Frontline: A Death in Tehran

A Death in Tehran pieces together the short life of 26-year-old Neda Soltan, but mostly considers the effects of her death, captured by a cell phone camera.

Frontline: A Death in Tehran

Airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Scott Peterson, Delbar Tavakoli, Nader Mokhari, Mohsen Sazegara,
Network: PBS
Air date: 2009-11-17

"That look still challenges me. It's with me all the time, I can't forget it. The blood that gushed out of her mouth and chest, that’s always with me." Surely, under any circumstance, witnessing a friend's death would be a traumatic and life-changing experience. But Delbar Tavakoli's experience is especially difficult. Her friend was Neda Agha Soltan, whose murder in Tehran last June was recorded on cell phone video and uploaded to the internet. Viewed by millions, Neda's last moments came to represent both the Iranian government's violent repression and resistance to it.

On 17 November, Frontline presents A Death in Tehran, which pieces together the short life of 26-year-old Soltan. The show offers interviews with some of her friends, her sister (by email), and an eyewitness who also appears in the video, Dr. Arash Hejazi, now living in the U.K. All remember her as a hardworking young woman who felt inspired, along with thousands of other, mostly young, Iranians, that the demonstrations against the election results -- that had President Ahmadinejad over opponent Mir Hossein Moussavi -- might bring change.

On one hand recalling the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that instituted a new republic to replace the U.S.-supported Shah, on another hand, the protests seemed a new chapter in Iranian history, resistance by a new generation against an old and corrupt regime. This sense of newness -- and indeed, the sense that the movement would prove eventually insuperable -- was in large part effected by the worldwide media coverage, in turn effected by cell phone video recordings. These images are the most powerful in A Death in Tehran. While the personal recollections of talking heads are heartrending, the handheld chaos of the street -- blurred figures, pitching frames, and screams off screen -- is at once harrowing and rousing.

That said, the investigation in this Frontline episode is rudimentary; aside from the interviews with subjects in exile, it offers information that might be gleaned form a basic internet search. Reporter Scott Peterson reminds you that the election results were right away suspect, as thousands of voters were turned away from polling stations manned by government officials, and, late on election day afternoon, members of the state-employed Basiji militia entered Moussavi headquarters (an event also captured as cell phone footage) and ordered it shut down. As well, as Peterson says, Fars News (Iran's leading news agency) leaked the margin of Ahmadinejad's victory "well ahead of its time," that is, before votes could have been counted (this particular report was soon removed from wires, but the numbers were the same as the eventual results). As word got out that the election was suspect, crowds took to the streets -- both in favor of the president and against the official outcome.

If the not quite organized marches on 12 June didn't have the desired effect, protestors took heart in the numbers. When the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei spoke on 19 June, essentially telling the people to stay home and shut or face official reprisals, he misunderstood the power of the internet. As journalist Mohsen Sazegara observes, "He had a good opportunity on that Friday to solve the problem, to o say, 'I heard, whatever you want,' but he missed that opportunity." Instead, protestors organized gatherings for maximum media impact, knowing now that events in Iran were visible all over the world. Still, as Dr. Hejaz says, "After Khamanei’s remarks, we knew that he had allowed his guard to open fire on the crowd."

As the show has opened with Neda's death, this observation leads where you know it will, by way of some chance video of Neda walking on the street with her music teacher. "Neda attended every single demo, all of them," recalls her sister Hoda in emails to Frontline, despite her mother's repeated cautions against her going. In fact, Hoda writes, Neda called her uncle and said she was on her way back to her car, worried that the protest on 20 June had become too hectic and scary, when she was shot. As she bled on the pavement, the show notes, the shooter -- a Basiji member -- was so upset at what happened that he gave himself up to the crowd, who stripped him and took his ID (later uploaded to the net). Dr. Hejazi reports that the crowd "decided to release him," rather than "give him to the police" or punish him further themselves.

The show points out that the one person who was punished for the crime was Neda's boyfriend, Caspian Makan. When, some days after the shooting, spoke with satellite TV stations about his grief and frustration, he was arrested and imprisoned, accused, Tavakoli says, of "somehow being involved in the murder." He has since been released and now lives outside Iran, as do Tavakoli and Dr. Hejazi. Speaking out has cost all of them. Dr. Hejazi says, "I worked in literature all of my life and I always talked about and preached about the power of words, but I never realized how powerful words can be."

This is both true and not, as A Death in Tehran makes clear. Words and images, disseminated in seconds, can expose corruption, protest, and pain. Neda's mother, instructed by the regime to call her daughter a "martyr" for its own cause, has refused, a sign that nothing will quite be the same going forward. Eventually, the protestors hope, such communications will also help to change the regime and allow them to go home.


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