Long before the world witnessed the genocidal acts of ISIS, many Iranians had to confront the actual horrors of a full-scale Islamic state and its Sharia Law. In her documentary “The Secret Fatwa”, first-time filmmaker Delnaz Abadi, who fled the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1984, connects with old friends and former political prisoners to uncover a massacre committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran to exterminate the last of her generation’s political activists.
The film starts when Delnaz meets her long lost friend, Mihan. They were both student activists during the 1979 Iranian revolution. Using archival footage, Delnaz brings to life the jubilation and hopefulness of her generation during the revolution. “For a generation that has never tasted freedom, this was a dream come true,” she summarizes the experience.
But soon the dream turns into a nightmare: a worse dictatorship emerges – a theocracy with no tolerance for any opposition. Tens of thousand are arrested, thousands executed. Mihan and Delnaz go underground and eventually flee Iran. Mihan’s spouse Reza is arrested. He is lucky to escape execution and receive a 20-year sentence. But seven years later, in the summer of 1988, the Islamic Republic suddenly puts its prisons under lockdown. Five months later Reza’s family are given a bundle and told Reza was executed – no explanation, no body and no grave. To this day, the response of the Islamic Republic to the inquiries of families and human rights organizations about the 1988 prison massacre has been silence, denial and lies.
To find out what happened to Reza and more than 4000 other political prisoners, Delnaz reaches out to former political prisoners who had fled Iran. They help create detailed maps of two major prisons in Tehran. These maps become the blueprint for the construction of an abstract prison, in the style of ‘Dogville’ by Lars Von Trier. Then many volunteers, including former prisoners, victim families and friends, come together to bring to life the memories of five survivors who had agreed to appear in front of the camera.
Combining testimonies with reenactments, ‘The Secret Fatwa’ recounts the unfolding of the 1988 secret prison massacre through the eyes of five survivors, from the day of the lockdown to the day they were released. It follows them as they learn about the lockdown. Their first reaction is confusion and disbelief. But unusual events escalate. Televisions and newspapers are taken away. They are not allowed out of their blocks. Friends are taken. And finally it is the turn of the survivors. They are blindfolded, lined up, and walked through the dark corridors of Evin and Gohardasht prisons. After hours of waiting, one by one they are taken for questioning by a three member Committee. They are asked only a few questions. What they don’t know is that their lives depend on their answers. Those who give the wrong answers are immediately taken to the gallows. We follow the survivors as each discovers the massacre and that those who were not among them were gone forever.
Dispersed through survivor testimonies, many pieces of evidence shed light on the identity of the perpetrators, the chain of command and the executioner’s motives. Ayatollah Montazeri, who at the time was the designated successor to Khomeini, presents the most conclusive evidence. Montazeri single-handedly tried to stop the massacre and paid a heavy price for it. In a clandestine interview Montazeri reveals that it was the Supreme Leader Khomeini who had issued a ‘fatwa’ [a religious decree], and designated a three-member council to interrogate all political prisoners and, regardless of their original sentence, condemn them to death if they still stood by their beliefs.
“The Secret Fatwa” ends with Saiid, Mihan and Reza’s son who is now 27 years old. He is speaking at the 20th anniversary of the massacre. He leaves the audience with a sense of hope: the new generation is determined to keep seeking justice and putting an end to the culture of intolerance.
In 1979 Iranians overthrew a dictatorship; however, few were aware that the transition from a totalitarian system to a democratic one entails much more than regime change, and that totalitarianism feeds on intolerance. Thus, few made it their agenda to address and uproot intolerance. The result was a much harsher dictatorship: an Islamic theocracy. Iran is in turmoil again. So are many other countries in the Arab world. To the generation coming to the forefront, “The Secret Fatwa” hopes to bring this awareness and to pose thought-provoking questions about what went wrong in the 1979 Iranian revolution. By promoting alternatives such as international tribunals, the film rejects the culture of revenge and cruelty and encourages actions that break the vicious cycle of intolerance.
Atrocities committed by despotic regimes are numerous, and so are the films about them. Too often these films are made after the perpetrators’ downfall, and become a tool in the hands of subsequent tyrants to channel blame into the past. “The Secret Fatwa” is a timely documentary that exposes a crime while its perpetrators are still in power and have become adept at escaping international scrutiny. In this respect, we hope the film will serve as a deterrent.
In addition to recording history, we believe that the film has potential to make history. As an accurate and comprehensive visual document, “The Secret Fatwa” could help bring about justice. It could serve as a valuable resource for the survivors, the families of the victims and human rights advocates who are working towards establishing truth commissions and bringing the perpetrators to justice in international tribunals.
For non-Iranians — especially the American audiences who experience Iran mostly as an item in world news, and Islamic fundamentalism as a threat to the Western world — the film has an additional appeal. It will attach faces to the people who live under a fundamentalist regime, bring attention to the harsh repression to which they are subjected and promote empathy for the ongoing struggle of the Iranian people against Islamic fundamentalism.