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Iranian film on death penalty aims to stir debate in Japan

  • February 18, 2022
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 7:00 a.m.
  • English Press

By Abe Shunsuke, staff writer


Japan and Iran, despite being worlds apart, culturally and geographically, share one thing in common: Both countries impose the death penalty.


A pair of Iranian film directors behind a suspense drama on the issue that is prohibited from being screened in Iran are hoping that their work will resonate with Japanese viewers, as well as citizens in other countries, when it goes on general release.


Titled “Ballad of a White Cow,” the film will hit theaters across Japan from Feb. 18.


Co-directors Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha, noting that Iran carries out “the second highest number of executions in the world,” said in a statement they hope the movie “will lead to open discussions” on the issue of capital punishment.


“Ballad of a White Cow” centers around a female protagonist whose life is turned upside down after she learns that her husband was innocent of the crime for which he was executed.


After the real culprit comes forward, the widow, who is raising a daughter with a severe hearing impairment, petitions the court to apologize for wrongly convicting her husband.


Moghaddam, 52, and Sanaeeha, 43, were both born and raised in Iran. Inspiration for the movie came from Moghaddam’s childhood experience of her father being executed for a political crime.


The pair spent 10 years or so examining dozens of cases in and outside Iran of innocent people being executed.


They thought about how they could smash “the cycle of violence” represented by capital punishment based on a premise that “wrong judgments can be handed down as long as they are made by humankind.”


According to Amnesty International, the international human rights group, at least 246 individuals were put to death in Iran in 2020, the second highest figure after China, which executed more than 1,000 people that year.


In “Ballad of a White Cow,” the judge who holds power over life and death tells his own son that “criminals would run rampant were it not for capital punishment,” a notion that Moghaddam asserts is nonsense.


“Statistics in countries without the death penalty show that there are fewer criminal acts than reported in Iran,” Moghaddam said. “I wanted to drive home the importance of dialogue on this issue through the scene of the judge and his son exchanging opinions on capital punishment.”


As of 2020, figures show that 144 of the world’s 198 countries and regions had abolished or suspended the use of capital punishment.


“The practice has become a thing of the past in most nations,” Sanaeeha said. “Working together (with like-minded people in Japan), I am striving to create a better society as a citizen of a country that still practices capital punishment.”


In a separate endeavor, the Eurospace theater in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward screened seven death penalty-themed movies during the week from Feb. 12 through Feb. 18.


Among the titles shown was a documentary about Sakae Menda, who was convicted of a double murder and sentenced to death in the 1950s, only to be exonerated in a retrial in 1983. Menda died in 2020 aged 95.


Also shown was “Just Mercy,” a 2019 biographical drama about a Black lawyer in the United States who fights to win freedom for a fellow African-American facing execution for a murder he didn’t commit.

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