It has been almost a year since Neda Agha-Soltan was gunned down during the protests in Iran. Last week, HBO released For Neda to commemorate her death and reveal more of the woman behind the symbol.
Neda died on June 20th, 2009. The video of her dying moments went viral almost immediately, making Neda a symbol of Iranian resistance and the brutality of the regime. The government has denied all involvement in Neda's death, but as the documentary shows, the "official" stories rarely match up. In attempts to make Neda's story even more widely heard, HBO has released For Neda on YouTube, in Arabic, Farsi, and English. It is being broadcast in the U.S. throughout the month, and has been aired on the Voice of America Persian TV network in Iran (unfortunately, the government is still working to silence Neda, and resorted to jamming networks and cutting off power in order to keep their citizens from watching the film).
For Neda shows a side of the young martyr that hasn't really been seen before. Filmmaker Saeed Kamali Dehghan interviews her family and acquaintances, searching for more information about the woman whose death came to symbolize the resistance movement. Though the purpose of the documentary is to tell Neda's story, to get at something behind the famous image, ultimately, much of Neda's significance is worn on the surface. This is not because she was a shallow girl - though she certainly cared about her appearance - but because the female body was such a site of conflict for protesters and the regime alike.
The film makes explicit the connection between female beauty and the growing resistance in Iran. The filmmakers highlight certain aspects of oppression, from filming women being asked to remove their makeup upon entering the university, to including clips of Neda's famous pop star, who was forced to leave Iran to continue her career. They discuss Neda's hatred of the headscarf, and her mother shows the last dress she purchased before she died. Neda had many interests - her pile of books reveals Neda's more intellectual side - but she was forced to hide and cover this particular aspect of her identity. Like many women in the Middle East, Neda was forced to sacrifice her desires for the very things we take for granted. In a sense, these moments of everyday injustice are more significant to Neda's story than the mass protests because these are the things that mattered to Neda, this is why she ended up on the street, why she ended up dead. Neda was, as they keep reminding us, an ordinary girl, with an emphasis on girl. And yet, the concerns that could appear girlish and unimportant are shown here for their deeper meaning.
Furthermore, Neda's individual beauty may have played a role in her death. Neda's mother describes the warnings her daughter received during the protests. Soon after the elections, Neda ran into several older women on the street, who asked her not to come back to the protests. "Please don't come out looking so beautiful," they warned, "You are very lovely, do us a favor and don't come out because the Basiji men target beautiful girls. And they will shoot you."
From the moment it hit the news, Neda's face was synonymous with her death. Even the pictures that showed her smiling, happy and full of life were only stand-ins for the only image of Neda that truly mattered. Although it seems unlikely that Neda was targeted specifically because of her looks, her face made her more visible, and, many would argue, it made her especially suited to serving as a symbol for the Western media. Toward the end of the film, Roya Bournmand, Ph.D, puts it best: "The objective of killing is to make you invisible, and if once you are dead you are still visible... the whole purpose of killing you is defeated."
While the woman behind the face matters, Neda's death helped to reveal the importance of seemingly trivial things like headscarves and makeup. The video of her murder can be seen as a shocking display of government brutality, an essential piece of citizen journalism, but it also served to catapult certain issues into the light through the unveiling of Neda's face and body. When we think of Neda, we think of blood and violence, but also that smile, those eyes. In many ways, Neda was an ordinary girl. But her courage, her love, and yes, her beauty, made her an immortal figure at the moment of her death. She will live on as an image, and thanks to For Neda, the memory of Neda, the dancing young women with ambitions, dreams, and a closet full of dresses, will live on as well.
For Neda [HBO]
For Neda: Full Video [YouTube]