When was the last time a documentary film made you cry? I don’t usually cry at most films, let alone documentaries, yet as I was watching The Green Wave, a film by Ali Samadi Ahadi from Dreamer Joint Venture productions, I found myself with tears pouring down my face. Originally released in Germany, the movie had its English language premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and is now showing in select theatres in North America. With a mixture of animation, interviews, and raw footage taken from camera phones and other clandestine means of photography, Ahadi recounts the events surrounding the 2009 elections in Iran which culminated in government-sanctioned violence against people protesting their results.
Green is the colour of Islam, but in Iran of 2009 it became associated with the campaign to have reform candidate, former Prime Minister of Iran Mir-Hossein Mousavi, elected President. The film opens prior to the election. The first things which are established are the fact there was dissatisfaction, especially among the young, with the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What was especially troubling was that, with billions of dollars in oil revenues during his presidency, the economy had worsened and there were fewer opportunities for employment for young people. Then the film introduces us to Mousavi and his campaign for president.
We learn how the campaign had booked a large sports arena in Tehran for a political rally. The campaign workers were nervous whether enough people would show up to make it worthwhile. Then, when they arrive at the arena to start setting up for the rally, they discover the size of their support. People began showing up hours in advance, offering to help. It wasn’t just young people or students who supported Mousavi, there were people from all walks of life, including members of the clergy and the military. People who had given up hope of there ever being significant change in Iran began to have hope again.
Then came the election. The first nasty shock was the ballots were designed to be confusing. In order to vote for a candidate you had to write a code in the box next to their name. While the codes were posted on the walls of the polling stations, nobody had been prepared for this rather odd practice. Then reports started coming in of polling stations mysteriously running out of ballots with people still waiting to vote and other polling stations closing hours before voting was due to stop. Confusion was high, and then things started to turn ugly. The government cancelled all visas for foreign press, shut down satellite transmission and all other means of communication with the outside world. As one person being interviewed said, they should have known something odd was going on as during the last couple of hours of voting, the state television station started showing nature programs instead of election coverage.
The next day, with results still undecided, people took to the streets refusing to believe the government was really going to try and manipulate the election. They figured they were just stalling as long as they could before surrendering power. Then Mousavi was placed under house arrest and more and more people took to the streets demanding something be done. Unfortunately, what was done was not what they wanted. The militia and the police took to the streets as well and began to attack the demonstrators. Troops mounted on motorcycles in two-man teams swarmed the streets, beating and stabbing anybody they came across—whether they were demonstrators or not. They invaded the residence at the university and began randomly beating the students. Police marksmen opened fire on demonstrators from rooftops, killing and wounding them. Hospitals were forced to turn wounded patients over to the military and the dead were unceremoniously hauled out of morgues and piled in the back of pick up trucks and never seen again.
As all media had been shut down during this time, Ahadi has very little actual footage to draw upon to tell the story. However, what he does have are people’s blog and Twitter postings from the time. It’s these he uses to give us first person accounts of what happened to some people, as well as to help establish a timeline for when events took place. In spite of being under house arrest, Mousavi was able to somehow access his Twitter account to let people know what was happening to him. Ahadi also takes the blog posts and uses them to recreate events with illustrations. While he could have animated the images, he’s done something even more effective. Individual panels, like those in a graphic novel, fill the screen freezing a moment in time. So when a doctor is talking about treating those injured by the army, we see her standing in a hospital corridor, hands spotted in blood and eyes filled with pain.
While these images and the raw footage taken from camera phones and other mobile devices of the attacks on peaceful demonstrators are upsetting, unfortunately this type of footage is depressingly familiar. Soldiers firing upon civilians has been far too common an occurrence these days for it to come as a surprise that it would happen in Iran. It’s the reactions of the survivors to these events that wrenched my heart. Naturally they still haven’t recovered from the horror of what happened and that’s always hard to watch. However what’s really heartbreaking is the fact they are shocked it happened at all.
Their sense of betrayal and disillusionment makes you wonder how they could have been so naive as to believe the totalitarian regime they had been living under would not have attacked them for protesting. It was like they had just woken up to the fact their kindly uncle who had been buying them sweets since they were children had been sexually abusing them and the rest of their family. While it’s understandable those living under the thumb of the regime might have been indoctrinated to the extent they wouldn’t have noticed how harsh conditions were until they impacted on them directly, what was really disheartening was listening to some of the things said by those who should have known better.
Dr. Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, shows what I think is incredible naivety when she makes a comment about how France, Germany, Italy, and other European Union nations should remember the dead protestors before conducting business with Iran. When has any nation let human rights abuses by another nation stand in the way of business? Oh sure, they might make statements expressing outrage over the events, but stop trading with one of the largest suppliers of oil to the European Union? Not going to happen. If the West was at all serious about dealing with the Iranian regime properly there would have been a complete trade embargo in place ages ago. It’s not just Iran either, the West turns a blind eye to human rights abuses everywhere whenever it suits us.
It’s heartbreaking to hear such an intelligent and resourceful woman clinging to false hopes. Or to hear some of the young people living in exile talking about seeing the youth of their current home going out and having fun and wondering if they know their contemporaries in Iran don’t have that freedom? Or listening to the voice of a young woman asking what is this place, which is like a prison, where people can be killed or arrested without reason and tearfully answering herself with one word, Iran.
Prior to the “Arab Spring”, the popular movement in Arab countries where the people managed to throw off some of the longest serving dictators in the Middle East, there was the Green Wave in Iran. For a few desperate weeks in the summer of 2009 there was the whiff of freedom in the air for a people who had suffered under oppressive regimes since the end of WWll. Whether the secret police of the Shah of Iran or the Revolutionary Guard and the morals police of the supposed Islamic Republic there has always been a force present insuring voices of dissent are silenced. Maybe they hoped this time it would be different. However, as The Green Wave makes clear, it might have taken the government a bit longer to clamp down on this occasion, but when they did, it was with a viscousness designed to obliterate resistance and destroy hope. I dare you to sit through this movie without crying. The people of Iran deserve our tears, it’s only too bad the world isn’t willing to do more for them.