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"For Neda" - Film Screening and Discussion

Speakers: Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars, and Antony Thomas, Filmmaker, "For Neda"
Presider: Glenn Kessler, Diplomatic Correspondent, The Washington Post
June 3, 2010, Washington D.C.
Council on Foreign Relations

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GLENN KESSLER: All right, thank you very much. I'm Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post. We're running a little bit late here so I will dispense with all of the introductions, which are in your packets.

I want to welcome you to the meeting of tonight's Council on Foreign Relations, organized in cooperation with HBO. Please completely turn off, not just put on vibrate, your cell phones, Blackberries, I'm doing it myself and all wireless devices to avoid interference with the sound system. And as a reminder, this meeting is on the record. And I thought that was a truly extraordinary film.

ANTONY THOMAS: Thank you.

KESSLER: And I might modestly suggest to the people from the White House and the State Department here that you might want to have a showing at those respective agencies because I think people will find it very interesting. And I will start with a few questions for our panelists and then open it very quickly to audience questions since we are running late.

First of all, Mr. Thomas, I know that the family of Neda spoke in part because they felt that by speaking out they might be protected, but are you concerned at all for the fact that they're so public in this film?

THOMAS: I remain concerned. This regime, although everyone says to me, as Arash Hejazi says in the film, that they are protected by the love of the Iranian people for Neda, we're dealing with a very irrational regime, and I think it does remain a very great concern.

KESSLER: Yes, well, I understand this aired on Voice of America last night.

THOMAS: That's correct, yeah.

KESSLER: So I think journalists will want to keep a close watch to see what happens.

THOMAS: Yeah.

KESSLER: And, Dr. --

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Haleh.

KESSLER: Heleh, okay, Haleh, the way the film ended, it was both kind of bittersweet but with a bit of hope there, and I'm wondering, you know, 19, 20 years ago we had Tiananmen Square and the Chinese government managed to crush that. There were some vivid images but they didn't have the cell phones, the technology that we have today.

And yet, as we come to the one-year anniversary of the Green Revolution, you don't see the images, these vivid images that -- in this film of the people on the streets. So, what do you see as the future here, and how will this play out in the coming days and months?

ESFANDIARI: I think I tend to agree with Rudy Bakhtiar, who is sitting here and is the symbol of the future generation of Iran. I mean, someone like me might feel depressed and maybe not have much hope, but if I see that the younger generation of Iranians believe that this is the beginning of the end, I tend to agree with them.

And I think this was an indigenous movement and it is there to stay. It has been suppressed, sure enough, and we won't see these millions of people coming out into the street on the anniversary of the elections because they will flood the street with Revolutionary Guards and their own people, but precisely because we are in the age of the Internet, you know, and access, and we have citizen journalists and this movement is going to be there for a long time.

KESSLER: And do you think that's the case, I mean, they have, it does seem like the government has allowed a number of people to leave if they think they're going to cause trouble, and there is quite a brain drain happening there. Do you think, how important is that?

ESFANDIARI: When I was in prison, the argument that the Intelligence Ministry people would use with me was that we don't care if these activists leave because once they leave the country, they are forgotten. But for the first time after the last year's event, you have a new development. You have the people outside the country working together with people inside the country.

The people who left Iran have not disappeared; they have been invigorated and are keeping in touch within Iran. So it is not the case like the Chinese.

THOMAS: I see. I think there's another very important contrast between 1989 Tiananmen Square and the situation here.

Is this a bit echoey? Can you hear me? Sorry.

I think in 1989, we know there were uprisings in 400 cities in China, and it was an urban revolution, but the government of China had something to offer. It slammed the political door shut. It opened the economic door, get rich and it was able to offer that stimulus, it was a kind of Faustian pact: What has this government in Iran got to offer? It's run the whole economy into the ground. I don't see a comparison there.

ESFANDIARI: I agree with you. I don't see a comparison either but I think we never saw these vivid pictures that we saw from Iran. Twenty years ago there was not such access ability --

THOMAS: That's true.

ESFANDIARI: -- that you have today. But then, on the other hand, don't forget that Iran is a very wealthy country, and as long as you pay $80 a barrel, you know, for a barrel of oil, Mr. Ahmadinejad can show his largesse to a quite substantial number of people.

KESSLER: Yeah. Well, in fact, just to back up for a moment, have the -- I mean, the images in this film are really quite extraordinary. I mean, you have -- I'm just reminded of seeing Dr. Ahmadinejad promising the water being delivered as soon as the election was over. And you have these extraordinary scenes of the protests, and you also have these amazing interviews with the family.

Can you just give us kind of a glimpse into how the film was made -- put together?

THOMAS: Yeah, the challenge from HBO was this, that there probably will be a number of documentaries on this. The documentary we want to make is the one that gets to the personal center of the story that takes us beyond Neda as a symbol to Neda the human being.

And the family had posted images on the 'Net. They had actually given written responses to interviews. So the challenge became, could we have, might we have access to the family, and that's on which the whole film really depended.

And, as we show in the film, we found this young man, Saeed, who made the very brave step of going there to Tehran and was there for five weeks, I must say a very nervous five weeks for me. The problem was I couldn't go in because all foreign journalists, media people are expelled, and anyone looking like me walking into their apartment was going to cause the family enormous trouble.

So, it was a unique situation for me, making a film in a dangerous situation -- I've made many before, war situations and so on -- where I wasn't taking any part in this and the whole responsibility fell on Saeed's shoulders. And he formed an extraordinarily close relationship with the family, and it's an enormous credit to him and to them. I'm sorry he's not with us tonight.

And once the heart of the film had been secured, then it was very easy to see how the whole structure would play out in the sort of four-acts. And, you know, it was very important to be able to do this, that people like Ahzana Fisi (ph), people like Roya Boroumand, people like Rudy could give us extra insights into what we had actually discovered from the family, but I couldn't start until Saeed had delivered that central core of the film.

KESSLER: And how many hours of interviews did he conduct?

THOMAS: He shot about 15 hours. A lot of it was very amateur. It was all over the place, but he did really learn the lesson on the interviews to keep the camera still, let it rest -- (laughter) -- and let us just hear these wonderful people.

KESSLER: And was it difficult for him to get all this out? I guess it was on a digital camera, or how did he get it out?

THOMAS: He had a little, well, a sophisticated little camera but it could be mistaken for an amateur camera. And then the decision was how could we get this material out of the country? So we had all kinds of scenarios worked out, couriers and so on and so forth and then Saeed made the decision he would take all the material out himself.

He took the precaution to have copies made, which are still in Iran, and I was to meet him at the airport, and the flight was actually three hours late in taking off. And Saeed, it was a terrible, terrible day because both Saeed and I thought, you know, when somebody is taken out at security, that's when flights are delayed, and we all thought this had happened, but actually it was because the co-pilot had overslept. (Laughter.)

Saeed arrived in London with all the material in his suitcase, which was a wonderful moment in December, just before Christmas.

KESSLER: I bet it was quite a goldmine. And the other interesting thing that I think you really bring through in the film is the plight of women in Iran.

THOMAS: Oh.

KESSLER: And, I mean, it's fascinating to me how the film was constructed, and I'm not a film critic, but I think that the various parts all work very well together. Why did you decide to focus in particular on the plight of women?

THOMAS: Well, I just think it was very, very important, if one was trying to give the sense of really what Neda was fighting for, to actually give some, a very brief impression of what it means to be a woman living under that regime, how the law works against women. I've actually not seen that treated in a coherent whole like that in any film.

You know, there was one documentary, I won't mention anyone, that was rushed out in October, which, you know, didn't touch on the women's issues, for instance, and I think if you don't, you can't tell Neda's story. You've got to know what she was fighting for and what issue she was reacting against.

ESFANDIARI: I agree with you. I think she represents a generation of young women who grew up after the revolution. You know, these are the children of the revolution. You would expect them to be brainwashed and, you know, adhere to Islamic law and be more religious. But for these women, religion is a very private matter. I just can't say they are secular or not.

I assume they believe, they have some sort of belief but it's very private and they don't want their daily life being guided by religion, and this is the case in Iran.

And I think, unlike any other group in Iran, the women have been standing up to the imposition of very tight control over their life in the last 30 years and have fought at every step of the way. And they really are very brave because the sheer number of women activists who have been sentenced to prison terms and also are sitting in jail now surpasses any other group.

KESSLER: When you were watching the film, what commentary from the people in the film, the Iranians in the film, what did you find most striking?

ESFANDIARI: There were of course some funny moments when just, you know, the night before the election you saw a mob shouting, bye-bye, Ahmadi. And Ahmadi is a nickname for Ahmadinejad. And it sounded to me very funny. But I think what really was amazing for me, and I had read about it and I'd just seen snippets, but tonight and last week when I saw the film for the first time, I saw truly, truly how organized the demonstrators were.

I mean, they had decided to protest in very -- silently, and it was only when they were beaten up and the provocation happened that they started fighting back. And to be able to control 100,000 people -- I'm not even saying a million but 100,000 people to march in total silence really is amazing.

KESSLER: It is amazing, yeah.

ESFANDIARI: You know, it is. And also the brutality. I mean, you're all shocked when you see the brutality that was committed against them, but you also saw how they were fighting back. There is that sense which -- always vivid in my memory is that the young woman, kicking the -- (laughter) -- you know, Revolutionary Guards, which is just unbelievable. And she was surrounded by these people with the baton, but nevertheless, yeah.

KESSLER: That's quite extraordinary.

Well, I'm going to stop hogging the podium here and open it up to questions from the audience. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and your affiliation. And keep your comments and questions concise to allow as many people to speak as possible.

Yes, sir -- there.

QUESTIONER: Chris Isham with CBS News, a question for Antony. Could you give us a summary of the prominence of the cell phone video? Who shot them? How were they shot?

THOMAS: What, of Neda's actual death?

QUESTIONER: Yeah.

THOMAS: We know that there were two separate cell phones. The family tells Saeed they know who took one of the shots, but beyond that, I know nothing. I just know that there were those two cell phones that were active at that time.

One of the reasons why the cell phones and that was very interesting was that Panahi was mistaken by many people in the crowd for an Iranian actor of the shah's generation, and apparently he was a look-alike. So a lot of people were interested in that because they thought that this was this film star who had come out from the past. That's the story also we heard from the family, and that is given as a reason why there happened to be those two cell phones there.

KESSLER: Very interesting.

Yes, ma'am?

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

KESSLER: Hold on. Wait. We need the microphone, and you have to stand and state your affiliation.

QUESTIONER: Georgine Neureiter. What happened to the music teacher?

THOMAS: This is a rather sad story. He was put under a lot of pressure by the regime. He appeared on television telling a version of her death that was untrue. And he is now being dragooned into a documentary which I'm told they're making, which is yet another version of Neda's death.

The family don't -- have cut off contact with him. They are very disappointed that he could be persuaded to support the regime's story. I can't comment because I've never been tortured and threatened and I'm sure I might have done the same thing in his situation, but that's the sad story behind him.

KESSLER: Did he have a family that they used to --

THOMAS: No, no, he's not, but it was direct pressure put on him to make these statements. I don't know of what nature they were, but implying that he had seen somebody from the Green Movement doing this and so forth. He has toed the line but, poor man, what alternative did he have?

KESSLER: Exactly.

Yes, ma'am, there.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Sheri Fink, Woodrow Wilson Center.

I'm just curious; what is known about the circumstances of her death and who this person might have been who actually shot her?

THOMAS: Well, I think it's pretty clear that the crowd had got the killer. They took his identity card, which we've seen on the Internet. We felt that we couldn't show that identity card, which clearly gives his name and address and everything else.

I'm pretty sure, and so is Arash Hejazi, that the crowd caught the man who actually shot Neda. He was a member of the Revolutionary Guard, and he had his accreditation, which they took from him. But of course the crowd were in a situation where, as Arash explains, they couldn't just take him to a police station. It would have been, but I think it's pretty clear he was the killer.

KESSLER: Yes, sir?

QUESTIONER: Hi. Cameron Khosrowshahi, Akkadian Private Ventures.

Haleh Esfandiari, this question is for you. Do you think we are alienating the reform movement with our obsession with a nuclear Iran? That is to say, are we actually, instead of focusing our resources on nurturing organic change in Iran, are we focusing rather on sort of this dance, useless dance at the Security Council instead of sort of focusing on the nature of the regime itself instead of the weapons they might acquire?

KESSLER: Was this for me? No. Who was this for?

(Cross talk.)

THOMAS: It's for you, I think. Yes.

KESSLER: You?

ESFANDIARI: I couldn't get all of the question.

KESSLER: Oh, I'm sorry. The question was, is the United States government focusing too much on the nuclear issue to the detriment of the human rights issue in Iran, and should the policy change so that, I guess, I think you were saying the nuclear issue is not going anywhere anyway, so --

ESFANDIARI: I don't think so. I think the policy of the administration so far in condemning the violation of human rights in Iran has been measured and to the point, because had they gone, had they said more, then it would have been much easier for the regime to associate the Green Movement with the United States, I mean, as they are trying to do it.

As you saw in the movie, I mean, Neda was first, you know, she was killed on the street, we all saw, but then it was I think the BBC correspondent who killed her and then the American and so on.

So I don't think so. I think there has been enough condemnation of the human rights issues, and what one hears is that in the two meetings that took place in October in Geneva and then the end of October in Vienna, this issue was brought up in private, too.

So I just don't think so. I think the nuclear issue is public and the condemnation of the violation of human rights has been also public, and at least I believe it's the right policy.

KESSLER: There are probably people in this room that could speak more knowledgeably about the administration's policy on this, though I won't point you out. My own -- (laughter) -- my own commentary, just having reported on this, is that the administration has faced a very difficult situation because the nuclear issue is one that affects the entire region, and if Iran were to obtain an atomic weapon, that would be very destabilizing.

And the administration came in kind of deciding they were going to deal with this government as, you know, as a legitimate government, and how do you shift your balance and your chorus when confronted with a situation like this without, as you point out, necessarily de-legitimizing the Green Movement by --

ESFANDIARI: Endangering them.

KESSLER: -- endangering it?

ESFANDIARI: Yeah, endangering them.

KESSLER: It's the kind of situation that makes me glad I'm a journalist and not a policymaker. (Laughter.)

Yes, ma'am?

QUESTIONER: Judith Kipper. First, compliments to --

THOMAS: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: -- the amount of information that you put in a very intense and exciting documentary, and such beautiful writing, really quite extraordinary.

I wanted to ask you what about the various people who commented, some of them, I know who they are but are some of them still in Iran? Is the doctor still in Iran?

THOMAS: No, no, everyone I interviewed is now out of the country, and I just must express my gratitude here. I have never made a documentary where the interviewees have made such an incredibly powerful contribution, every one of them, not only what they say, but they're so engaging and so charismatic. And this is something that you don't often find in a documentary. (Laughter.) They were quite extraordinary and I'm enormously grateful. They gave heart and soul to this.

KESSLER: Yes, sir?

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible) -- Lehman (sp) from Treasury. How central to the point that you're getting across is this idea that beauty is threatening to the regime? And, in particular, you know, sort of two parts; the latter part being a generalized story of oppression and the former being a personality study of sort of rebellion and disrespect for that regime.

How essential are those two parts to one another? For example, could a Muslim who very much agreed with a very traditional role for women, essentially limited to the household, nonetheless see, in this particular relation of the story, a real condemnation of the regime?

THOMAS: Yes, I'm absolutely fascinated by the fundamentalist mind in this context. When I just heard the story told by the mother and also repeated by Herda (ph) of that little experience with those Basiji women, I'm absolutely fascinated by this, and I can't understand why men find women so threatening.

But I gave this -- many of the people I interviewed, I went through this experience that Neda had and it was Reza Degotti (ph) who I think gave me a real insight into this, this feeling of lack of control, that you're threatened by beauty.

But it's a mystery to me. There are many things, politically I can understand what this regime is doing and how it's operating, but when it comes to those intense personal obsessions, I'm confused. I just don't know how the male mind can work in that way.

KESSLER: I would agree with that. (Laughter.)

Someone in the back there. Ma'am? Yep.

QUESTIONER: Hazel Denton, Johns Hopkins. The storyline from the film is that Iran is a country of very strong women, and there's one statistic that really backs that up in that Iran is the first country in the Middle East where women are choosing to have sub-replacement fertility. In Tehran, I think, the average is one-and-a-half children per woman.

And so, what you have is a group of women who are clearly controlling their own lives. It suggests, I'm just bringing this up because we haven't had this discussed, but it suggests that the regime is trying to keep the lid on a pot where the lid is going to come off, and we can see that proven by the way women are living their lives. I wondered if you had a comment, Dr. Esfandiari.

ESFANDIARI: I think what we saw in the movie was, as I said earlier, the story of a whole younger generation of Iranian women, and I believe the reason why the government has not succeeded over a period of 30 years to really control or shape the women in the image they wanted is that precisely because you had that Basiji type of women who also believe in, you know, the family law which will give them child custody, for example, or they are not for polygamy, or they have been fighting for the right to have access to education, equal rights, political rights.

So I just believe that you might have, you see these women, middle-class young women who are Westernized and believe in a freer society, but I think their sisters, who come from more traditional family, equally believe in fundamental rights for women.

KESSLER: Someone else in the back. Yes, ma'am?

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Laura Winthrop with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And thank you so much for this film. I found it incredibly powerful. And I just had a question about Neda's family, and I wondered if you had any concerns or thoughts on going about their security and protection since they were so open with you in the making of this film. Thanks.

THOMAS: Yes, I answered that question earlier, really. They believe that by going as public as this, they are more secure. Arash Hejazi makes the comment that Neda is so loved by the people of Iran that they would never take any action against the family. I'm not as secure in that belief as perhaps they are. It is a continual worry.

I don't know, with this regime, which way it's likely to jump, and I think that of course it would be a disaster for the regime if they made any move against the family, but this is an illogical regime and I can't be as confident as everybody else is that they're safe by going public. It is a worry.

KESSLER: Do you want to say something?

ESFANDIARI: Yeah, can I add something? In the past we have seen that every time there is pressure, you know, on the government, they have reacted by pulling back. So, the issue of Neda was such as embarrassment for them. They tried everything, as you saw in the movie. So they will not dare touch the family because even when they stopped the family from going out to the cemetery on the 40th day of Neda's death, you saw people went out to the cemetery.

So they won't. I just think they will not go near there and they will not touch them, and they will just leave them alone.

KESSLER: Well, let's hope that's the case.

Yes, in the back there, in the green, straight back.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. (Inaudible) -- Venezuela. In the documentary we saw a lot of women -- young women among the protesters. And this is understandable considering the threats and challenges women are facing in Iran, but also young men among the protesters, a lot of young men. Is it right to say or to understand that also the young generation in Iran is ready for a change? Thank you.

THOMAS: Oh, I think that's absolutely right. It is a whole generation. But the comment is made again and again by people who were witnesses that it was the women who were at the forefront. I heard this repeated so many times. But you're right, it is a generational thing.

And one of the ironies, of course, is that the regime has pushed hard, I think you would agree, for higher education, particularly for people from poorer backgrounds, people who would perhaps be the supporters of the regime.

And of course that education has come back to haunt them because as this younger generation has been educated, it is now become -- it's moving away. And there are many stories of people who are right in the regime whose own children have been imprisoned and who have been killed in certain respects.

This is the terrible problem for them, that education is making the situation worse and worse, and of course communication is making the situation worse and worse. You can't build Berlin Walls anymore. People are exposed to ideas from the outside, and as much as they have been informing us, we in a sense have been informing them. So it's a difficult situation for the regime.

KESSLER: And it's a very young country, right?

THOMAS: Very young.

KESSLER: I mean, what percentage is under the age of 25 or 30?

ESFANDIARI: Half of the -- over half. Almost 60 percent is under the age of 30, and 80 percent are educated. I mean, there are more women entering universities than men. And nowhere in the Middle East do you have 20 million people wired to the Internet and 6,000 bloggers -- (inaudible) -- so it's a very educated, you know, lively country, but what was amazing in these events last year was that you saw the children of the revolution fighting each other. The Basijis are the age of the same young people you saw in the street. So, you know, there has, you know, a cleavage has been taking part in the country, which in a way makes it more difficult to even control the two groups.

KESSLER: Well, I think we need to keep to the Council's rule of ending on time, so we have time for one more question, and we'll take one in the back there, right there in the red. Yes, thank you.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Julie Taboh with Voice of America. Thank you for a very compelling documentary, Mr. Thomas.

My question is, what has the feedback been on this film, not only among HBO subscribers but the audience in general?

THOMAS: Well, it hasn't been shown in this country yet; it premieres on the 14th, but it was shown on Voice of America, the Farsi version, last night, and I've already had an extraordinary crop of e-mails from Iran which are very, very heartening and wonderful, moving e-mails.

I think one of the important purposes of this film is to tell those young people that they're not forgotten and that that's the sort of feeling that I'm getting from the e-mails that are coming back to us. They really are extraordinary.

KESSLER: And I guess we would be remiss by not mentioning when it appears on HBO, on the 14th and what time?

THOMAS: It premiers on the 14th and repeated again on the 20th, of course, which is the exact anniversary of Neda's murder.

KESSLER: And what time on the 14th?

THOMAS: Nine o'clock, yes.

KESSLER: Nine o'clock. All right. Tell your friends and family.

All right, well, thank you very much. (Applause.) And I was supposed to say this whole thing was on the record, whether you knew that or -- thank you.

THOMAS: Thank you very much. Thank you.

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