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IRAN: Behind HBO's "For Neda"

Neda As June 12 saw the anniversary of Iran's contested presidential election pass, the Green Movement is once again making news. HBO's new documentary, "For Neda," is a poignant reminder of the movement's human cost, and Babylon & Beyond wanted to know more about the project.

Pundits are now dissecting the Green Revolution, either to build up or tear down its impact on Iran's politics. For the director of the documentary, Antony Thomas, however, the story lay with the suffering borne by young Iranians, as he relayed in an interview prior to a screening in Los Angeles.
Thomas is the acclaimed director of "The Tank Man," which examined the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre by focusing on the anonymous protester who was famously photographed standing before of a line of tanks, and said that he was "absolutely haunted" when he saw the footage of Neda Agha-Soltan's death.  Thomas was more than ready when HBO's Sheila Nevins approached him last year about directing a documentary on the Green Movement and the death of Agha-Soltan.

Nevins' proposal -- "I challenge you to tell her personal story" --stuck with Thomas.  As Thomas said in a post-screening Q&A session, from this challenge he set three goals for the documentary: to commemorate Agha-Soltan's death, to give a voice to her family, and to let the Iranian activists know "they are not forgotten."

"For Neda" certainly accomplishes these goals, but it wasn't easy.  Because few foreign journalists are permitted in Iran, Thomas found himself in a peculiar position. Instead of charging to the front lines of the project, he gave Iranian journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan a brief filmmaking lesson and a camera, trusting that Dehghan could get the necessary footage.  Thomas said that this was, in fact, his toughest project because, although he was safe in London, Dehghan was braving danger for him.  The two had plans in place to e-mail every night to confirm Dehghan's safety, and when the electricity in Tehran was unreliable, or Dehghan could not reach his computer, there were sleepless nights for Thomas.   

Fortunately, Dehghan was able to safely get access to Agha-Soltan's family, giving viewers a candid look into the life of young woman who was remarkable because, as Thomas said, "she wasn't involved in politics, she just wanted some personal dignity and freedom." The picture of Agha-Soltan painted by "For Neda" mirrors that seen in Borzou Daragahi's piece for The Times a year ago, but it takes advantage of its medium. Thomas' and Dehghan's filmmaking contrasts chilling footage of the postelection unrest with a look at a family in mourning and political context from experts.  Thomas' work not only looks back at Agha-Soltan's life, but also at the technology -- camera phones, YouTube -- that made her an iconic symbol in death. 

Although pundits may be undecided about the Green Movement's ability to effect real change in Iran, "For Neda" shows the impact one moment can have in the digital era.  Thomas acknowledged the vast obstacles facing those working for change in Iran, but also cautioned that the pundits are often wrong -- after all, he was born in South Africa and said he never thought he would see the end of apartheid.

In the end, Thomas said, all he wants is an acknowledgment of the sacrifices made last June, from all those who witnessed it.  When asked what course of action he would like to see President Obama take regarding Iran, Thomas sighed, and said, "I would like him to show his respect for these young people.  Acknowledge their bravery."   

Read The Times' full review of the documentary by'Mary McNamara here, and watch it in full here.

-- Daniel Siegal

Photo: HBO

Comments () | Archives (7)

US invading Iraq/Afghanistan on the basis of brazen lies. Occupiying, killing raping and torture. The death of more than a million Iraqis under occupation.

The nightly terror bombing of innocent families in Pakistan. Why all that means nothing. One girl killed in Iran why that needs a movie.

This entire war and invasion is a war crime and both obama/bush are equally guilty.

I would like to understand why Neda is more a symbol than Khaled Said (in Egypt).

Hi Hg, thanks for commenting - I'm the author of this blog post, Daniel Siegal. Rachel Corrie has been mentioned many times here in the Times - check it out, takes two seconds to google it ( - it's the 2nd result ). We just don't have the space to mention every incident perpetrated by all parties in the Middle East in every single article, you know? It would be a very, very long article. Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around here at Babylon & Beyond.

Thank you for showing as everday the hypocrisy of the west.
Why you do not even mention Rachel Aliene Corrie , She was crushed to death in the Gaza Strip by an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) bulldozer when she was kneeling in front of a local Palestinian's home, thus acting as a human shield, attempting to prevent IDF forces from demolishing the home.

You don't have to be a leftist or ultra-nationalist to question what we in the West are fed about Iran.

It's certainly easy nowadays to hate the regime from afar but it reeks of cheap, sloppy thinking. "Hating" the regime is ultimately an exercise in self-absorption rather than in democracy or problem-solving or political understanding.

If Iran's mighty enemies haven't succeeded in knocking out this regime in 31 years with all the overt and covert wars, embargoes, betrayals, humiliations and threats, nor will a thousand Googoosh concerts, or a thousand Green headbands, or a thousand anti-regime and American-financed satellite tv stations, or a thousand cock-sure predictions of its demise around chelo-kabab. They are the equivalent of drawing Hitler moustaches on Ahmadinejad's picture...self-gratifying only to a child or an idiot.

Frankly, as Iranians living/exiled abroad, our approach to Iran tends to be either nostalgic, narcissistic or juvenile. We need to do better than this. If nothing else, we need to read and understand 19th/20 century Iranian history and the history of foreign interventions in Iran before we jump on the next anti-regime/anti-Islam bandwagon (almost always heavily financed by Iran's enemies) or draw more Hitler moustaches or buy another set of green wristbands like a bunch of ineffectual, petulant brats.

Reformists who embrace their own ideology as final and indisputable, who are blind to the realities of Iran geopolitical history and destiny, and who readily join the enemies of Iran in condemning Islam and the regime, are ultimately not a solution to Iran's complex problems.

Genuine, durable change in Iran will come from its native people (not from Westwood/Beverly Hills/Orange County etc), and that means all of its people, not just the young, the over-educated and the underemployed middle-classes, but also the religious folks, the rural people, and the working classes.

Regime-worshippers and fundamentalists are obviously not much use to Iran either...plenty of Iranians exist who defend the indefensible rather than stand up to corruption and oppression (whether under the Shahs or the Ayatollahs).

While exceptions exist, in general we in So Cal are rich in diasporic fools and fantasists (from the ludicrous Royalists to the teeny Greens to the treacherous and cultish Mojahedin) but sadly poor in the serious, sober, intelligent, measured kind of thinking and acting that can actually offer Iran a better future.

So Mahnaz jan, your statement is no more pathetic than your detractor's, Hamid1973. Somewhere between the two you, there's third way we have yet to grasp.

You betray your own utter ignorance with your ill-formed comments. Tehran has had rolling brownouts for a few years now, a result of the odious regime's lack of investment in infrastructure. But at least Ahmadinejad's IRGC pals get rich off their abuse of power and willful ignorance. There's nothing more pathetic than ultra-nationalistic or pseudo-leftist Iranian exiles living in the Diaspora and defending the regime based on some fantasy of the IRI as a defender of the oppressed. You're pathetic.

"When the electricity in Iran was unreliable...?"
That's pretty funny, since Tehran does not have electricity blackouts. Is this another attempt to paint Tehran as Kabul or Baghdad? Perhaps the Americans seek to replicate their failures in our country too...


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