It's 1979 in Iran, and the country is in the midst of serious political unrest. Though many of their friends are fleeing the country, a Persian-Jewish mother named Azar doesn't want to leave. Iran is their home and beloved country.
But when her husband David is imprisoned by the authorities, Azar begins to question her faith and loyalty to her country. As she tries to find a way to free David -- and get her daughter Leila to safety -- she must draw on all her resources during an increasingly perilous time.
Written and directed by Julia Elihu, this compelling short drama begins with a sweet, warmly tender scene between Azar and her husband in their home, pulling us in with its closeness and an enveloping sense of connection. Shot with a visual intimacy and an almost burnished warmth, it would be easy to think this is a domestic family narrative, where relationships and their shifts are the focus of the storytelling.
The opening scene is indeed the heart of the film, but in a different way: it shows exactly what Azar is trying to save, as David is apprehended by the authorities and the story reveals itself as a thriller about a woman fighting to keep her family amidst pressure from the looming, oppressive political apparatus. The narrative is ambitious for a short, as Azar navigates a changing set of factors in her attempts to navigate the system, each development building suspense and tension. The filmmaking, too, adroitly shifts to the changing rhythms of the storytelling, getting more muscular in the camerawork and editing, though it makes room to capture the small but well-observed details of Iranian culture.
Actor Nina Nayebi anchors the film throughout, commanding attention with her keenly vivid performance as a loving matriarch pushed to a heroic edge. Not only does she navigate an increasingly dangerous set of circumstances as Azar, but she also portrays how her faith in her country erodes, as repression and corruption reveal itself with each turn. With a combination of maternal power and steely intelligence, Azar engineers a final, audacious plan -- one that will either save them all or put them at tremendous risk.
"Winter of '79" clearly has relevance now, as events unfold in Iran. But if not for its specific title, it could easily read as a contemporary tale in some ways, though it gestures to a freedom and comfort of the past that has been lost. The roots of repression and authoritarianism go far back, in the willingness of a government to persecute its own people with fear and intimidation. But so does the strength and conviction of seemingly average citizens like Azar: people just trying to live their lives and love their families, like anywhere else in the world. When on the verge of losing what they hold dear, they find ways to resist, drawing on a latent courage and ingenuity to risk everything for safety and freedom. Then and now, the film celebrates their hard-won victories, even as it mourns the homeland they leave behind.