"Between Revolutions" by Vlad Petri The power of freedom
Three weeks after its world premiere at the Berlinale in Berlin, "Intre revolutii" was screened at the renowned documentary film festival in Thessaloniki. The film tells the story of a friendship caught between two revolutions rarely associated with each other: the Iranian revolution, which led to the fall of the Shah's regime, and the Romanian revolution, which brought about the end of the Ceausescu dictatorship. More screenings are scheduled at other festivals: the topic of revolution in Iran remains especially pertinent.
The relationship between Romanian Maria and Iranian Zahra begins in the 70s, while they are both studying in Bucharest. Zahra has come to Romania to study medicine, like many Iranian and Middle Eastern students at the time.
She and Maria become best friends, but then Zahra returns to Iran shortly before the revolution. Over the years, they exchange intimate letters, which bear witness to their deep bond, their friendship, their love – and the dramatic changes facing their countries.
Hope in Iran as the Shah is ousted
"Something big is happening here," Zahra writes from Tehran. "The time has come; people aren’t afraid anymore." In Iran, the revolution against the Shah begins. Zahra writes about the incredible energy she senses on the streets, a "force of nature". She and her father distribute a manifesto that speaks out against the Shah, for democracy and against imperialism, something which links the revolutionaries in East and West. More than anything, however, it speaks to the hope of freedom. Her reports make her friend in Romania proud, but she also worries for her.
Director Vlad Petri highlights what Zahra experiences using powerful, never-before-seen archive images from Iranian television. In the streets of Tehran, the masses are now chanting 'Allahu Akbar', regardless of whether they're left-wing, secular, religious, or conservative. It is simply a matter of bringing down the crippling era of the Shah. Women played a central role in the revolution and, naturally, you cannot see these images without thinking about the protests following the murder of Mahsa Amina and the new revolution in Iran.
There is a moment of genuine surprise when the viewer learns – at the end of the film – that Zahra and Maria never wrote to one another, and that the letters were penned by the well-known Romanian writer Lavinia Braniste, who wrote them especially for Petri's film. Her prose is so vital, so precise, the viewer takes its authenticity as a given.
Petri deftly plays with the fluid boundary between reality and fiction, consciously blurring the line: "Sometimes fictional stories do better at documenting a subject than a documentary film itself; and some documentary films are fictional. Ultimately, everything in film is subjective," he tells Qantara.
Between fiction and reality
Yet there's also an autobiographical element to the film: Petri's mother, like Maria, studied during the 70s and her son discovered that some of her fellow students in old photos were from the Middle East. And so, the idea for the film emerged.
"I was really interested in this encounter," Petri explains. "And it's also an encounter between East and West – one in which Romania was a particularly unique and very isolated country; in Europe's view, it was part of the East itself." And so, Petri plays with perspectives, without ever stooping to cliche. In light of the current situation in Iran, Petri carried out painstaking research to paint a nuanced picture of the situation.
The love story between Zahra and Maria is fictional, but it was constructed from numerous different sources; most of the material comes from the national archives of the Securitate, Ceausescu's infamous secret police service, which was constantly monitoring Middle Eastern students and their relationships with Romanians. Petri worked with historians and discussed and developed the film and its protagonists with numerous Iranians. A co-producer in Iran procured impressive images of the revolution and the years that followed.
The images also make clear the imminent doubts about the post-revolutionary path of Khomeini's project for an Islamic republic, which reveals itself as increasingly conservative and restrictive. Women take to the streets en masse to stand up for their rights and to oppose the early imposition of the hijab.
On the day of the referendum on the establishment of the new 'Islamic Republic' in March 1979, television reporters ask passers-by for their opinion on the matter. One married couple disagree: the man casually informs the interviewer that he intends to vote 'yes'; the woman, concerned, says she will vote 'no' – concerns over further massive restrictions to women's rights have long been too great to ignore.
Trauma of a generation
Meanwhile, Zahra's pen pal, Maria, reports increasing oppression in Romania. She is constantly being followed by "men in black coats", the secret police who did indeed monitor every meeting, every letter between students. The relationship between Zahra and Maria and what could have been increasingly falls victim to distance and circumstance: Maria writes that she has bowed to pressure from her family and got married. It sounds like capitulation.
Women are still chanting "Death to the conservatives" in the streets, but soon their protests are brutally suppressed. The war against Iraq (1980-1988) shapes a whole decade. This is also expressed in the letters from Zahra, which reflect how the revolution has become derailed, the revolution in which she had placed so much hope. The Islamic Republic frightens her and it destroys her life.
Her beloved father goes missing and the authorities inform her family to stop looking for him. "The men here, are just like your men in black coats," Zahra writes. Later, she writes of her fifteen-year-old nephew, who is sent to war. "We'll be the family of a martyr," writes Zahra bitterly. Petri's outline of the fate of Zahra and her family in the early days of the Islamic Republic stands in for the profound trauma of an entire generation. There is no going back – for now.
Revolutions can be stolen
While a leaden weight lies over Iran, in Romania, an uprising against Ceausescu begins, and the images now resemble those from Iran in 1979. Maria thinks back to Zahra's letters from the revolution, the energy on the streets, the 'force of nature' – now people are taking to the streets of Bucharest en masse and shouting, "Down with Ceausescu!"
And yet, in this hour of freedom, Maria thinks back to the outcome of the revolution in Iran and writes to her friend: "We are free now – but I know that revolutions can be stolen." Images from the time after the transition, the arrival of privatisation, commercialisation, and distribution battles indicate that Romania, too, has a long road ahead of it.
Zahra stops replying. Maria grieves for the loss of her friend: 'When do people fade on paper?' she asks herself. We never learn whether Zahra has fallen victim to the Islamic Republic's henchmen, or whether, today, like many women of her generation, she can be found marching along the streets of Tehran, chanting "Woman, Life, Freedom".
The poetic and sensual writing in the letters, through which the director and his co-authors tell the film's story, is as expressive and complex as the wonderful archive images. During the credits, images are displayed of student passes belonging to those Iranian students who inspired the story of Zahra and Maria. Petri has succeeded in creating a magnificent, exceptional film about closeness and the distance within a love affair, about the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous in Iran and Romania, and about the irrepressible power of freedom.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu