Amateur Footage to Documentary: A Death in Tehran
One of the themes followed in this blog is the role of amateur photography and videography in contemporary human rights documentation efforts. As illustrated by organizations like WITNESS and the Chiapas Media Project, digital video cameras in citizens’ hands are becoming powerful tools for calling our attention to human rights violations and mobilizing action. A recent example of this was the June 2009 Presidential Election Protests in Tehran, Iran; for several weeks following an election result that many felt was fraudulent, Irani citizens protested to demand a revote and were violently retaliated against by their own government. During this time, protesters used digital cameras and cell phones to record events they witnessed and then transmitted the images they created via a variety of social media platforms on the World Wide Web. One of the most galvanizing and appalling events witnessed this way was the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot by paramilitary forces authorized by the government to disperse the protests with force. Bystanders with cell phones recorded Miss Agha-Soltan’s death and within hours, the recordings had gone viral on the web. As Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times observes:
Neda Agha-Soltan died one of history’s most-watched deaths. It was in the midst of the fury over the Iranian presidential election of June 12, and for a moment it seemed as if the young woman’s final moments — shot on a Tehran street on June 20 as a protest swirled around her, dying at the scene while a cellphone camera recorded it all in images soon flashed around the world — would be the start of something earthshaking.
However, paradoxically, nothing earthshaking occurred. Instead of fueling further protests, events quickly died down shortly after Neda’s death. It is hard to say exactly why this happened–it could have been fear of more deaths, or it could have been that the Iranian government somehow convinced people that deaths like Neda’s were caused by Western agents acting to upset Iranian peace. Whatever the case, PBS’s Frontline has created and aired a documentary titled “A Death in Tehran” about Neda’s death that incorporates a significant amount of amateur footage that captured not just of Neda’s death, but also her participation in the protests over several days. The use of this footage in a well-documented investigative film demonstrates the potential of amateur digital documentation as a resource for informed coverage of human rights events. The entire documentary is available on the Frontline Website. Further commentary about the documentary and the role of amateur footage in creating it can be found in today’s edition of The Lede Blog, as well as in a review written on November 16, 2009, which appeared in the New York Times.