Images from The Green Wave

Man and woman holding a poster: "The people had learnt to talk to each other again."

Green symbols are everywhere.

Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Lawyer and Novel Peace Prize winner, says the election was surely fraudulent.

After Ahmadinijad is declared the winner, crowds want to know "Where is my vote?"

Ali Khameini condemns protestors at the Friday sermon, speaking under Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait. He supports Ahmadinejad and says the protestors are the ones responsible for what happens to them.

The pro-Ahmadinejad crowds shout, "God is great."

The animated camera pushes past the white rose at the window to see and hear the streets of Tehran while a woman's voice speaks the words of a blog: "What place is this... ?"

The artist portrays the overwhelming sense of bloody violence everywhere.

Mehdi in his interview puts his hands over his eyes.

Tehran at night.


The Green Wave

Civil and human rights struggle in another Muslim country, Iran, is the subject of the second film we discuss here, Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave. This film about the contested June 2009 national elections in Iran shows the massive wave of popular non-violent demonstrations in support of reform and protests against government repression that the world witnessed in 2009 and that resonated in the similar protests in other Arab countries during the Arab Spring of 2011. These events were fueled by an unprecedented social media explosion of witnessing, reporting, and documenting that reached millions throughout the world and inaugurated a new age of activist transnational communication. In Iran, however, the reprisals came swiftly and the end of "The Green Wave" is tragic.

The "Green Wave" and the new media and social media implications had their own contradictions. First came a popular political movement that believed it would elect Mir-Hossein Mousavi as the next president. Then after the election, with the disappointment at losing the election to Ahmadinejad and the conviction that fraud had changed the results, the Green Wave became a protest movement. The Green Wave movement did not have the kind of success the Budrus protests did. Instead, it resulted in a counter-wave of horrific state-sanctioned violence, violations of civil and human rights in Iran that aimed to suppress the protest against rigged elections with wide-spread imprisonment, rape, torture, and murder—and a well-organized effort to hide the extent of this violence.

The film exists to tell the rest of the world about these violent acts against human rights so they are not forgotten, even though the government of Iran has succeeded in stopping most internal debate and in punishing those who would take the news outside Iran. Iranian-born German director Ali Samadi Ahadi and others who made this film are now part of a global Iranian community of expatriates and refugees, and the film is in fact one of several Iranian films recently released that defy efforts at silencing Iranian filmmakers.

Since access to Iran and to the election events have been closed off, Ali Samadi Ahadi—like Julia Bacha— has had to make the story after the fact and discover innovative means to do so. Under pressure to reveal fully the brutality associated with the election in Iran, with news of what happened subject to censorship, and with punishment of eyewitnesses within Iran who could testify in an identifiable way, he and his team embarked on a concentrated effort to gather all the recorded sounds, images, and stories they possibly could from citizens who recorded them at the time of the events.[17] [open endnotes in new window]

Ahadi had access to a new source of recorded interpretations of the event that Julia Bacha, who was retrieving material created during the events in Budrus in 2003-4, did not. This resource came from the enormous, unprecedented number of blogs, vlogs, tweets and social media posts recorded and exchanged during the Green Wave events. Iran’s young people are one of the most active blogging and social media populations in the world. After combing through tens of thousands of blog entries, Ali and his team selected, collated, and condensed the most compelling into individual narratives. They also discovered on these sites and from other sources dramatic real time images and sound recordings of the immediate events to use in the film. Twitter quotations roll across the screen during the film.

In order to make the best use of extensive non-visual (blogs, twitters) or visually problematic material (from phone cameras), the filmmakers decided to use animation, a traditional genre in Iranian culture, as a primary documentary story-telling form.[18] The film uses these drawings not only in alternation but also together with real filmed images, including interviews, creating a hybrid form of considerable emotional and aesthetic power.

Slide show: Metamorphosis. Keveh speaks the worries about the election from a blog: the sequence is an example of animation metamorphosis as the ballot is cast like a leaf into the sea and ends up like the fish at the foot of a boot, stranded on dry land.

The documentary centers around two reality-based fictional characters—Azedeh and Keveh—whose stories and words, performed by young Iranian actors in exile, Pegah Ferydoni and Navíd Akhavan , were taken verbatim from the real blogs written at the time. The art director, Ali Reza Darvish, made images of the characters. He is a serious artist with a reputation in the world of books and art as well as film, and the effect of his drawings is itself a major asset of the film.[19] The animators for these stories, Sina Mostafawy and Ali Soozandeh, used an animated panel technique contemporary and accessible to young people, like graphic novels or comics in motion. They combined these animated scenes with intense sound tracks and an emotional score that dramatized the reality and immediacy of the scenes.

In the filmmakers’ endeavor to tell this story within a context of the human rights discussions that would reach and impact an audience, they also incorporated sit-down interviews with older human rights scholars and writers. The gravity and authority of this testimony serves to reinforce the animated sequences that represent the real time experiences of the young on the streets of Tehran.[20] And the younger people interviewed—Mehdi Mohseni, Mitra Khalatbari, and Babak, an activist who is only filmed in silhouette—support the authenticity of The Green Wave's most compelling story. It is primarily the young who blogged, photographed and participated in the events of the Green Wave during May, June and July 2009 in Tehran, who employed social media to spread the word and build the movement, who translated their hope for a better future into a movement, and who produced, directed, and animated the film. And it is primarily the young—and the main characters documented in the film—who have suffered the beatings, rapes, tortures, imprisonments, and murders that the film reveals.

There are helmeted troops in the street. Keveh looks out the window at them. The drawing shows his reaction to the sight of troops.

I was surprised at the way Ahadi strikingly combined real-life with animated footage in many of the animated frames. Animated shots of characters looking out windows, for instance—describing terrible events they are witnessing on the streets—include real footage of those very events reflected on the animated surface of the windows. Eyeline match cuts to the real recorded footage of the events then take place. While the real recorded footage lends an aspect of verité testimony to the film, the animation dramatizes the story visually. Most importantly, the animation technique allows the filmmakers to document the stories communicated in the blogs that would have otherwise been invisible to audiences, and to make the characters' experiences central. While making over 50% of a documentary with animation challenges the traditional genre, it also inserts a new form of eyewitness account with the written blogs and tweets, so the cartoon illustration doesn't seem fictional.

The Green Wave's citizen-based, new media accounts of the events are combined with citizen-witnessed and recorded video images, animated images, and sit down interviews filmed in Europe afterward into a remarkably innovative, near-seamless flow. And through these innovative combinations of old and new techniques the film narrates the spirited cameraderie, work, and hope for reform preceding the elections, the courage and resolve of the protest, and the horror of the street, prison, and torture chamber violence that followed, perpetrated by Iranian authorities and sanctioned by the state. A generation of Iranian young people, especially students, suffered this trauma, and the human rights violations against protesters conveyed by The Green Wave have created a generation of Iranians in search of justice.

A scene about the balloting that begins at the Polling Place is at the heart of this story about democratic hope and despair. Those who have been interviewed in person after leaving Iran narrate over scenes of the voting:

Mehdi Mohseni: "That day I went to the southernmost part of the city and made my way north, checking out all the places. I voted at Hafte-Tir Square. I can confirm that I didn't see any Ahmadinejad supporters."

Mitra Khalatbari: "Back then, many people thought that the elections could not be manipulated if voter turnout exceeded a certain percentage."

When the activist Babak and others hear everyone around them cheering for Mousavi and see no one who supports Ahmadinejad, they are sure they have won. But the main animated character, Keveh, says (and this of course cites what someone wrote in a blog):

“I'm concerned about the excitement, the outcry, the illogical color green, the nightly marches of protest, the green mascara and people's green-dyed hair, about the commotion that numbs your senses, the excessive rush to wash away the irrationality of the last four years, about my fellow citizens uninformedly spreading this irrationality. I am concerned about the disappointment after all this excitement. Our history has shown that behind such destructive waves there always lies an endless desert. Suddenly the happily marching sneakers feet can turn into garrison boots marching in step. That scares me. It has happened before, and can happen again."

As he speaks, a series of images appear illustrating the metamorphosis of the vote into something that flies up in the wind on a dry land where dying fish are all around.

After the election results are announced and Ahmadinejad has won, people think there was fraud. While the Green Wave participants represent a range of people both generationally and in education (and importantly, female and male), some commentators on the election have said that rural, uneducated people supported by the right wing, generally more fundamentalist, had been courted by Ahmadinejad with generous social programs. Mousavi's near unanimous popularity among students who blogged was not representative of those Iranians. But the young keep repeating, "Where is this place, where no one ever thinks of us?"

There is little question that there was widespread voting fraud. Nobel prize-winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi says in the film interview, "It was revealed that in 50 towns and cities there were more ballot papers cast than inhabitants living in those places." Where there were a variety of parties and supporters, moderate candidates who would be expected to get part of the votes received no votes at all, zero.[21] However, the question of the film is not, finally, about election fraud; it is about the continuing horror of violence against protests, against the young, and the enactment of violent punishment against families as well as against those who speak out.

One has to look no further than the Friday night sermons throughout the country, principally as attended and as broadcast to the nation from Tehran and delivered by Khameini, to see the demonstrated power of the conservative religious/political leadership. Importantly, we should also note the make-up of those attending the Friday night sermons in person.

Showing this, the film documents a pivotal event in the Green Wave revolution—the June 19 Friday night sermon and speech by Supreme Leader Khameini to the crowd and the nation. "I had hoped that in his speech Mr. Khameini would resolve the matter fairly," says campaign activist Babak. When Khameini appears, instead of seeking a conciliatory process, he sides with Ahmadinejad and blames the protesters:

“The president's opinions are the closest to mine. It is a fallacy to believe that they can exert pressure on the state with demonstrations and can force those in power to yield. No! That is wrong. Whether they like it or not, they are the ones responsible for the bloodshed and brutality.”

The crowd gathered there is both spontaneous and enhanced by the importation and encouragement of fundamentalist supporters of Ahmadinejad. The film dramatically portrays the crowd cheering and chanting in response:

"God is mighty, Khameini is our leader. Death to the opponents of the supreme leader."

After this, believers are licensed to carry out whatever punishment they wish against the infidel protesters. They are told that God will forgive them for torture, murder, or any other sin, under the logic that those being punished are responsible before God for their own deaths. Many witness the military-like Basiji's violence against protesters, but the religious view sanctioned by Khameini says they are responsible for their own suffering.

In his film interview, Mohsen Kadivar, Shiite cleric, said about Ali Khameini's support of Ahmadinejad,

"With the patronage of this liar, he turned against his people. It would have been his duty as the father of the nation to pour oil on troubled waters, but not to take sides."

After Ali Khameni's statement, in an animated scene inside an apartment, there is a white rose on the window sill in the night. Azedeh, the animated female character, is speaking as the camera pushes out to look at the lighted city in the darkness. She says, in an eloquent lament, taken from an actual blog:

“Today is Friday, June 19. Tomorrow is Saturday, [pan across the city, loud noises], tomorrow is the day of our destiny. Tonight the cries 'God is great' are louder than ever." (Again, words taken from blogs) "Where is this place where every door is closed? Where is this place in which the blood of young people is shed and later prayed on? Where is this place in which the citizens are referred to as criminals and riffraff? Where is this place? … This place is home to you and me. This place is Iran.”

In her interview, Mitra says,

"So the expectations were that nobody would go out. Maybe they thought if Khameini made a speech like that, they would intimidate the people. They would go back in their houses and not come out. Exactly the opposite happened."

Mehdi Mohseni says in his interview,

"We are the people. We are not riffraff. We are the people and you can't ignore us. And the people paid a high price for this." [We hear screams as the motorcycles drive down the crowds.]

Note the integration of the later interviews with film of the real events and then a scene of animation.

And immediately after Mehdi speaks, the film cuts to another cell phone camera video shot of an impossibly crowded street scene on that Saturday following Khamenei’s speech—with the people flowing like a river toward the camera and chaotically fleeing in panic-stricken fear away from the militias racing toward them—and the citizen camera in the middle of the crowd on motorcycles. Each motorcycle has a driver and a heavily armed militia or military police officer mounted on the back, beating and shooting at people. This is some of the most frightening violent conflict footage we have ever seen, and the pixilated moving camera, poor-quality video contributes directly to that feeling of being there and being in peril.

The men on motorcycles drive into the crowds and beat people up brutally. A young boy who had just purchased some yoghurt is killed.
Azedeh, a nurse, says the ID cards of injured and dead protestors in the hospital are taken. Bodies from the hospital are thrown in trucks and driven away. It will be hard to know how many are killed.

During this sequence an ominous single bass piano note bangs down hard in the soundtrack and vibrates on among the sounds of the crowd’s screams and shouts. Animated motorcycles are moving at high speed directly toward the simulated camera. The scene cuts to a boy on the street and there are three split-second reaction shots as he turns towards the oncoming policemen and reacts in shock and fear. The scene cuts to his hand and the yoghurt tub he holds as he lets it go and it drops and then a quick cut to his terrified face and his hand coming up to protect himself. The simulated camera quick zooms into an extreme close up of his terrified eyes. Then we see a reaction shot of one of the women in green as she witnesses the moment of his death and gasps in horror as her hand flashes across her face. As this animation goes on it is accompanied by Mitra's interview testimony about the event.

One might argue at this point and others that the collage and alternation of animation and on-screen testimony might weaken or undercut the scene’s power. I do not agree. Mitra’s on-screen testimony is so stunning, moving, visceral and verité that it empowers rather than diminishes the scene as it plays out before me. As her hands clasp in front of her heart and then reach out while she tells this story, and her face exhibits the same type of shock the animated woman in green exhibits in the film, I believe her, and the truth of the scene.

Scenes of bloody, unfocused violence flash across the scene and then we see a message print out on the screen and hear the sound of a twitter message being typed out on a phone and a cell phone signature “end of message” ringing sound after each line, and we see an innovative texting on screen that emulates the texting of someone tweeting a message.

Twitter messages
June 20th

  • Eyewitness: "Young protester killed with bullet through the head on Navab street.10:32 am"
  • Fatemiyeh Hospital Tehran: "30-40 dead as of 11 pm; 200 injured. Police taking names of incoming injured. 11:59 pm."
  • "R.I.P. Neda. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family tonight. 10:20 AM"
  • "Europeans, call your embassies, ask them to ask Doctors Without Borders into the embassies; make field hospitals! 11:36 PM"

The widespread attacks by the paramilitary group, the Basij Resistance Force, led by Hossein Taeb, had been endorsed by Khameini himself, so to speak, and the motorcycles driving into the crowd that are shown in the film, and the beating and murder of innocents, also shown, were tolerated and supported by counter-revolutionary crowds shouting "God is Great" who believed they were commiting no sin in the eyes of Allah.[22] After the speech, as nurse Azedeh says, hospitals "are filled to the brink." The Basij took away identity cards, collected the bodies, and loaded them on trucks.

Keveh is taken to prison. Some in his cell are killed in the dark.
The hospitals are overwhelmed with the injured. Booted men of violence enter Azedeh's apartment and take her to prison too.
Three young men in an alley ... ... are beaten to death.

The personal stories are told in animated images of reality-based characters Azedeh and Keveh along with the images and stories of recorded real life counterparts Mitra Khalatbari and Mehdi Mohseni and others interviewed later. All of these stories combine to use the power of film to tell a personal/national story that seems compellingly believable.

Slide show: Keveh is taken from the dark prison in a truck out into the sunlit, dry desert, where he is dumped and left, naked and alone — like a fish out of water, repeating the theme of the ballots poured into the water and ending up blowing along the sand. He will have the evidence of the scar on his arm to remind him of the whole prison experience.

But is this film more than a passionate witness—and in fact, what audiences has it reached, and how might it actually bring change to Iran? Sukhdev Sandhu writing in The Guardian asserts the possible significance of film for later movements:

"Because the Arab spring was a revolution spread (if not created) by digital media such as mobile phones, Twitter and amateur video, it could be argued that more Muslims than ever before now associate political freedom with the moving image – rather than the printed word."[23]

In 2011, its first full year of distribution, The Green Wave appeared to European viewers on Arte television, and it was screened widely at film festivals—some 51 of them. The claim that this film might have influenced the "Arab Spring" is credible.[24]

How else might this film change society? It is possible that events that occurred in 2009 may impact U.S. audiences as the film is screened in the United States in 2012. People here could understand more vividly how close the Iranians came to a more moderate leadership with a more democratic society, and even more importantly, perhaps, how the Ahmedinijad government in Iran has been involved in election fraud, human rights abuses, and especially in generating the brutal suppression of women and young people who supported the Green Wave "revolution."

The Green Wave and Budrus share with the third film I will discuss, Position Among the Stars, this eye toward women as well as youth, generational change, and the resonant stories of struggle and dignity. All three films turn on a close-up revelation of the remarkable communities that emerge and the inventiveness and courage of individuals.

While this third film does not include sit-down interviews, citizen-produced new media, or animation, it does portray issues and events as they are reflected in the individual lives of a family. It also shares an extraordinary dedication and sacrifice to the love of a new documentary film art, in this case the "single shot" filming with special equipment that reveals and touches history through the careful observation of ordinary human events. Position Among the Stars completes a trilogy about a lower-middle class Indonesian family directed, produced and written by Leonard Retel-Helmrich and his sister Hetty Retel-Helmrich Naijkens between 1996 and 2010. This film documents the lives of the Shamsjuddin family between 2007-2009.

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