IRAN: Behind HBO’s “For Neda”

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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