CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 10. . . . January, 2003
When a young Iranian university student hanged himself from a tree just north of London, Ontario, many people were puzzled. Why would someone, who managed to survive the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime, escape and find safety in Canada, do this to himself now? Fellow Iranian, Masoud Raouf, in The Tree That Remembers does not attempt to answer this particular question. Rather, as an animator and director, he interviews other survivors of the Ayatollah and allows them to give a glimpse of the private Hell which they still carry inside them-even here, safe in Canada.
The film goes back to Iran during the days of the Shah's removal. An Economics professor explains how the Shah had him imprisoned for a year for supporting the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. While he celebrated the removal of the Shah, once the Ayatollah took power, he found himself once again imprisoned, this time for eight years.
All the voices in the film saw the pro-democracy movement, which deposed the Shah in 1979, as beneficial to Iran. However, very shortly after, the new regime began to imprison, torture, attempt to convert, and kill those not in keeping with the new ideology.
One woman is told that she is wanted for questioning and is told that it is nothing important. She will be back home by the next morning. In reality, the questioning began eight years of imprisonment in conditions that are painfully explained. Trials lasting ten minutes or even three result in a life sentence. For some, prison included two lashings per day until the prisoner converted to Islam. Women were placed in a five by nine meter room with 92 others including pregnant women and babies. Prisoners were also subjected to constant questioning, threats to other family members, solitary confinement sitting in a box, known as "the coffin" for 15 hours at a time with no leaning, coughing or movement. Speeches constantly bombarded them. Some explain how they managed to survive this time, but clearly it is not something they have forgotten. The Economics professor suffered a stroke in the middle of his torture session and considers himself lucky as this at least stopped the torture. One woman describes how she could hear strange repeated noises while she sat in her "coffin." When she realized that what she was hearing was the sound of prisoners being shot, she could not stop herself from counting. Some days she counted up to 300 executions at a time. These killings were repeated each Wednesday and Sunday. Story after story is told of the horror of this time. Ninety percent of those who were placed in the "coffins" were broken psychologically.
When Iran went to war with Iraq, the regime used this opportunity to increase the crackdown on dissidents. As one speaker says, "The world did not show much compassion."
In 1990, prisoners began to be released for a week at a time. However, upon their return to prison, many were hanged. The speakers in the film all escaped through various means, but it meant leaving everything behind. Some left family members and can never return.
Now safe in Canada, all is not forgotten. Some found the first few years here very difficult. Nightmares and flashbacks were and still are common. In order to survive in Iran, they had to build walls of protection around themselves, and these walls do not come down, even here.
Raouf states that there was no suicide note left behind. However, the choice of a tree by a busy highway was clearly a statement in itself. In fact, there is evidence to prove that the rope broke the first time and that the student had to try a second time.
Throughout the film, an exhibition based on their experiences is taking shape. One artist has reconstructed the "coffin," and a woman sits in it blindfolded. The speakers in the film gather together and talk about their pasts, implying that the talking is something needed.
The Tree That Remembers is a deeply disturbing film about a time in world history about which we know little. Following the hostage situation in Iran and their release, not much has been said about those who did not support the Ayatollah's regime. Even that is ancient history for today's students. This film puts a human face on the situation and can be used in World History, Politics, Law classes, and discussions on human rights. It is not overly long, and while it gives few answers, it stresses that some times there are no clear answers. What has happened to these people and others is a crime against humanity. We cannot assume that just because political prisoners are now free in Canada, that their pasts are forgotten.
Frank Loreto is the teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.