– Nahid Persson Sarvestani pays tribute to Rouhollah Zam, an exiled Iranian activist and journalist with a tragic fate, with a moving film about the pursuit of regime opponents

Review: Son of the Mullah

Rouhollah Zam in Son of the Mullah

“They will never let us speak freely and they will do everything to stop us.” In order to escape from the total control of the media inside Iran, and share the most shocking information, opponents of the regime went into exile and launched their own news websites and Telegram channels. One of them was AmadNews, created by the sadly famous Rouhollah Zam who is the subject of Son of the Mullah, the new documentary from Swedish-Iranian director Nahid Persson Sarvestani (who made a splash with Prostitution Behind The Veil and La Reine et moi among other titles), which premiered at IDFA and screens this week in the International Competition at FIPADOC in Biarritz. A film created in painful proximity to its subject, since the director was still shooting when her protagonist was kidnapped, brought back to Iran, judged, sentenced to death and executed on 12 December 2020. 

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“I had a beautiful life before I left Iran.” Contacted by Nahid Persson Sarvestani, Rouhollah welcomes her in the small, hidden apartment in the Paris banlieue where he is protected with his family (his wife Mahsa and his two daughters) by the French police since he fled Iran in 2011, following an arrest and several bitter months in prison in Evin. A cheerful personality, Rouhollah comes from the upper echelons of the regime frequented by his father, a mullah. “This was until I realised that all these people who talked about religion, about God and the prophets, had been contaminated by politics.” Through AmadNews, funded in 2015, he attacks the regime head-on, publishing among other things criticism against Ali Khamenei (supreme leader of the Islamic Republic), encouraging at a distance the “green revolution” of 2017, revealing embezzlements and money laundering scandals, shedding light on the violents acts of those in power. A very dangerous mission because the regime’s minions threaten him and seek to reduce him to perpetual silence, and his very dense network of sources may be infiltrated with manipulators. Paranoia and a fear of betrayal are therefore a part of daily life for a family living in the most complete isolation. But Rouhollah also has some solid friends, such as Ali Javanmardi (who also has a web channel, based in Iraqi Kurdistan) to whom Nahid Persson Sarvestani pays a visit with her camera. However, from that moment on, everything goes wrong: the director receives threats at her Swedish home and Rouhollah, trapped, is captured in March 2019 by a documentary made by the regime, which presents him under a very unflattering light for the rest of the opposition. From there, the situation will only go from bad to worse… 

“Mrs Nahid, do not worry, when they’ll have killed Rouhollah in three or four months, your film will become famous – Rouhollah just laughed. I said: How can you say such a thing about your friend? He replies: fighting back has a price.” This prescient conversation, taking place very early on in the film, perfectly illustrates an atmosphere of being on the edge of a precipice, and the courage of a man that some have attempted to smear. The documentary, both very precise about the series of manipulations that took place and attuned to the humanity shared by all resistants worldwide, completely rehabilitates him.

Produced by Real Reel Doc, Son of the Mullah was co-produced by Arte GEIE and SVT. International sales are handled by Swedish Film Institute.

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(Translated from French)

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