Tuesday, October 21, 2014

UNAFF ’14: My Stolen Revolution

It is pretty heavy when an atheist Marxist confesses nostalgia for the Shah of Iran. Nahid Persson Sarvestani does not express such a sentiment in those exact terms, but she comes close, readily arguing the Islamist regime that followed the Shah’s secular authoritarian rule turned out to be far, far worse. Essentially establishing the Islamist-theocratic corollary to the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, Persson Sarvestani collects the harrowing oral history of several former comrades in My Stolen Revolution (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

As a teenager, Persson Sarvestani was an ardent leftist, who had no qualms about joining forces with the Islamic fundamentalists against the Shah. In retrospect, this was a mistake. She ruefully admits the Islamists had superior organization, which launched them into power when Carter pulled the rug out from under our ally the Shah. Soon, the new regime was imprisoning and torturing proven troublemakers like Persson Sarvestani. Although she was able to get out of the country while the getting was good, her younger brother was executed in her place.

Long nurturing an acute case of survivor’s guilt, Persson Sarvestani sought out several revolutionary comrades who were not so fortunate, in the hope they could offer some insight regarding her brother’s final days. However, the reunion with her former cadre leader does not go so well. Persson Sarvestani is appalled to find the good leftist has found solace in the Muslim faith she once rejected. For Persson Sarvestani, that is a deal-breaker.

Fortunately, the subsequent colleagues she tracks down have remained reasonably true to their ideals. Instead of a misogynistic religion, they take comfort in art. Unlike Persson Sarvestani they saw the insides of Iran’s political prisons and lived to tell about it—barely. Indeed, most of the women are dealing with the lingering pain and physical ailments caused by the extreme torture they endured.

Their stories are so harrowing it is no exaggeration to say Persson Sarvestani’s experiences pale in comparison. She is clearly just as aware of this as viewers will be, yet there is still an awful lot of her throughout the film. When she invites her new friends on a retreat to share their testimony, the film would have been better served if she had just stepped out of the way, rather than making such a point of grappling with her own feelings.

Nevertheless, the women’s individual indictments of the Revolutionary regime are powerful stuff. Of course, the ruling ideology and theocratic state apparatus responsible for the physical and psychological torture of sixteen year old girls remains unchanged. Despite a few video diary indulgences, My Stolen Revolution is a timely and valuable film. Recommended for viewers concerned about international women’s rights, it screens this Saturday (10/25) in Palo Alto, as part of session 25 of this year’s UNAFF.