The HBO documentary For Neda, directed by Antony Thomas and narrated by famed Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, first aired on HBO in the United States on June 14 but went viral in Iran on June 1, well before the regime even knew about it. In an HBO interview, Mr. Thomas stated that the goal of the film was to look beyond Neda Agha-Soltan as the most prominent symbol of the Green Revolution and into the soul of whom Neda was as a human being. To that end, Mr. Thomas and crew succeeded brilliantly. The emotional rollercoaster ride one undergoes while traversing Neda Soltan’s short but eventful life in For Neda ranges from the tender and sublime to black despair and furious outrage.
At times, For Neda also induces in the viewer an unnerving sense of paranoia. Throughout much of the film, the regime is the evil villain unseen on the screen but whose ominous presence is most keenly felt. The rather ordinary but highly illicit home interview sessions in Iran with Neda’s family and others engender a dark foreboding to the point you almost expect regime jackboots to bust down the doors at any moment. The rest of For Neda is also fraught with many palpable dangers that make the fictional James Bond’s seem trite by comparison. In For Neda, we know that the consequences of regime discovery and reprisal are as perilous, real and horrifying as it gets.
For those reasons and many others, Neda’s family refused to talk to the media for the longest time. After Neda’s death last June 20, the regime forcibly moved the family to prevent their home in Tehran from becoming a Green rallying point (which it had in fact become), then thoroughly silenced them. Yet after much coaxing online, Neda’s family finally (and fearlessly) agreed to a live interview in their home to tell Neda’s life story. The man chosen to travel to Iran to secretly interview Neda’s family and capture it all on video for HBO was Saeed Kamali Dehghan, a courageous 24-year-old Iranian expatriate and editorial contributor to the UK Guardian.
What Mr. Dehghan lacked in formal journalism experience he would make up for with great human insight, derring-do and balls of titanium. He would need all of those qualities for this trip. The slightest slip-up, careless act or suspicion-inducing look could lead him straight to Evin prison and all that entails. Fortunately, Mr. Dehghan succeeded in entering Iran undetected and completing his lonely and dangerous mission. For that, we all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. The video he smuggled from the homes and hearts of Neda’s mother, father, sister and brother is extraordinarily captivating and poignant. It reveals to us, layer by layer, the story of whom Neda Soltan was as a living person and kindred human spirit.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Neda’s life, as revealed in For Neda, was how closely it mirrored those of most ordinary young American women. Rebellious at a very young age, Neda refused to wear the chadar in elementary school, which is required of all female students in the Islamic Republic. Even more amazingly, l’enfant terrible Neda won her fight. She would do battle with the chadar and other female clothing restrictions throughout her all-too-short life, one of many rebellions Neda would conduct against the repressive and misogynist Islamist legal codes in Iran.
Neda Soltan’s subversion of thought also extended to literature. From Wuthering Heights to The Last Temptation of Christ, Neda’s widely varying and mostly illegal collection of books reveals a most curious and searching young mind that wanted to know and experience all the best that humanity had to offer, most of which was and is forbidden in the Islamic Republic. Perhaps the most poignant moment of all in For Neda is when her mother recalls the day Neda was fatally shot by a basiji sniper in the streets of Tehran. In phone call after phone call, Neda ignored her mother’s pleadings to come home. During her last call prior to her death, Neda had told her mother how dangerous the streets were becoming and promised that she would at last return home.
The rest is now history in a revolution that continues to unfold before our eyes. Its ending is still unwritten, but is eyed by the Greens and the diaspora with great hopes for a free and democratic Iran. Were such a revolution of freedom to succeed, it would not only transform Iran itself beyond measure but the world at large, given the Islamic Republic’s larger-than-life place in it today. In summation, For Neda is one of the most compelling, moving and gut-wrenching documentaries I have ever seen. The film succeeds wildly in projecting the entire scope of the Green cause through one of its earliest, youngest and most defiant revolutionaries, and in the most human and personal of terms.
Here is perhaps the ultimate insight into Neda’s persona as revealed in the film. On Election Night last year, Neda smelled a rat and refused to cast a vote when she found only Ahmadinejad observers were allowed at the polls. Yet despite the fact Neda did not vote herself, the news that the election was most likely fraudulent compelled her back out onto the streets to speak up for family and friends whose votes had been stolen. That courageous, selfless and defiant act, one which would ultimately cost Neda her life, captures the essence of Neda’s spirit, the spirit of the HBO documentary that bears her name, and the spirit of the Green Revolution itself.