THE MARTYR OF A MORNING, IN TEHERAN: I AM NEDA
There is a very powerful short film having a brief run at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino this weekend, called “I Am Neda.” At 20 minutes in length, it is showing for free, mid-day on Saturday and Sunday the 15th and the 16th. It premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this past May and has been garnering awards left and right ever since at smaller festivals.
See it, and this is no wonder. The film’s writer, director and star Nicole Kian Sadighi has taken a small, poignant corner of the June 2009 uprisings in Teheran – the death by sniper-fire of a young protester, Neda Agha Soltan – and imagined her way into the events immediately preceding the tragedy. In so doing she weaves for us a brief, poetic but indelible sense of a woman’s political life in that oppressive, storm-tossed nation. I stress political because for all the excellent films that have come out of Iran in recent years, it is only those rare films made in exile that escape the menacing pressures against free thought and free speech which prevail under the dictates of the Muslim Clergy.
I’m thinking specifically of the films of actor-director Parviz Sayyad, whose great collaborations with actress Mary Apick – The Mission (1983), and Checkpoint (1987) – I championed at the top of my voice in the L.A. Weekly. In those days, film production inside Iran was at a standstill. Yet despite critical acclaim, and their worthiness of an Oscar nomination, Sayyad was ironically unable to be considered for the award because the rules ordered that a foreign language film had to be submitted by the appropriate country – and there was no way the Ayatollah’s regime was going to endorse two such brilliantly candid X-rays of the contemporary Iranian experience. I met Nicole Sadighi at an event honoring Sayyad earlier this year. Indeed, Mary Apick is in her short film playing Neda’s mother.
The climate has dramatically changed for filmmakers in Iran since the 1980s, worthy films are being made and exported, but they are essentially self-censored. Even a masterful achievement like last year’s A Separation must make its points by walking a tightrope of tact, or strictly by dramatizing intimate confrontations as opposed to public ones.
Neda’s death was so public there was no other way for the California-based Sadighi to confront it, except directly.
“I went through the complete array of anger, frustration and compassion for this woman,” she has told me. “You couldn’t do anything,” she recalls of watching the extraordinary protests of that moment in 2009. “Here they all are, living in hell, and here we are, drinking tea.” She thus witnessed Neda’s murder on television half a world away. Photographed by the cell-phone of a bystander, the images were widely replayed and have been integrated into the finished film.
Sadighi’s identification with this young stranger was immediate. She and Neda are roughly the same age. They physically resemble one another to a remarkable degree. It would have been particularly hard for her to look into a mirror the morning after the tragedy and not see Neda staring back out. “I was born in Teheran. My father, Nader Sadighi, was a well known journalist prior to the revolution. He and my mother Shahla Arasteh got out in the early 80s and took me to London, which is where I was raised.”
Although Farsi was her first spoken language, English took over above the age of six and – ironically – when preparing to play Neda, Sadighi decided to work intensively with a dialect coach, to better tune her ear and free her pronunciation of any stray British or American accents that might creep in despite her native fluency. She was also in the interesting position of making bits of Burbank look like Teheran – white walls; barren rooftops; a mass of mountain at daybreak, to the east – but the illusion was effective enough to fool several of the exiles present at the screening I attended.
As the daughter of two journalists, she took care to research Neda’s life and family as much as she could – even matching pillow patterns on sofas as best she could, based on whatever photos were available of Neda’s household. Of the young woman’s inner life, she had only clues. She learned that Neda had in fact been dreaming of battlefields in the nights before her death, and of herself in armor. “Had she lived I’m convinced she would have been a crusader against injustice. She was very ready, in her heart.”
It is that readiness which Sadighi seeks to dramatize. Much of the film’s tension derives, very movingly, from the tug-of-war between Neda and her brother and her mother over the decision to simply go out of the house to join the protest. By the time she walks out the door, the great simplicity of her bravery, and its goodness, are unforgettably established.
“We had to leave so much behind,” Sadighi says of her own exile. “We feel a bond to this motherland that we never let go of, and it never lets go of us. My hope is that Neda’s family will someday be able to either see the film, or know of it, so that they know their daughter is remembered and celebrated, and that the world outside is listening.”
F.X. Feeney Filmmaker, Journalist, Film Critic
L.A. Weekly, American Film, Movieline, People Magazine, Variety, Vanity Fair, Writers Guild of America
"This is the film the Iranian government doesn't want you to see. That's how Persepolis Pictures, the production company behind "I Am Neda," describes the 2012 Cannes American Pavilion finalist. A look at the trailer solidifies this claim...The film, directed by Nicole Kian Sadighi (who also plays Neda in the film), highlights the female figure's impact on human rights issues in Iran and her legacy as an instigator of the Arab Spring in the Middle East."