"I Am Neda"—Beyond the Icon
The author, founder of Feminist.com, interviews the first-time filmmaker who is winning awards for her documentary on the woman whose death on the streets of Tehran helped kindle Iran's democracy movement.
Like the nameless man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square or the naked and badly burned 9-year-old girl running away from the napalm bombing in Vietnam, Neda Agha-Soltan, shot and killed in the streets of Tehran, is an iconic image deeply engraved into our minds and into our world history. The 26-year-old woman's death at the hands of Iranian authorities during the 2009 election protests was captured on video by bystanders, broadcast over the Internet, and spread rapidly around the world. Neda became the face of Iran's democracy movement.
For Nicole Kian Sadighi, the daughter of two prominent Iranian journalists, witnessing Neda’s death was a life changing catalyst, inspiring her to become a first time film director and producer to document the story in her multi-award winning film “I Am Neda.” Sadighi, who also plays Neda in the film, remembers the video's impact, watching Neda “one minute innocently standing there, and then the next she was gone right before our eyes.” She says, “We usually see casualties in the aftermath of the war and turmoil but never as close up as this. It was so shocking. There are no words to describe it.”
Her initial anger at Neda's fate (“She didn’t deserve to die!”) transformed into an intense curiosity, and eventually a calling. “I wanted to know more about this girl called Neda," Sadighi recalls. "What were her beliefs, her likes, dislikes? What was her driving force?” Sadighi spent a year immersing herself into Neda’s life, more and more drawn to the courageous young woman. “She saw the world with such hope and romance and beauty despite the depressing restraints of the country she lives in,” Sadighi says. “The world only knows of Neda in her tragic death. I wanted to know her in life and to share what I had discovered.”
“As a woman, and an Iranian born woman,” Sadighi “felt dutiful and compelled to echo Neda’s voice.” Under the current regime in Iran, she says, “Islamic laws have enforced limitations on the lives of the Iranian people, prohibiting their fundamental human rights, whether it is the women’s movement, the labor force, the student movement or religious minorities." Women have been the most targeted, she says, and it's “also been the Iranian women who have been at the forefront of the ongoing demonstrations as there is a massive women’s movement in Iran.” For Sadighi, “Neda was the representation of the courageous Iranian women who are so united in their mission for their equal rights."
Sadighi also sees the film as an opportunity to show the “innate difference" between the people of Iran and the Iranian regime. "The two should not be confused. Neda represented that difference. The tragedy is that the government has made enemies of its own people.” Her subject “has become a symbol of all the Neda's of the world, particularly women. Where you have freedom for women, you have a more liberal and tolerant society and a country like Iran is a far cry from that."
Sadighi delighted in uncovering personal details about Neda, such as “her love of music, dancing, the arts and literature. She was such a romantic at heart.” She was particularly touched by a childhood story. “Neda hated to wear the mandatory headscarf and when she was a young child at school she campaigned hard not to have to wear it – and she succeeded! That’s unheard of in a country like Iran. “ She says it is clear that “Neda had gumption and tenacity since a small age" and "seemed to be a little stubborn in that she didn’t like to be told what to do. I loved that about her!” Sadighi says that the more she learned about Neda “the more I grew to admire her. She really was a force for good."
The Iranian actress Mary Apick, who plays Neda’s mother Hajar Rostami, won Best Actress at the Moscow Film Festival for her role in the film "Dead End," which was the first prestigious acting award for an actress in the history of Iranian cinema. She has also produced and directed the play "Beneath the Veil," which also won the Critics’ Choice award at the Los Angeles International Theater Festival. Says Sadighi, “Having Mary involved in the film was a very deliberate choice on my part for obvious reasons. Like me, she is a huge women’s rights and human rights advocate and I’ve been a huge admirer of hers for a very long time. No one else would do.”
In addition to shooting on a very low budget and having to wear “many hats,” Sadighi says that one of the biggest challenges of making the film was that they couldn’t film in Iran without encountering retaliation from the government. (The film was shot in Los Angeles.) She is keenly aware of the irony of making this movie, “where here we have this young woman, Neda, standing up for her freedom, and with this film we are demonstrating the lack of that freedom by not being able to film inside Iran."
Ultimately she says that she hopes that she can “inspire and educate people" in "every corner of the globe." She tries to get "I Am Neda" into as many film festivals as possible, aiming for the 2013 Oscars. "When it gets there, then I’ll be satisfied to know that this film will ultimately reach the masses on a wide scale and Neda’s legacy will live on forever."
The film is well on its way. So far “I am Neda” has won six awards and received 20 nominations at 14 different film festivals including as a finalist at Cannes’s American Pavilion. “As a first-time female director," says Sadighi, "reaching this far is a great sense of achievement.” But ultimately, she says the recognition at festivals means that those in the documentary film world “believe in the message of the movie, and appreciate it as an artistic form of telling a story" that moves them.
The film, says Sadighi, also testifies to the democratization of information and the growing power of social media, of amateur video captured by global citizens rather than by journalists. She says, “In this amazing technological age of Twitter and Facebook, we cannot hide from the truth anymore. There is a reason that these innocent people across the other side of the world are filming what's really happening on the ground with their camera phones. They want us to take notice. 'I Am Neda' is saying we are listening.”
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