Mehran Tamadon Skillfully Recreates Iranian Prison in Where God is Not

Where God Is Not

Whether it’s a result of the Women, Life, Freedom movement or simply due to a strong field of candidates, there is certainly a strong focus on Iranian perspectives this year at the Berlinale. Before the festival has even started, I’ve witnessed a look at rape culture in Seven Winters In Tehran (Steffi Niederzoll, 2023), a woman seeking to find freedom from a repressive state in the expressive Dreams’ Gate (Negin Ahmadi, 2023) and a searching inquiry into Iran’s filmmaking culture, especially under the threat of censorship, in And, Towards Happy Alleys (Sreemoyee Singh, 2023). 

But if you really want to get into the nightmarish, totalitarian hellscape that characterises life for prisoners under the regime, look no further than Where God Is Not (Mehran Tamadon, 2023) — my first Forum film of the Berlinale. 

Like in many Iranian documentaries, Tamadon features heavily in the film, both as a character and as a man seeking the answer to a vital question: can re-staging horrific events help us to understand them better? And can these reconstructions do anything to change the horrifying Iranian regime? 

Through long takes in a French prison cell currently under construction, Tamadon takes three former prisoners of the regime, Homa Kalhori, Taghi Rahmani and Mazyar Ebrahimi, and asks them to relive their worst moments. Going heavily into the specifics of torture, including handcuffing prisoners to a metal bed before beating and tasering them, to the inhuman living and sleeping conditions, we get right inside their headspace, as well as learn about the best ways to stay sane amidst such evil. 

I’m thankful Tamadon didn’t go full The Rehearsal (Nathan Fielder, 2022) — replete with insanely detailed sets that flesh out every corner of these spaces — as the power of the film lies in leaving some things to the imagination. 

Tamadon has a loosely held idea that the images presented in his film might be enough to shake the torturers out of their complacency. But the idea that they might feel like Sayid in Lost (2004-2010), totally haunted by the severity of their crimes and willing to reform, seems far-fetched. They have no conscience. They are in a state of the total war. The implication, never spoken, is that only full-throated revolution will do. Considering the Islamic Republic is still in the throes of its eternal “revolution”, let’s hope the next one is shorter than the last. 

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Redmond is the editor-in-chief of Journey Into Cinema.