Video as History

I’m finding it difficult to reconcile my conflicted emotions about Neda Agha-Soltan‘s shooting death during the Iran election protests, which was captured on video and went viral on YouTube.

As her mouth and nose pours blood from her punctured lung, she looks up to the camera capturing her final moments. I believe that she was aware that her death will be seen by the world. She’s imploring us with her eyes. Its hard to meet her gaze, yet hard to look away.

If Ahmadinejad and Iran’s clerical elite capitulate to the overwhelming call for democracy from their people and the world, this video will be emblematic of that struggle.

Film has long been tied to political and sociological movement. In 1925 Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potempkin influenced the shift from individualism to collectivism, following Russia’s socialist revolution. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will was instrumental in whipping up nationalist fervour in support of the Nazi party’s military aggression that culminated in WWII. The assassination of JFK captured by Zapruder‘s little 8mm camera sparked public paranoia that would define 70’s America. The student at Tienamin Square halting the line of tanks as the moment the rest of the world became cognizant of China’s tyrannical rule. The many amateur videos of 9/11 defined the moment in history when the West’s complacency turned into fear and aggression. Now Neda bleeding to death on the street in Tehran will be the moment in history when the Middle East’s most powerful nation revealed its black heart.

Zapruder’s film of the JFK assassination both defined and changed history, as the only public evidence of what happened that day in Texas and an iconic image that moved the world. History as recorded is interpretative. It is written by the victor to be as palatable as possible to the status quo. The staging of the flag raising at Iwo Jima for the sake of a photo might also be possible with video, but there is one factor favoring video as a true record of history. Video’s ubiquity makes it democratic, even in a country without democracy like Iran. Anyone can capture an historical moment on their phone or video camera and distribute it online, just as has happened with the unjust death of Neda. With the decline of library use, we are increasingly watching video as a record of history.

As I write in the comfort and safety of my office, how does watching her death ethically implicate me? I’m trying not to rubberneck like I’m driving past the aftermath of a car crash. I’m trying to provoke discussion and anger over her unnecessary death at the hands of a regime that evidently must stand down. But I’m also voyeur to a moment of utmost intimacy. Could Neda also be imploring us to look away?


12 Responses to “Video as History”

  1. I agree with your analysis, mostly, but take a semantic exception to “the black heart of Iran” – while I do believe that the government is corrupt, fascist, and absolutist, I think that your phrasing casts a net a tad too wide.

    I’m a poet – words mean a lot to me. I think we need to be precise in assigning blame in this situation. Iranians, Muslims, and Shiites are not monsters. The people who are committing atrocities in the name of theocracy are.

    • I agree Justin, the government is the “black heart” of the Islamic Republic of Iran, revealed when their disrespect for human life and liberty became apparent for the world to see online.

      With all Iran has gone through in the last 35 years, I’m amazed government and clerical leaders aren’t more empathetic to their people. For all the Shah’s despotic crimes, he never set murderous dogs loose to indiscriminately kill innocent people on the street.

  2. I always pause before watching something like this. I always feel like I am bound up in something more complicated, personal and emotional if I choose to press the play button. There is a complicity in this that makes me uncomfortable – and for all the symbolism and the politics, we can’t ignore the simple fact that a girl died before our eyes. The tragedy is that there are many more that we will never know about.

    • This is why I felt compelled to blog about Neda, although I did wrestle with the possibility that I may just be jumping on an exploitative bandwagon to no useful purpose. There may be more constructive things I can do, but this will have to do for now.

  3. As hard as the video is to watch, I think it’s important that as many people see it as possible. Immediacy and familiarity breed understanding (potentially at least). What would Neda want? I guess it’s not for us to say. We know very little about her really … except that in life she wanted to have her voice heard. So is it safe to assume that in death she wouldn’t want to be pushed under the rug?

    I empathize with your uneasiness watching a death so intimately. And that’s why I wanted to speak on her life in my post (which you so kindly commented on).

  4. Nick Gilmartin Says:

    Hey Oscar,

    Thanks for the well written and thought out comment. I completely agree with your comments. This may lead to a Iranian revolution, or at least sow the seeds for one. Iran has so much potential to be a liberated and modern society without abandoning the better virtues of Islam.

    We can only hope they get a break.



    • You’re right about Iran’s potential. While the Shah was a corrupt lackey of the West, he did lead Iran to international power. Its a shame that ousting him in ’78 swung the pendulum too far towards theocracy. If the present revolution is successful, I hope they’re able to reach a constructive compromise between secular government, cultural preservation and religious observance.

      I was born in Tehran mere months before the revolution. My father was a chopper pilot for a Dutch oil company and sent my mother and I ahead on an evacuation flight out of the country. He had to sneak out by car; he’s vague on the details, but it didn’t sound pretty (Read Whirlwind by James Clavell for a decent fictional overview based on these guys getting out with choppers and cars and Iranian wives).

      But the years prior political unrest were amazing. Dad told me that for a sheltered South African baby-boom farm-boy, Iran amazed him with its culture, architecture, food, technology (particularly agritech and medicine), everything. If Iran could return to that equitably and peaceably, the whole world will be better for it.

      Its clearly what Iranians want. Practically a lifetime ago whilst in postgrad biochemistry research, I knew an Iranian PhD exchange student on a gene sequencing project in the same lab. This was before Ahmadinejad and the hard-line theocracy he fronts, I think things were marginally better then. He lamented Iran’s backward leadership squandering its prosperity. Given the fundamentalist attitude towards science, he’d have had to work overseas. Wonder what he’s doing now?

  5. Have you seen that the mullahs are saying that a BBC reporter paid a hit man to shoot her so he could make a vid of the event?

    BTW, nice sight are you still interested in an exchange of links?

    • Just the typical disinformation you’d expect in a war of words. But this video is more powerful than words can convey, I’m astounded by how much discussion and action its provoked. As I posted, we’re seeing another example of Film as History (or video in this case), a record of history that also defines it.

      I’ve heard the clerical elite are also trying to implicate the US. Wouldn’t surprise me if they are involved. The irony is that history is reverse-repeating in that the Soviets we’re insinuators to foment the previous revolution, helping to bring the present Mullahs and Ayatollahs into power. Of course, they promptly dumped the Soviets in ’79 after they consolidated power and the same will likely happen with the US if they are involved in the present revolution.

  6. Its sad to say, but the protesters are apparently being discouraged by the brutality of Iran’s Basij and police. NY Times did an article last night on the waning numbers of demonstrators.
    I hope Neda’s death hasn’t been contributory to his?

    The death of Michael Jackson hasn’t helped either, pretty much dominating Twitter, which was a primary conduit for information out of Iran. Goes to show how capricious social media is…

  7. neda in my heart

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