Film Remembers Slain Iranian Protester

A year ago, thousands took to the streets in Iran to protest the disputed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A new documentary looks back at the protests and the very public death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot and killed while protesting. Filmmaker Antony Thomas explains why he made the film For Neda. And Iranian journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan reflects on the mass protests and the cultural significance of Neda Agha-Soltan’s tragic passing.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Cambodian-American artist Laura Mann and her band are setting out to revive the pre-war Cambodia music scene with a modern twist. Today we hear from the young singer from the Bay Area, and she shares some of her musical inspirations.

But, first, as we are speaking now, Iran is back in the news. Last week, the U.N. Security Council approved a fourth round of sanctions against Tehran over its disputed nuclear program. But we want to go back a year to the presidential elections. Incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retained power. And in an authoritarian regime, that was not a surprise. But what was to many outside Iran and perhaps even within Iran was the strength of the mass protests against the vote.

There were days of protests, mass arrests, beatings and killings. Much of it was captured by Iranians acting as citizen journalists who would determine to make sure the world saw, documenting events as they unfolded with cell phone cameras that they then uploaded to the Internet. And that's how the world heard about a young woman named Neda.

On June 20th of last year, Neda Agha-Soltan was shot and killed during a demonstration. Cell phone cameras captured her dying moments and the video went viral. Within hours, Neda became the symbol of opposition to the regime and the regimes ham-fisted efforts to remain in power.

But who was she? Filmmaker Anthony Thomas decided to find out. His latest film, "For Neda," which premieres on HBO tonight, tells her story and also the story of many young people in Iran. Also joining us is Iranian journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan who located Neda's family. These interviews he conducted are believed to be the first extensive comments the family members have made. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ANTHONY THOMAS (Filmmaker, "For Neda"): Thank you for inviting us.

Mr. SAEED KAMALI DEHGHAN (Journalist, Iran): Thank you, it's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Anthony, I'm going to start with you. The film starts by showing other iconic photographs - from Vietnam, from Beijing. Many people will be able to see these images in their mind's eye. And I wanted to ask you about starting with the image of Neda. It is heartbreaking. It's extremely disturbing. I wanted to ask why you decided to start the film this way.

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think right up front of the film, we had to establish how significant this moment was. This is the as one of the people say, this is the most powerful, viral video of all time. And we had to begin right with that before we moved on to the next question, is how much do we really know about this person? Who was she? What was she fighting for?

MARTIN: It is a very personal film. And as you point out in the film, often, you know, journalism is equated with spying in Iran. And people speak out at risk to themselves. So I did want to ask why you felt it was important to get to that personal story.

Mr. THOMAS: The personal side was enormously important. And this is where we owe such a huge debt to Saeed. I searched long and high for somebody who would actually take on this extraordinarily dangerous project of going in to meet the family. And it was an awkward experience for me because I've been in war zones and all kinds of places in the past and I've always shared those dangers with my crew. But here I was sending somebody in and not sharing that danger. And the second concern was the family themselves.

They feel, and a lot of my Iranian friends endorse this, that by speaking openly, they are protecting themselves. The regime is very good at throwing anonymous people, unknown people, into prison and disposing of them. They're a little bit more cautious when it comes to people that have a really high profile.

MARTIN: But they are also famous for putting Iranian ex-patriots in prison. So, Saeed, this is a good time to ask you, why did you decide to take on this assignment?

Mr. DEHGHAN: Well, when I came back to London from Tehran in September before being involved this fall, I was feeling guilty that I'm living in London and safe and they are fighting this regime. So, when Anthony proposed that I should go to Iran and work with him on this story, I instantly said yes because I was feeling that this is what I want to do.

MARTIN: Now, you describe in the film that you had actually a very emotional reaction when you met Neda's family for the first time. Will you tell us that story and tell us why do you think that was?

Mr. DEHGHAN: Well, you know, Neda, for me, was the symbol of freedom. At that time I was going to her house, her own house so I could have some sympathy about her life, her personal life. And then suddenly I felt that I knew her for many years. She was no more a stranger for me.

MARTIN: Anthony, the film has this interesting feel. On the one hand it is an historical film. It describes a moment in time and it's like a family movie too of home video and, you know, this young girl and what she liked to do. And there are a couple of stories that you tell and I wanted to ask if you would tell one of them about a friend of hers at the college that they were attending together, and what the women have to go through before they're allowed to go to class. Would you just tell that story for a minute?

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, this is a lovely insight into Neda's character. At all the entrances to universities, they have this little group of women who inspect you. And if youre a woman youre not allowed to - your hair mustnt be showing. Youre not allowed to wear lipstick. This friend of Neda's remembered going through this system with her, and the friend was wearing an outrageous colored shoes and she was very well made up.

And so Neda just took her cause on and she argued and argued with the women about her own appearance. And the friend, who was very dangerously dressed, just slipped in behind her. It was Neda's sort of sense of humor, her sense of bravery. She hated all these restrictions and always fought them.

MARTIN: Saeed, how is her family doing in the wake of her death? I mean obviously losing a child, losing a sibling is just devastating.

Mr. DEHGHAN: Well, I'm in regular contact with them and the mother was a typical Iranian mother who was not into politics or she's not still into politics very much. But her life has been changed now. On a daily basis, whatever happens, what ever she has to do, deals with Neda. And this is the same with Neda's brother Mohammed, who has never cut his hair or he hasnt also shaved his beard. So all the family members, they're lives has been changed since Neda's death.

MARTIN: What about the number of people who were with her when she was killed? And I want to play a short clip from the young doctor who was right near her when she was killed. I just want to play a short clip from the documentary.

(Soundbite of documentary, For Neda")

(Soundbite of screaming people)

Dr. ARASH HEJAZI: And then, when we hear the blast, I turn back, looked at Neda, who was standing about a meter away from me, and I saw her looking out in astonishment and surprise at the blood that was gushing out of her chest, and I ran towards her. From my impression, she shot in her aorta - the major blood vessel coming out of the heart. No one could save her.

MARTIN: Antony, how is he doing and the other people who were with her?

Mr. THOMAS: The wonderful Arash Hejazi. These are the many side stories you can't tell in making a film like this which is sort of very much centered on Neda. But Arash was a very very celebrated publisher and he never known Neda before then. And he had a choice to make. One was to go back into his business and carry on as if nothing had happened and say nothing, and the other was to come out and give witness to this to the world. And he did that and he left everything behind him.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm with filmmaker Antony Thomas and journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan, and we're talking about their new film "For Neda." Neda was the young women who became the face of the opposition movement in Iran. She was killed at a protest rally in Tehran last year. Their film debuts on HBO tonight.

Antony, though you can't tell all the stories that arise from this, but you do tell many. And you tell, not just of Neda's life, but the lives of many young people that are leading in Iran and just what many of us in the West would experience as oppression. I just want to play another clip from the movie. This is from the photojournalist Reza Deghati, and he's talking about the lives of women in Iran.

(Soundbite of documentary, "For Neda")

Mr. REZA DEGHATI (Photojournalist): The whole things in their lives is that you should control yourself and they cannot control themselves in front of a beauty(ph). They want to kill it.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: It does lead to the question of why was Neda killed? Does anyone know who? Has anyone ever been held accountable? Why?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, this is an interesting story. The crowd got hold of this man who they were convinced shot her, so we know how she was killed. Now, the two things about her: one, which Arash Hejazi is very clear about is she was absolutely demonstrating. And the other aspect is the one that Reza talks about, which is that a girl who looks beautiful, stunning, attracts attention. I've spoken to a number of Iranians like this, and they tell me that anybody who is out of the norm seems to be zeroed in on by the regime.

There's something about the psychology which doesnt like anyone to be out of the norm. And an exquisitely beautiful lady - girl like Neda, obviously shouting, was somebody who was really attracting attention to herself.

MARTIN: But no one has ever been held accountable for this death.

Mr. THOMAS: No one has been held accountable at all, no.

MARTIN: Can I ask you one question, and that is the whole question of - how can I put this - displaying the moment of this young woman's death? And I utterly credit your point that this was imagery taken by people around her, for the purpose of letting the world know what had happened to her. But there are those who do wonder whether it is appropriate for us to, again and again, revisit the last days of this young woman's life.

Speak to that, if you would.

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think the people who should decide this are the family. And for a long time the mother couldnt even look at those images. If she understands the need to do this and a person who is dying is her own beloved daughter and she understands, I think, we have a right to do this for the sake of Neda and for the sake of the Iranian people.

MARTIN: Saeed, what do you say about that as a person who has been and is in close communication with the family? What about that?

Mr. DEHGHAN: Well, I agree with Antony. And I talked to Neda's mother and they were very very happy with this film, because they felt that it shows the real story of Neda's life and death. And they want the world to know Neda's story, because it represents lots of other lives in Iran. It represents the current situation in Iran. So I think its important for the world to see these pictures over and over. I dont think we should be sorry to show it.

MARTIN: And I do want to ask though, because you are both journalists, there are those and we had the opportunity to speak during the course of the elections too, Iranians who support the regime. And they felt that a lot of the young people demonstrating were just troublemakers who didnt respect elected leaders. So I wanted to ask Saeed, particularly, about that, since you are just back from Iran spent some time there. What do you say to that?

Mr. DEHGHAN: No, what I felt is that in Iran youre not just battling with the Islamic Republic, youre literally battling with your own parents because that was a generation which voted for Khomeini and now the new generation dont want it. So I'm not surprised to see some other views on this, and the people who were supporting the regime.

But I think the majority of Iran; theyve shown it already, they want a change.

MARTIN: Antony, obviously the film makes the point that Neda didnt die in vain.

Mr. THOMAS: No.

MARTIN: But how do we know this?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I dont think anything will be the same after this. I'm loath to prophesy but I feel that this whole movement has found its voice and I really do believe it's only a matter of time before everything changes.

MARTIN: Saeed, what do you think?

Mr. DEHGHAN: Well, I agree with Rudi Bakhtiar who appears in the final moments of our film, and she says that it's the beginning of the end, so... And I'm very optimistic for the long future of Iran.

MARTIN: Why so?

Mr. DEHGHAN: The fact that we dont see protest anymore in the city doesnt mean that the Green Movement have been defeated. We have an expression in Iran. We say: the fire under the ashtray. So we dont see it but we have it. There's a potential there. And times, through stories like Neda's stories, Iran has been changed significantly since those years. So we dont have Mousavi as the president but there has been a significant change.

MARTIN: Antony, finally, what do you want people to take away from this film?

Mr. THOMAS: The very first thing I want is to create a respect for the people of Iran. I think my perception was, in the West, we thought of them all as sort of 72 million kind of raving fanatics. I hope what the film has done is introduced the real Iranian people to the American public.

On the other reverse side; I hope that it will give heart to the people inside Iran just to know that we're still thinking of them, that we still know their struggle is still alive.

MARTIN: Antony Thomas is a filmmaker. His latest film, For Neda, premiers tonight on HBO. He joined us from our studios in New York.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan is an Iranian journalist. He joined us from London.

I, gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Mr. THOMAS: Thank you very much.

Mr. DEHGHAN: Thank you very much.

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