It’s now exactly a year since Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released from her six-year detention in Iran, and we all know the relatively happy ending to her ordeal and that of her family. What we certainly do not know, however, is precisely how she and her loved ones coped, suffered and persevered through the mental torture of indefinite containment.
Channel 4’s new documentary, Nazanin, vividly conveys that tension in a way that is raw and sometimes almost unbearable to witness, but watch it we do because we want to “be there” when it dissolves. Because the filmmaker Darius Bazargan and his team spent so much time filming with Nazanin’s family and her tirelessly campaigning husband Richard, and has been able to use previously unseen smartphone video recordings by Nazanin herself, it is almost as if we are there with them.
This is a very intimate piece of storytelling, almost entirely through the family’s words, with Richard always unscripted and calmly straightforward. We are there with them at home as Richard and, later daughter Gabriella, take the calls from prison or house arrest in Iran. We share the frustration of the Zoom call with British ministers. We feel the cold and the tummy cramps as he sleeps rough outside the Iranian Embassy and the Foreign Office on hunger strike – this was a six-year fight for his right to a family life. We share the heartbreak when Nazanin says she can’t go on or reveals that she’s been arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards yet again, and told, before a “trial”, that she’d better pack a bag because she’s obviously going back to prison. Nazanin kept a kind of audio diary, and we now hear recordings that reflect her private thoughts at the time.
“These days I am a lonely mother,” she says. “I was left behind, while outside passes by… fears filling my mind. Solitude is too often my friend and doubt my relentless foe. What if they never let me go? Laughter becomes my past. Sorrow only my present, and hope on the horizon hard to see.”
Above all, this film is a love story, a testament to how the power of a family united in love can overcome the most appalling of hardships.
From the film as well as the contemporary coverage, there seems little doubt that Nazanin’s incarceration was down not to spying or even geopolitics, but a simple matter of money, and this becomes more and more apparent as Richard talks to journalists and officials about the plight of Nazanin and the other dual national people held hostage in Iran. Back in the 1970s, the Shah of Iran, a friend of the West in the way the ayatollahs are enemies today, placed a sizeable order with the UK for tanks for his army. After the Iranian revolution, the British still had £400m of Iran’s money, and Tehran wanted it back. The UK refused for reasons of international sanctions and because the policy was not to pay ransom for hostages. Only in Jeremy Hunt’s time as foreign secretary – he has a cameo role in the film – was the money paid back and Nazanin released. It was really as simple as that.
Hunt, the fifth foreign secretary Richard dealt with, comes out of it relatively well. Boris Johnson does not, and no one should ever forget the moment when he blundered and told a Commons committee in 2017 that Nazanin “was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it, at the very limit”. “What the f*** did you just do there?” Richard asks in the back of a cab on his way to yet another fruitless meeting with our diplomats. All Gabriella got out of it was a cuddly toy modelled on Larry the Downing Street cat, and Johnson’s unforgivable remark was gleefully seized on by the Iranians as confirmation that she was a spy.
Even so, Richard is perfectly clear that, for all his moans about the British, they are “not the principal bastards here”, and we have to agree. Yet change is surely coming, and these days it’s the theocrats in Tehran who are feeling the heat, and some of the same tension about their own future as Nazanin endured. It feels pre-revolutionary. As the protesters chant in Iran, in a slogan that might have been inspired by Nazanin herself: woman, life, freedom.