Last Night's TV - True Stories: For Neda, More4; Three Men Go to Venice, BBC2
A woman of substance
Wednesday 22 June 2011
Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the power of the mobile-phone footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan – the young Iranian woman shot while protesting in Tehran – were the lies told about it by the Iranian government. The first official announcement was that Neda wasn't dead at all. Then the CIA was accused of shooting her to foment unrest. Then they accused the BBC of orchestrating the whole affair. Then they said that it was a fake anyway. And finally they "revealed" that she'd been killed by the doctor who'd gone to her side and the music teacher who'd been protesting with her. On this account – by some distance the most grotesque fiction yet – Neda had been an actress, equipped with stage blood, and she'd been murdered after the event to prevent details of the plot from leaking out.
The truth was far simpler. She'd been shot by some state goon and the image of her murder had distilled the confrontation unfolding in Tehran into just a few seconds of jolting video; a collision of peaceful protest with the vicious intransigence of a theocracy. In her death, Neda literally became the poster girl for the uprising, her face reprinted on placards and masks, her name invoked everywhere to reheat and focus public anger. And her dying was seen all over the world, by presidents and leaders as well as YouTube browsers. Antony Thomas's True Stories film, For Neda, set out to give that shockingly raw footage some context, offering backstory both for Neda and the regime that had killed her.
It was a film that came with medals pinned to its chest (Foreign Press Association Documentary of the Year, among others) and that, initially at least, hovered hazardously close to hagiography. "When I went into her bedroom I thought, 'Neda used to walk here every day'," said Saeed Kamali Dehgan, the courageous Iranian reporter who had gone undercover to record interviews with Neda's family. The reverential implication that she had been martyred for freedom did not sit very easily with the knowledge that, a year on, the Iranian people seem no closer to getting it. But as the film continued, the fear that it might privilege wishful thinking over hard, unpalatable fact faded away. It offered a portrait of a young woman who was remarkable for reasons other than her very public death, and of a regime defined by a violent misogyny.
Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, pointed out that all of the regime's most reactionary laws pertain to the control of women. A woman's life and legal testimony is officially weighed at half that of a man's and only men can initiate divorce. Even the way a woman is executed is harsher – men sentenced to be stoned are buried to their waist and released if they can struggle free; women are entitled to the same loophole but are buried to the breast, with their arms trapped, to ensure that they cannot take advantage of it. A lesser, but ubiquitous, humiliation involves the monitoring of women's public appearance by the licensed bullies of the Basij, Iran's morality police. It seems Neda wasn't an acquiescent member of the compulsory nunnery that Iran became after the revolution, arguing about what she was entitled to wear to school, and ignoring the regime's literary prohibitions against such dangerously inflammatory texts as Wuthering Heights. She was, both her father and sister recalled, fearless in expressing her opinions, and so when people erupted in the wake of rigged elections, furious that they wouldn't even be allowed an insultingly compromised choice (of 475 candidates who put their names forward to stand against Ahmadinejad only three were given permission), there was nowhere else she was going to be but on the streets.
She was warned that her looks would make her a target: "I know the danger of beauty to these men," a female Basij told her, urging her to stay at home. But despite the increasing violence of the regime's enforcers she continued marching. "If I don't go out, who will?" she told her anxious mother just before she was killed. Though some of the things said here about citizen journalism and social networking seemed a little over-optimistic in the light of continuing repression in Iran, that simple recognition that you can't outsource the defence of your own freedom was genuinely inspiring. Maybe it's not over yet.
Three Men Go to Venice should really have been called "Three Men Go to the Balkans", but – if we're to believe Griff Rhys Jones – the BBC thought that wouldn't sound appealing enough. I don't want to question his veracity – because he's got a temper on him, by all accounts – but I'm increasingly unsure whether to believe anything in this overstretched travelogue franchise. Everyone's generally at pains to make the journey sound accidental and provisional, but that doesn't sound compatible with a busy filming schedule, so it's hard to avoid the feeling that most of the coincidences have been carefully arranged for months. Last night they made their way up the Dalmatian coast, spending time on Tito's motor yacht and the only other vessel in the Montenegrin navy – a sail training boat, before "hitching a lift" to Croatia with a holiday flotilla. "We don't often have fun on these things," said Rory McGrath in tones of faint surprise, after he and Dara O Briain had taken time out for a game of five-a-side in Dubrovnik. Not you either, eh? You could always stop.
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