The 2020 Iranian film- directed by Mohammad Rasoulof- is a powerful anthology of four stories examining the reality of living in Iran under a despotic regime, exploring moral strength and survival of the individual amidst extreme capital punishment laws
Working in defiance of a lifelong ban on filmmaking director Mohammad Rasoulof delivers a piercing drama about a subject he knows well: the costs of living under a repressive, brutal government.
The human condition is a long-filmed subject in the world of film-making, and in many ways Rasoulof’s There is No Evil can be viewed as an exploration of human morality in the face of a judicial system of oppression that is not specific to Iran. However, in many other ways, it is impossible to separate the film from a direct criticism of the Iranian regime, as that was it’s clear intention. The films central focus is the judicial system of Iran, most importantly the death penalty and capital punishment laws.
This excellent exploration of the lives of individuals trying to navigate their place within an oppressive regime is a universal tale of curbed freedoms and oppression that is impactful to both Iranian citizens, and those glancing in at the Iranian system through the lens of film-making.
Statistically, Iran is thought to execute the most people yearly worldwide save for China, and the most people per capita globally. Regimes with militaristic structure, non secular politics, and capital punishment are often at odds with human rights bodies and organisations globally, resulting in a lack of clear data concerning a host of liberty-restricting themes and actions.
Officially, Iran insists that execution numbers are greatly exaggerated by human rights groups, and that they are only carried out after lengthy judicial procedure. Various sources have attested to the falsehood of this claim, with Amnesty International claiming in 2015 that the Iranian courts were almost always ‘completely lacking in independence and impartiality’, and that ‘trials in Iran are deeply flawed; detainees are often denied access to lawyers, and there are inadequate procedures for appeal, pardon, and commutation.’
Executions are often carried out by conscripted soldiers, which puts an enormous burden on the shoulders of ordinary citizens regarding their complicity, and also prevents their refusal to do so. Military service in Iran is compulsory for male citizens, and one cannot obtain a job, passport, and various other documentation without having completed service. Soldiers refusing to obey orders face imprisonment. Iran effectively utilises a system by which everyone feels the effects of execution.
Individuals can be sentenced to death in Iran for a host of wildly varying crimes under both Sharia and Iranian law: from rape, murder and child molestation, to ‘prohibited sexual relations’ such as engaging in premarital sex, homosexual sex, prostitution, and incestuous relations, political dissidence, sabotage, blasphemy, producing pornography, rebellion and more.
The separation between law and religion judicially, observed in many nations globally, does not exist at current in Iran.
When Rasoulof returned from Cannes in 2017, following the premiere of his film “A Man of Integrity,” he was banned from filmmaking for life and sentenced to a year in prison. But as a man of integrity himself, the director could not stop. He was accused of “endangering national security” and “spreading propaganda” against the government.
His latest film, There is No Evil is, as one would expect, banned in Iran, and was entirely shot in secret, naturally. There was a great risk to Rasoulof and his cast and crew in the inception and creation of this powerful anthology work.
The director is currently jailed again, and is now banned from leaving Iran.
The film received the prestigious Golden Bear at Berlin’s 70th annual film festival: Rasoulof was prevented from attending and will likely never receive his award in a public setting.
It is so important to truly attempt to picture and understand the extent of danger surrounding creating this film and others of it’s like, something alien to Western film-makers and audiences operating within their own countries. Under Iranian law, the creation of the film could come under sabotage, rebellion, or political dissidence with execution or lengthy imprisonment as a sentence. This is the reality facing storytellers under these circumstances.
Each story within Rasoulof’s anthology is self-contained, but exploring the same theme: moral agency and action amidst trying to survive in a regime with strict capital punishment and freedom curbing laws. We are invited into the world of four different characters each dealing with the realities of life in a nation with these practices, and how they react and adapt to the circumstances presented to them.
The first story presented is, in my opinion, the most impactful of all.
Eponymously titled There is No Evil, we are presented with seemingly endless domestic and everyday drudgery: a man picks up his wife and child from work and school, looks after his elderly mother-in-law, prepares to go to a friends wedding, and is almost unrecognisable from a Western contemporary scenario. We find out his job is not what it seems, casting an entirely new light on this happy domestic monotony.
Suddenly it occurs to me as I watch our protagonist ferry his family around; ‘What is this man’s job?’
This leads to a shocking last few minutes of the story that are viscerally shocking, where the nature of this man’s job and role within society is established as he makes coffee casually, waiting for the flashing lights on a small display in a small room to turn green so he can mass execute prisoners with the flick of a switch. A job is just a job.
Rasoulof is directly challenging the passivity with which some Iranian citizens accept their role in this regime, but is not critical of the individual as much as the regime that forces people to either comply or flee, effectively doomed to perpetuate the regime and accept its place, or face total social exclusion, persecution, and a life of living in hiding and fear. The act of execution is a devastating reality for many in Iran, perpetuated by a system with demands it.
The next tale in stark contrast takes us to a derelict army barracks, placing us in the life of a young new soldier Pouya Heshmat, undertaking his compulsory military service, distressed at the prospect of being in an execution troop.
We observe the men sharing the barracks discuss the nature of their circumstances; one dismisses killing as easy. “They’re criminals!” he asserts almost lazily, saying his new friend ‘still doesn’t get it.’ This obviously symbolises the rationalisation that occurs in these scenarios, apparent in almost every war or regime since the dawn of time. Justification to survive and adapt to the circumstances.
The others are a mixed bag of viewpoints and feelings, some also rationalising the circumstances but with nowhere near the conviction of our aforementioned soldier. What takes place is a reaction to Heshmat’s emotional conviction that he cannot execute someone, resulting in anger and revulsion rising from the soliders whom have executed people as they angrily assert that he must, just like them. He doesn’t get to be innocent.
Their guilt and revulsion at their actions twists into an advocation that others also do so. Again Rousolof is directing this to passive followers of the regime, but within the framework that understands the choice to disobey and rebel is extremely dangerous.
In our third tale, we observe the actuality of the consequences and impact of the compliance with execution. A young soldier also serving his compulsory military service has three days off to visit his girlfriend and her family in a rural province seemingly far removed from the realities of killing and execution.
The beautiful, naturalistic and Arcadian settings give a sense of isolation and detachment, as if the picturesque environment could not be tarnished by the realities of the regime. This is decidedly not the case.
Our soldier finds that his girlfriend and her family have remained quiet about the execution of a beloved family friend and community teacher, possibly as a result of his military connections and the desire to comparmentalise these devastating realities. It illustrates a division and psychological dissonance between every-day life and the reality of Iranian laws. Repression rules collectively in the minds of the nation as a survival mechanism. The pain of an entire nation having to be complicit in and acutely aware of grim executions as a fact of life is collectively drowned in tears and buried despite it’s permanent fixture in the society.
At our climax, it transpires that our young soldier has received three days off for volunteering to execute someone- that someone being the same family friend his girlfriend and her family are devastated over. He insists he was told ‘they were a criminal’, again highlighting this survival mechanism of those carrying out executions to focus on the alleged criminality of the victim.
This tale brings our solider back to startling reality, as it dawns on him how easy it was for him to volunteer- taking a life for three days off sounded good at the time. The realisation that soldiers are executing people simply for contrary political views, exacerbated by the immediate knowledge that his victim was a real, tangible person proves too much, as he attempts to drown himself over and over.
He tells his girlfriend after failing to do so, who silently wraps her hand around a rock preparing to kill him in her abject grief and obvious sympathy for political dissenters that all her family seem to share. She instead helps him up, takes him home, but their relationship is over. She cannot forgive what he has done.
Again, Rousolof may have criticism for the passive soldier who executes for three days off, but he can rightly never condemn individual action entirely. The system is constructed to incentivise soliders to kill, exaggerates the crimes of those convicted, and creates a false reality that many Iranians are victims of, in this case a young couple in love.
Trying to rationalize what’s demanded of them, soldiers insist, “They don’t hang people without a reason here.” But, of course, no legal system is infallible, and as a victim of a corrupt autocratic regime, Rasoulof knows firsthand how designations of “guilt” can serve as a tool for suppression.
Our last tale deals with the decision to defy orders, and what life is like for those whom choose to do so. We are placed in the world of young Darya (Baran Rasoulof, the director’s daughter), an expat who is returning to Iran for the first time since she left, unaware that her dying Uncle she is meeting is actually her father, effectively in hiding and ostracised for refusing to carry out an execution many years ago, before she was born.
We observe the difficulties of the choice between moral right, and protecting our families, and our livelihood. We also observe the consequences for choosing to refuse, in this case a man who is on his deathbed faces a daughter who cannot understand his decision which led to her living a lie for 20 years. We witness as he attempts to explain this to her.
Strikingly when taking her hunting prior to the revelation that he is her father, Darya dislikes the action, pronouncing that she refuses to ‘kill another living being.’ The juxtaposition between this defiant viewpoint asserted under no duress and with no consequence, and her reaction to her father’s own decision not to take a life at the expense of his family is a searing insight into the universal reality of the difficulties of keeping ones personal moral views during times of extreme pressure and coercion to abandon them.
Overall, There is No Evil is a poignant, necessary and emotive anthology that was created in response to the very real dangers and entrapping circumstances within Iran. The film is personal, a political protest that also manages to adhere to conventional Western movie tropes while retaining a unique sense of cultural placement and perspective.
A highly personal work from a director who is prepared to face incarceration and punishment to fight for what he believes in; to show the world how the Iranian judicial system effects every single person within Iranian society, and the devastation that accompanies it.
It’s a film with a purpose, and is not conventionally entertaining. A much too heavy watch for some, an essential viewing for others. The film also transcends the specific circumstances in Iran to comment on the moral dilemmas of human nature, and the classic question of what is evil in the face of a regime choosing to perpetuate evil.
There is No Evil in a system where this is law right? How can it be evil? You must do it. What would you do in these showcased character’s shoes?
Featured Image Credit: Cosmopol Films