The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, captured on video, came to symbolize the violence of Iran's post-election protests. Now, a new documentary called "For Neda" tells the story of her life and features the first on-camera interviews with her family. Reporter Saeed Kamali Dehgan describes the risks he took to secretly find Neda's family.
The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick
Artist: by John Fahey
BOB GARFIELD: The image that symbolized the violence of Iran’s post-election chaos was that of a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan, shot and killed during a protest in Tehran. On June 14th, HBO will air For Neda, a documentary about who she was in life and what she came to represent as the video of her death swept the globe online. Perhaps the most revealing parts of the film are the first ever on-camera interviews with her family.
NARRATOR: According to her mother, Neda was a rebel, almost from the moment she was born.
INTERPRETER FOR HAJAR ROSTAMI: From the age of three, she never accepted control. She fought with the school authorities not to wear a chador, and she won that battle.
BOB GARFIELD: For the film’s producers, finding Neda’s family was a very difficult feat. They needed an Iranian journalist to help them, but the Islamic regime wouldn't look too kindly upon reporters seeking interviews with the parents and siblings of the victim of that very public act of brutality. Every journalist declined the producer’s request, except one, Saeed Kamali Dehgan. Saeed was living in London when he was approached about finding Neda’s family. He'd left Iran because he'd been threatened by intelligence officials for his reporting after the election.
SAEED KAMALI DEHGAN: I was very frustrated and guilty; I'm in London and everybody else is in Tehran. So at the time that I received this proposal from HBO and from Antony Thomas, the director, I instantly said, yes, I will go.
BOB GARFIELD: So you get to Iran, and you managed to get through security with your cameras intact, and now your job was to find Neda’s family. How did you go about locating them?
SAEED KAMALI DEHGAN: Well, when I was in London, I started research on how I can contact the family because I knew where they were living but I didn't have any phone numbers. I met Neda’s brother.
BOB GARFIELD: And how did you meet him?
SAEED KAMALI DEHGAN: Without letting him know, I went to his office, and he works there for a travel agency. And I pretended to be someone who is looking to book a flight. I sat down on a chair and I told him the story that I'm [LAUGHS] coming from London, and I want to film your family for a documentary about Neda. And he told me that he needs to talk to his family, and especially Neda’s mother. And after four days, I received a message that the family have agreed to meet me.
BOB GARFIELD: So you go to their flat, not knowing whether the place is being staked out by security forces, and you walked in and you look around. What’d you see?
SAEED KAMALI DEHGAN: Suddenly I saw Neda’s photo on the wall, and I burst into tears. You know, before that I was very nervous of whether I would be arrested when I'm entering their house or how can I persuade her family to do this. But suddenly I was there. I was in Neda’s house. At that time, Neda’s family had to [LAUGHS] calm me down, instead of me calming them down. At some point, I went to her bedroom. That was a very moving experience, you know, to see her bedroom, to see her dolls and, you know, her books and her makeup. Before that, she was like the superhuman hero, and suddenly she emerged as, as an ordinary girl that I've met thousands of times in the streets of Tehran. There were lots of them who were killed and we don't know their stories because their death didn't attract our attention.
BOB GARFIELD: The HBO film has aired in Iran. Voice of America showed it. The regime tried to jam the signal, which Iranians can get through illegal satellite dishes. Voice of America’s planning to re-air the show this week. Now, from the beginning, the regime tried to fight back with various stories of its own about Neda and about her death. First they said, well she’s not dead, she’s alive, and then they said it was actually the CIA behind the shooting.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Are you seriously accusing the CIA of killing Neda?
MAN: The bullet that we found in his – in her head was not the bullet that you could find in Iran.
BOB GARFIELD: And then she was murdered by a BBC correspondent. No, no, no, then she faked her own death, according to another documentary, this one produced by the state TV.
MAN: How did Neda Agha-Soltan really die? According to the documentary, forensic evidence and statements by security officials show Neda was not killed in the way shown by western media.
SAEED KAMALI DEHGAN: I don't think the majority of Iranians would believe the regime version of the stories, not only about Neda’s story but about everything else. But we still have people in rural places, they are not very well educated and they don't have access to the satellite or Internet. Let me give you one example. My mother, she doesn't have any access to Internet or satellite, and she didn't believe that Neda’s death happened. And I’m – and I was the Guardian reporter in Tehran – because the only media that she had access to was the state-run TV. But after our film [LAUGHS], she, she watched my documentary and her view to Neda’s story changed.
BOB GARFIELD: When your odyssey began, you were in London, having been warned by Iranian state security to, to watch yourself, and feeling guilty. Well, you went in, you played a critical part in filming this documentary. Now you’re back in London with zero chance of being [LAUGHS] able to reenter your country. That’s quite a sacrifice that you've made.
SAEED KAMALI DEHGAN: It’s getting harder and harder for me because I don't have that access to my friends and my relatives as much as I had before. But Iranians, they're trying very best to continue this struggle, and that was the least I could do. There are still people who are in prison in Iran, or raped, or tortured, so [LAUGHS] I'm really not in a bad situation, in comparison to their situation.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Saeed. Thank you very much.
SAEED KAMALI DEHGAN: No problem.
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BOB GARFIELD: Saeed Kamali Dehgan is a co-producer of HBO’s documentary For Neda. It will air on HBO June 14th.