Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2011: ‘The Green Wave’

“It started with the Army of Guardians patrolling the streets,” says Mitra Khalatbari, “constantly restricting, humiliating, and beating young people.” As she remembers the beginnings of resistance in her home country, the Iranian journalist is at once proud and sad. For as her memories bring her back to the elections of 2009 and the cruel oppressions that followed, Khalatbari, like other interviewees in The Green Wave, is stunned by the betrayal and brutality of her government, the government that not so many years ago was born of resistance to another inhumane regime.

The horrific irony that the current Islamic Republic was born, in 1979, in response to the Shah’s abuses, is only noted a couple of times in Ali Samadi Ahadi’s remarkable documentary, but the point is never lost. Screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 18, 19, and 21, followed by discussions with one of the film’s subjects, Dr. Payam Akhavan of McGill University, the film focuses on the days surrounding the elections, but it makes clear the many contexts of the crisis, the history that made it possible and the lack of international that has allowed the crisis to persist.

Akhavan, a former United Nations prosecutor, notes the initial hope of voters, hat even if the process was corrupt, that with the elections, “Somehow, the country could gradually be able to move forward in a positive direction.” As bland and basic as this vision sounds, even it is crushed by the government’s organized chaos. While early rallies in support of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi inspired optimism, it was soon enough clear, on 12 June that the election was rigged to ensure the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Over the few days after, from 13 to 15 June, millions of protestors appeared on the streets, organizing themselves via Twitter and other social media. Though the Guardian Council announced a “partial recount” to appease demonstrators, by 19 June, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared his support for Ahmadinejad (“The president’s opinions are closest to mine”) and warned demonstrators to stay home, the result was an outpouring of resistance, crowds in the streets bearing green flags and banners, chanting again and again, “Where is my vote?”

The fact that so many of these signs were in English indicates that, at least at first, the protestors saw themselves on a world stage, with international TV cameras and reporters on the scene (and indeed, support protests in other cities emphasized this exposure). But the Iranian government shut down this threat, expelling foreign media, closing the Association of Iranian Journalists’ offices, and harassing and imprisoning journalists, from Iran and also other countries. On election day, recalls “Babak,” an activist who appears in shadows here, the national television station showed only “wildlife documentaries for hours.”

Lacking resources and enduring threats to their very lives, bloggers and other reporters determined to expose what was happening. It’s this aspect of the protests and government reaction that forms The Green Wave‘s focus. And as it celebrates the ingenuity of professional and amateur reporters, it finds multiple ways to tell many stories, including those of bloggers who made events visible at the time and remain anonymous to this day. The bloggers’ narration is accompanied by vivid animated images, depicting bloody violence and grim torture, as well as footage captured on cell phone cameras, blurred, urgent, and horrifying. (The film notes the murder of Neda Soltan, the most publicized event captured by a cell phone and posted to the internet.) As hopeful as the demonstrators may have felt on 12 June, by August they were facing all manner of violence and horror: “Suddenly, the happily marching sneakers feet can turn into garrison boots marching in step,” says one blogger, while the film provides animation showing same. “That scares me. It has happened before and it can happen again.”

While the government has dismissed reports of torture as individual deviations or nonexistent, Akhavan says, “It’s hard to think the widespread systematic violence against thousands and thousands of protestors… is done without the acquiescence, if not the express instructions of those in the position of authority.” Former militiaman Amir Farshad Ebrahimi goes on to name names: It’s certain,” he says, “that Tehran’s chief prosecutor, Mr. Said Mortazavi, had given the order for these actions, and that he supreme commander, [Brigadier-General Ahmad Reza] Radan, was responsible for [the horrific tortures reported at the prison] Kahrizak.

As the film lays out details of this abuse, the graphic animation does more than illustrate testimonies. It underlines the idea that much of what happened in Iran — and continues to happen — is undocumented and so, unseen and too soon forgotten. As hard as reporters work to get their stories out, they are also caught up, literally, by a regime that beats them and fellow citizens with truncheons, smashes their heads against tables, pulls out their toenails, and crushes their skulls.

A blogger recalls his night in a cell so crowded that there was no room to sit down. “The guards smashed lights,” he remembers, “started beating us up in total darkness.” Over a dark screen, sounds of forceful hose water gives way to screams and thumps against flesh. The screen shows animated bodies, blooded and crumpled, as he continues, “They beat us up for half an hour, some fell into a coma, some even lost their lives.”

His story is compounded by alarming cell phone video, shots sounding, bodies falling, people rushing and screaming, the frame careening as the person holding the phone runs for his life. It’s surely striking to hear Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi ask, “How can a woman whose child had been murdered forget?” But it’s almost impossible to watch the cell phone footage of a woman wailing over her son’s grave, damning the authorities who sent her round to 26 different offices, not admitting that her son was already murdered: “They shot him in the heart!” she says, as the camera struggles to keep up with her. “They are such cowards.”

The Green Wave reminds you not only of the power of images, and the importance of journalists who provides them. It also insists on the risks all reporters take, no matter their affiliation or their repayment. A woman blogger’s voice sounds over an animated view of the city at night: “Where is this place in which nobody ever thinks of us? ” she asks, “Where is this place in which the blood of young people is shed and later prayed on? Where is this place in which citizens are referred to as criminals and riffraff? Where is this place? Would you like me to tell you? This place is Iran!” And this place still needs to be exposed.

RATING 8 / 10