out the candle, and they forget all their knowledge. They spend the rest of their lives trying to get it back.

In pre-revolutionary Iran, Zaree’s parents were dissidents who opposed the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s vicious autocracy. They continued their rebellion when they realized that the Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic State, was no better. “Just another dictator,” Zeree puts it contemptuously.

Zaree’s John Lennon and Karl Marx-loving parents were picked up and imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for political offenders, a still functioning House of Horrors that is apparently next door to an upscale tea house.

Zaree, a successful actor who resents being sometimes cast as a stereotyped refugee in heavy black chadors, made this debut film to solve mysteries that have haunted her all her life. Born in Evin, she has no memories of the prison, and doesn’t understand why she and her mother were released. They migrated to Germany while her father was left behind, waiting to be hung. In Germany, Zaree’s mother, who we see in old VHS tapes being happy with her small daughter, earned a doctorate and became the first female refugee mayoralty candidate in Frankfurt. On the basic level of a family story, Born in Evin is startling.

Both Zaree’s mother and father, who eventually got released and now lives in the west, never talked about Evin. Zaree didn’t even know she was bon there until a French-Iranian aunt inadvertently told her. She has questions like what did her parents suffer? What did she witness? Who let her and mother out and why? .

Zaree’s need to know leads her to France, England, and California, to various events for victims of the regime, some of whom she tries to film. Zaree meets up with the aunt who told her about her birth, other children of victims, various counsellors and advisors. “Why do you even want to find out the truth?” one of them asks. In another face-to-face, she is probed, “What are you looking for Maryam? What do you want to know?” Sometimes when people are silent, are they protecting you?

Zaree gets confronted by the possibility that her obsessive quest may be pointless. Apart from her story, the doc triggers questions about trauma and the various responses to it.

Meanwhile, through the various characters Zaree links up with, we are once again reminded how, masked by a holier-than-thou ideology, supposedly human monsters indulge in a lust for savage cruelty. At the Iran Tribunal in the World Court at the Hague, a woman describes in excruciating detail what interrogators did to her mother, tortures so extreme—electro shocking her breasts and pouring boiling water into her vagina—a priest during the Inquisition might find them excessive.

Victims were not told where their children were buried, And Zaree’s father opens up enough to show her a towel and a shirt authorities gave him after they hanged the friend who owned them. The recycling was an official policy. Interrogators would also play extended loops of Koranic surahs very loud, presumably to torment people into upholding the faith.

According to a woman in the prison when Zaree was born, an interrogator kicked her mother when she was pregnant, and a prison nurse called her baby the child “of a whore.” The woman can’t understand anyone saying something like that in the name of an ideological right. “The right to do what?” she asks.

Despite the horror stories, Born in Evin has many touching, ebullient moments. Zaree’s first documentary was made with simple means, including evocative VHS home movies from her childhood. She assembled it with grace and intelligence, and even humour. Zaree’s voice-over and on-camera presence keeps you close to her, especially when she’s interacting with her family. She might have trimmed some of the dialogue-heavy, interview-like scenes but that’s a quibble. This is a film that should be seen.

Born in Evin screens:
-Mon, Apr. 29 at 10:45 AM TIFF Lightbox
-Sat, May 4 at 6:00 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

View all articles by Maurie Alioff »