Two Berlin festival films relive torture in Iranian prisons

(This Feb. 21 story has been corrected to move reference to ‘Mr. Punisher’ from paragraph 6 to paragraph 5.)

By James Imam

BERLIN (Reuters) – In “Where God is Not”, Iranian filmmaker Mehran Tamadon’s unflinching account of the torture of former political prisoners in Iran, the director asks his interviewees to relive the horrors of their incarceration.

The film – which opened at the Berlin International Film Festival on Saturday as part of a Tamadon double-bill exploring abuse in Iranian prisons – spotlights torture practices the director says intensified following the revolution of 1979 and continue today.

“It´s happening right now,” Tamadon told Reuters. “I´m sure that tonight somebody is being tortured in that way.”

Shot in an abandoned warehouse in Paris, where Tamadon lives, the film features interviews with three ex-prisoners in reconstructed cells and interrogation chambers made from wood.

One interviewee, who says he ran a video equipment rental company in Iran before competitors with government ties accused him of spying, describes how electric cables were wrapped around his feet, lacerating his skin, and tells of a sadistic tormenter named “Mr. Punisher”. He assumes the excruciating “bundle” position, lying face down with his hands cuffed to his folded legs.

Another former inmate told through tears how the psychological torture of being kept in a makeshift coffin led her to recant and collaborate with the guards. The journalist Taghi Rahmani, who has been imprisoned multiple times, reveals how he maintained sanity while kept in a tiny cell.

The film, which forms part of an Iran focus at this year´s Berlinale, aims to confront prison guards in Iran with their own cruelty, Tamadon said.

“One objective is to show what is happening in Iran,” he added. “The second objective is for the interrogators to see themselves in a mirror.”

Iran´s most infamous prisons have drawn headlines in recent years, with sixteen video clips leaked in 2021 from Evin prison – often nicknamed “Evin University” because of the many dissident journalists and writers incarcerated there – showing what Amnesty International described at the time as “appalling abuse of prisoners”.

Iranian prisons chief Mohammad Mehdi Haj-Mohammadi later accepted responsibility, describing the scenes in a tweet as “unacceptable behaviour”.

In “My Worst Enemy”, another Tamadon documentary that premiered at the Berlinale on Tuesday, the director turns the tables, asking three Iranian political refugees to interrogate him as if they were agents of the Islamic Republic.

Tamadon said that films draw viewers into torture victims´ worlds.

“We can´t really show the violence in a documentary, can we?” he said. “What is important is for the viewer to experience it in the cinema.”

(Reporting by James Imam; Editing by Josie Kao)