June 20th 2009, Teheran: 29-yearold Neda is shot through the heart by sniper fire on a busy street, while demonstrating against the result of the 2009 general election. As she lies dying, her final moments are recorded on a mobile phone. Within days, the video is watched by millions of people on social networking websites and Neda becomes the symbol of popular opposition in Iran and a groundswell of support emerges worldwide.
Anthony Thomas’ film, For Neda investigates the events that led up to the fatal shooting and the events thereafter that fixed the international spotlight on the status of civil liberties and human rights under the current Iranian government.
The film also deliberates on the emergence of modern technology as a weapon against oppression and authoritarianism. The conduct of the 2009 general election has been unanimously criticised by several recent Iranian documentary films. The results were received with cynicism, given that a mere 3 out of 475 candidates were permitted to contest the polls by the Guardian Council. After a belligerent and aggressive performance by the incumbent, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a television debate against key opponent Mir Hossein Moussavi, public opinion swung towards Moussavi. Over the next few days, however, as the greenclad supporters of Moussavi publically came out in large numbers on the streets, the Basij, militaristic supporters of the regime, raided Moussavi’s campaign offices and sealed the premises. This was a warning of things to come. On polling day, few hours into the count, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a margin of 63 % of the votes. Neda, like others her age, was a supporter of Moussavi’s optimism and disgusted by the turn of events. Known as a rebel and critical of her government, Neda joined the street demonstrations against the election outcome. As the Basij retaliated with increasing severity, Neda’s mother begged her to return home. Accompanied by her aging music teacher, Neda was caught in the confusion on the street, when the sniper’s bullet found her chest.
This incident, however, is unique because the entire event is captured by a mobile phone camera and has become the catalyst for worldwide interest in Neda and the human rights situation in Iran. For Neda, is a valuable piece in the collage of media imagery about the event. Thomas includes the process of making the film to illustrate the dangers of making a dissident documentary within Iran. As a foreign filmmaker, Thomas himself is banned from Iran He therefore collaborates with Iranian journalist, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, who travels to Teheran to film the documentary – albeit extremely fearful for his own safety. Dehghan tracks down Neda’s family and visits the family home to learn more about Neda – her childhood, her personality and her motivations. The film captures moving interactions as Neda’s mother and sister lovingly display her possessions – dresses, earrings, books, each object now of precious significance. Neda emerges as a young woman intensely dissatisfied with the rigid interpretation of Islam being imposed upon the nation. She rejects the ‘vengeful’ nature of Islam taught at her University and the restrictions on the civil liberties of women in Iranian society.
Thomas elaborates upon the position of women in Iran through pointed interviews with Iranian academics and thinkers. Author, Azar Nafisi is critical of the reactionary nature of legislation passed in Iran since the Islamic revolution that seeks to limit the judicial rights of women, such as halving the weight of a woman’s testimony in relation to a man’s. Professor Ali Ansari, of St. Andrews University, remarks, on the declining popularity of the Iranian version of Islam amongst younger people, who reject the vengeful character of the religion that has replaced its humane aspects with an enforceable code. The documentary underscores the fundamental debate ignited by the state killing of Neda – the larger struggle for democracy in opposition to the archaic ideology driving the state. Thomas probes the theme in significant depth and even uses extremely confrontational footage of an actual hanging and stoning to illustrate the argument against such cruel regimes.
Thomas examines the contribution of technology to the discourse against secretive regimes such as Iran. The rule of fear and reprisal has resulted in the rise of an unexpected sub-group in Iran – the citizen journalist. While Iran has the highest number of journalists in custody and foreign media is completely banned, citizen journalism has flourished. Armed with mobile phones and consumer video cameras, ordinary citizens record acts of state brutality and share these images via the Internet. Unrestricted by national boundaries and exploiting the advantage of anonymity, citizen journalists rely on modern technology to counter the resources of the state. Currently, thousands of amateur videos of clashes between the Basij and Iranian protesters can be found on YouTube. The sudden revelation and popular consumption of hitherto secret occurrences has shaken the Iranian government and drawn a heavy handed response against popular networking sites such as Twitter and YouTube through the use of Internet filters and signal jamming.
Thomas tracks down 24-yearold American IT consultant, Austin Heap who has joined forces with the US State department to counter the Iranian efforts through complex rerouting of Internet signals to enable the uninterrupted flow of information. Coupled with the technical obstruction of information sharing. The Iranian government mobilised the state media to implant false stories about Neda’s death; the clumsy efforts reading like a fantasy spy novel. For Neda, itself is banned in Iran. Voice of America’s Persian News Network reported that their telecast of the film on June 5th 2010 was interrupted by the Iranian Government. The DVD however, continues to be available and the film has found its way into Iran and Iranian homes through the Internet. For Neda, is a highly relevant and compelling example of the political potential of cinema.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).