Berlin 2023

Where God is Not review – eye-opening but difficult Iranian torture doc

Mehran Tamadon asks former political prisoners to restage the conditions of their incarceration in a strange, morally murky film

The influence of Joshua Oppenheimer's seminal, knife-twist of a documentary The Act of Killing is all over this strange, similarly eye-opening film from Paris-based Iranian filmmaker Mehran Tamadon. The latest in a growing line of experimental docs that stage re-enactments with victims or perpetrators of atrocities in an attempt to locate some deeper truth, Where God is Not gathers three former political prisoners of Iran and asks them to relive their experiences of torture in forensic detail.

Tamdon intercuts footage of his subjects across the span of what comes to feel like an overlong two-hour runtime, talking and prodding them about the circumstances of their time spent in either the ill-famed Evin or Ghezel Hesar prisons. Mazyar Ebrahimi was a video shop owner accused of being a spy; Homa Kahlor was imprisoned in the 1980s and later wrote a book about her incarceration; and Taghi Rahmani is a controversial journalist who has spent his life in and out of prison.

The no-fuss photography captures all three in dank locations intended to replicate the oppressive environments of the prisons, as Tamadon encourages his subjects to show him, and sometimes perform on him, the extent of their torture. But as each individual tries to find the right words (and tools), we quickly realise that no film can really get us close to the real thing. Tamadon might argue that this is the point – the realisation that showing us, however meticulously, holds nothing to the real experience; those who have never faced torture can never hope to understand.

Ebrahimi, equal parts affable and vulnerable, finds plenty of unexpected gallows humour during his segment, while Kahlor admits she has only agreed to appear in order to ease the burden of her complicity; she was, at one point, assigned to guard the other prisoners. But the most fascinating subject is Rahmani, who speaks with the presence of a seasoned scholar and even upstages the director, who seems unable to match his level of wit. The film's most memorable sequence has Rahmani explaining, almost trance-like, his methods for making it through months locked in a tiny isolation cell: the details fall out him without pause, and we see he has been transported back to the survival mindset of his prison years. Or, rather, the mindset has never left him.

The most common questions aimed at many of these reconstructive documentaries tend to be: what's the point of this? Is the framing device merely an indulgence? What are the ethical implications? In Tamadon's own mind, he hopes that some of the torturers will see the film and find themselves faced with feelings of guilt over their actions. Rahmani doubts they would care – they did what they did, after all, and such actions speak of a person unable to feel remorse. But just as The Act of Killing showed us with its now infamous rooftop retching, you never quite know how torturers and murderers will respond when presented with the extent of their crimes.

Where God is Not was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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