The German-Iranian filmmaker reflects on the impact his taut political documentary, The Green Wave, has made on the Middle East.
In June 2009 hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to dispute the result of the country’s presidential election, which many believed had been rigged by the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What followed was a violent crackdown, evidence of which leaked out through social networking sites.
German-Iranian Ali Samadi Ahadi’s film, The Green Wave, which had its UK premiere at last month’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, brings together fractured pieces of footage filmed on mobile phones and testimony from bloggers in the country to document the brutality. A mixture of news reports, animation and interviews, the film uses the emergence of social networks – which were pivotal in the propagation of the unrest – to mitigate the difficulties inherent in making a documentary in a context where journalists were expelled or imprisoned and information was under the control of the government. LWLies spoke with Ahadi recently about the film's impact both at home and abroad.
LWLies: The Green Wave takes a very close-up view of events in Iran, which you were at the time quite distant from. How did you come to make the film?
Ahadi: When the elections took place in Iran, like other Iranians outside of Iran I was watching what was going on in the country. I was shocked and paralysed because of this brutality and the violence which we were facing. After three months of being too shocked to be able to do anything, I wanted to do something. Not only to react but also to take action. And because I am a filmmaker, I decided to make a film. We asked Associated Press to help us with their footage. This is a big part of our material. And then we collected images which were shared on the internet, and we used images that we collected inside Iran and smuggled out of the country. But all of these images were not able to tell the whole story, because they had mostly not a beginning, not an end, like broken puzzles.
We had to find a way to bring them together, because they had no protagonists, so we had to find a way to weave them to each other and that was the reason why I decided to use blogs and Twitter messages to bring all these things together. I never think in genres and I never think in the way of tools. I find that if I get the subject, I try to understand how this subject can be told through me. I try to collect all my tools and play around with them until I find a way of how I can tell the story.
A natural criticism of this style of documentary making is surely that you are bringing together a lot of very subjective evidence and trying to make it into an honest narrative.
It is a very subjective way of talking about the issue. We don’t have to lie to our audience and say we know the truth, and we have the whole truth and we are objective. I don’t believe that. I believe in complete subjectivity. We don’t need to hide ourselves because it is subjective. It is very important to make it clear that it is our point of view, we have this opinion. I think even journalistic pieces – mine is not journalistic – are subjective, and we know that. We know that it is not true when journalists say 'we are objective'.
It is the same with the blogs and images we use. I read more than 1,500 pages of blogs and chose only 15 of them. You can’t believe how often people talked about the same situation from different sides of the same place and the same momentum from different perspectives. The same is with images. There is a moment in the film, where a Basij [militiaman] is on the roof of a building, shooting into a crowd of people, and we have it from more than 10 cell phone cameras from 10 different perspectives. [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad would say "these are not in Iran and these are from somewhere else", but to be honest, we know that these things took place.
Maybe there are images which are not true, but this is not important. I’m not saying that we are showing the whole truth, I am saying that what is important is that we are able to say these things are true or not true, and no one will harm you. In Iran if you would say that Ahmadinejad is a liar, they would arrest you or kill you. This is important, and not the evidence of this image or this blog. What is important is that you have the freedom to talk about it. And this is something that is much more important. This is the bigger point. We tried our best to keep the evidence high, to double check the images, to double check the blogs. But even if there is a failure there, I think the much more important point is being able to talk with freedom.
I think even if you are a journalist, the only controlling system which really works every time is your own inner voice. My teacher when I was a student said to me you can do anything, but never forget the conversation with your inner voice. Which is very true – you can make out of this footage 100 different films. Against and pro-Ahmadinejad. Where is the controlling mechanism? It is only you.
This was one striking feature of the revolutions that have taken place in the Middle East in the past few months – that they are not really political in the sense that they aren’t calling for one regime to be replaced by another, they are really just asking for representation. In the film this comes out – people were not really going out to vote because they wanted [opposition leader] Mir-Hossein Mousavi to win – they were going out because they want to be heard.
I think we are going through a moment in the Near and Middle East the ideological regimes are coming to an end. People are sick and tired of either the religious ideology or socialism and communism. They don’t care about that. Young people in Egypt, or in Iran, or in Yemen, or in Bahrain, are able to go to the internet and Google you and look how you live, and they ask themselves, 'Why is this person able to live in that way and I am not?' We are both human beings, but why can he talk freely and I can’t? They are not looking for ideologies, they are looking for human rights, which makes the big difference between these movements and the movements 20, 30, 40 years ago?
Has the moment for change passed in Iran? Is the regime there not better able to control this message the second time around.
It has not passed. I think Iranian society made a big development in the last 18 months, or 20 months after the election. They started asking, 'Where is my vote?', for a recount of the ballots, for re-election. Now they clearly talk about system change. This is a big development. And this is not a minority that is talking about change, this is the majority.It needs really a blitz to explode the whole thing. It is like a desert. When the first rain falls down, the earth is really hard and the rain can’t penetrate the soil, but with time, when the rain continues, the soil becomes soft and the water can penetrate.
The existence of so many recorded perspectives on every event has changed – as you have said – the monopoly that governments can have on information. Has it changed the way that documentary filmmakers record these events?
I think so. When we started to make this film, I had no idea what it would look like, because I don’t know of any films that have been made in that way. I thought it is bungee jumping without a bungee, pure risk. I think really that these instruments make our business, filmmaking, much more democratic, much more open. We are not dependent on broadcasters. We are not dependent on the permission of countries like Iran to be able to make images. And we are not dependent that much on money. If you see what we made with really horrible, small, bad quality images. We screen it on 70 square metres in theatres, and it works. I think it really changed, fundamentally, filmmaking. Especially in countries which are under pressure. I think that there is now more democracy in filmmaking, because you can get a direct connection to your audience. It will change our language, I think. The language of filmmaking.