3 years after Mina stampede and ‘Marjan’s Dream’ is still haunting

TEHRAN, Aug. 21 (MNA) – Wednesday marks the 3rd anniversary of the 2015 Mina stampede during the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, which killed more than 2,000 people, with the highest death toll belonging to Iran. ‘Marjan’s Dream’, Mohsen Eslamzadeh’s latest documentary, is an artistic attempt to keep the memory of those lost to the tragedy alive.  

It is hard to grasp that it has been three years already, when the wounds are still tender, when loved ones are still missing, when grieving has become this continued ritual that you do every morning, and your mind has not known peace ever since.

Mohsen Eslamzadeh’s documentary ‘Marjan’s Dream’ that was screened for the first time on Sunday, three days before the Eid al-Adha festival that concludes the Hajj pilgrimage, reminded us of the many untold, still unfinished stories that got buried under a heap of bodies, the unforgiving heat of the sun, and a forced amnesia caused by collective efforts of those who refused to shoulder the responsibility for that enormous human catastrophe.

‘Marjan’s Dream’ is at once a portrait, a feminist narrative, a local portraiture, and at its heart the unfolding of a colossal tragedy. You will have a hard time deciding which angle of the documentary should have been the focus of the story: the life of Marjan Nazghelichi, a competent, self-made woman who became the first female governor in Bandar Torkaman in the face of adversity, or the local texture, of women in colorful scarves meandering through Doshanbeh Bazaar or weaving intricate patterns into aesthetically pleasing carpets and rugs; or the absent protagonist’s tragic fate in an incident that made history, of what came to be known as the 2015 Mina stampede.

She was there, along with some 2.5 million other pilgrims carrying out Hajj rituals in the holy city of Mina on the outskirts of Mecca. The 10-minute stampede took the lives of over 2,000 people. Hers was among them. Or that is the assumption, anyway. Her body was never returned.

‘Marjan’s Dream’ opens with an off-screen telephone conversation. A male’s voice lets us know that the person on the other end of the line is panting in distress.

“What’s wrong?”


“You had a bad dream?”

The dream is later revealed to us, by Marjan’s husband, to have been a bad omen. Two days before the tragedy, his call wakes her up from a bad dream: a flood has washed away all pilgrims performing the Hajj rituals. She told him none of her fellow travelers had taken the dream seriously, as it was a sunny day in Mina and Mecca, with no chance of rain. She told him to put some money aside for charity to ward off misfortune, anyway. He tells us, in a regretful tone, that he told her to do it herself, because he didn’t feel up to it. I wonder if the charity would have stopped the tragedy from unfolding on such a colossal scale. I wonder if the rain would have saved lives as many had died under the unbearable, suffocating heat. I guess, you never stop wondering. The unending series of ‘what-ifs’ after a loss. You wish you could turn time, but the only thing that keeps turning back is your thoughts to that horrid day. It still haunts me to this day.

‘Marjan’s Dream’ is important subject-wise. It picks one life from the thousands that were lost that day to show how significant it is, just one life, to a whole family, to the people who knew that person, to a whole city that were impacted by and indebted to that person’s efforts and services. Eslamzadeh chose to tell Marjan’s story. It is not hard to imagine that every single person that died in the stampede that year has a similar important story to tell. Imagine the family and friends that survived them. Imagine the pain and the void that continue to exist in their hearts. To media, 2,400 is a number, good for its shock value, a clickworthy headline, nothing more. But to an artistic mind, it’s 2,400 different ideas for creation, for introspection, for investigation. To media, one doesn’t matter at all, it can be easily and readily dismissed. But to a filmmaker, one can be the reason for the creation of a 55-minute documentary, a whole year in production, heavy expenses, multiple back and forth trips, meeting with many new people, interviewing everyone, many sleepless nights. And the end results, a story that needed to be told in its entirety, needs to be seen and remembered, it also needs an ending. No hope for a happy one at this point, but the family needs to know: where is her body?

Form-wise, ‘Marjan’s Dream’ falls mostly in the category of expository documentary, with its liberal use of interviews, b-roll, and archival footage, but a few times it ventures into the impressionistic realm, as it takes hold of the rain symbolism coupled with thunderstorms, belying the traditional meaning of ‘rebirth’ with the gut-wrenching sense of impending doom – or more accurately in this case, a sense of lingering doom, a tragedy that took place three years ago but its shockwaves still continue to reverberate inside the broken hearts of so many.

Iran had the highest death toll in the stampede. 464 Iranians dead, and it’s cruel how everyone knew someone who had lost a relative in the tragic event. A friend of mine lost his father. A coworker had lost an uncle. Suddenly, everyone around you became connected through loss. Worse was, the families of the victims were never compensated by Saudi Arabia. They didn’t even receive a note of apology. Iran made every effort to send a fact-finding committee to Saudi Arabia to discover the actual cause of the catastrophe. The efforts were thwarted, and in the midst of broken diplomatic ties, it became almost impossible to follow up the issue through diplomatic channels.

Eslamzadeh’s documentary, surprisingly, lacks enough footage of the stampede; just two or three haphazard, low-quality video footage that was obvious had been taken by cell phones. I thought perhaps the censorship was a deliberate act on the director’s part out of some ethical consideration, but he said that he could barely find any relevant picture or video footage on the internet.

“It’s as if they have swept through the internet,” he said. “There are like, only three or four mobile shots [in the film] and even those are of such poor quality. I do think that the greatest censorship in history has happened in the case of the Mina tragedy. It’s like as if every picture related to the incident has been taken off the internet.”

The assumption leaves a sobering sensation in its wake. It wouldn’t be too amiss to suspect that the tragedy, even in its entire harrowing enormity, has already been swept aside as a faded, half-forgotten memory. Only those who are still smarting from the loss remember. To everyone else untouched by the tragedy, the Mina stampede is already history.

Perhaps, Eslamzadeh’s documentary could save at least one dream, one brilliant life wasted, from fading away? Perhaps.

Mohsen Eslamzadeh is an Iranian documentary filmmaker, best known for his 'Alone Among the Taliban' which won the best documentary award at the 44th Athens International Film and Video Festival in the  US, as well as the best documentary award at the 12th Marbella International Film Festival in Spain.

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