Neda's story is presented earnestly, with an especially smart focus on how media imagery does its work.
"People of the world will never look at Iran the same way they did before Neda's death." Arash Hejazi happened to be on the Tehran street where Neda Agha Soltan was shot and killed on 20 June 2009. Though he had never met her before that moment, he crouched near her as she died and was pictured in the cell-phone video that was so quickly disseminated worldwide.
In Antony Thomas' For Neda, premiering 14 June as part of the HBO Documentary Films Summer Series, Hejazi describes the scene he's described elsewhere, noting that his medical training helped him to recognize the moment of her death: "I know the footsteps of death," he says here. "And when I realized that she was dead, I stood up and told her music teacher she was dead." All around him, other witnesses were moved to outrage and fury: when they discovered the Basiji militia member who shot Neda, they pulled him into their midst and took his identification papers, later posted to the internet, along with the video of her final moments.
As famous as this video has become, and as much as it has come to signify the protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Thomas' film takes another approach to Neda. As Hejazi asserts that she "symbolizes a generation that this Green Movement was all about," the film focuses on her life -- how she came to be protesting that day. Her "spirit," the film proposes, typifies the mostly (though not exclusively) young movement still determined to resist the Iranian regime headed by Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The film makes this case in a roundabout way, through interviews with Neda's family, remembering her childhood and her "spirit." (The film omits any mention of her fiancé Caspian Makan, arrested in 2009, released, and since moved to Canada.) Though Thomas was himself unable to enter Iran, Guardian reporter Saeed Kamali Dehghan made it through customs with a simple consumer videocamera, then spent several days speaking with Neda's sister Hoda, as well as her father and mother, Hajar Rostami. As Dehghan walks into the family home, his handheld camera pitching about her bedroom, showing her teddy bears and snapshots, he narrates, "'My God,' I thought, 'I am actually filming in Neda's home. This is where she slept. She was no longer a stranger.'"
Dehghan's starstruck reactions are contextualized by brief references to the daily restrictions Neda resisted. Specific examples are provided by Rudi Bakhtiar, former CNN and Fox reporter, currently Director for International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, who recalls that women at her school would slap girls who wore makeup, as well as a classmate of Neda, who remembers Neda being harassed for wearing red lipstick. More powerfully, Shohreh Aghdashloo provides aptly heartfelt if sometimes obvious narration. When Neda's parents describe her sense of independence and fearlessness (as well as her frustration concerning the hijab), for instance, and the film shows home video of her dancing, in jeans and a t-shirt, Aghdashloo adds that Neda felt "confined by a regime that does not value these qualities in a woman."
At still other moments. the documentary borrows from other sources: when Aghdashloo observes the draconian laws concerning marriage ("Divorce is the exclusive right of the husband"), you see footage from Kim Loginotto's Divorce Iranian Style, showing a young mother begging not to have her children removed from her custody.
It's true that For Neda's allusive, collagey structure is occasionally undermined by a plinky piano score, but for the most part, Neda's story is presented earnestly, with an especially smart focus on how media imagery does its work. For it was not only the rest of the world who gained access to the protests -- and Neda's death -- via YouTube and television. It was also Iranians outside Tehran and other cities. The film returns to the famous video more than once, but also insists on the effects of making other protests visible, including those where Neda's face became an icon, a sign adopted by protestors around the world, to show the persistence of her "spirit."