Iranian death penalty film aims to spark debate in Japan

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

Two Iranian directors behind a thriller drama on the issue that is banned from showing in Iran hope their work will resonate with Japanese viewers, as well as citizens of other countries, upon its general release.

Titled “Ballad of a White Cow,” the film will hit theaters across Japan from February 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 that they hope the film will “lead to open discussions” about the issue of capital punishment.

“Ballad of a White Cow” centers on a female protagonist whose life is turned upside down after learning 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 loss, asks the court to apologize for wrongfully convicting her husband.

Moghaddam, 52, and Sanaeeha, 43, were both born and raised in Iran. The inspiration for the film came from Moghaddam’s childhood experience when his father was executed for a political crime.

The couple spent around 10 years examining dozens of cases in Iran and abroad of the executions of innocent people.

They reflected on how to break “the cycle of violence” represented by capital punishment on the basis that “bad judgments can be made as long as they are made by humanity”.

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

In “Ballad of a White Cow”, the judge who wields power over life and death tells his own son that “criminals would get tough without capital punishment”, a notion Moghaddam claims is nonsense.

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

In 2020, figures show that 144 of the 198 countries and regions in the world had abolished or suspended the use of the death penalty.

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

In a separate initiative, the Eurospace Theater in Tokyo’s Shibuya district screened seven death penalty-themed films during the week of February 12-18.

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

“Just Mercy,” a 2019 biographical drama about a black lawyer in the United States who fights for the freedom of a fellow African-American facing execution for a murder he did not commit, also been presented.

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