Late in The Green Wave, a soulful look back at the brief 2009 people's movement for democratic elections in Iran, a former United Nations prosecutor and human rights activist observes that the protest, despite being brutally quelled by the forces of President Ahmadinejad, was "a tidal wave" that would sweep through the Middle East.
That was before the Arab Spring. How right he was, and yet how quickly we forget that the populist uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and other autocracies took their cue and their methods from the uprising in Iran, a non-Arab Islamic republic often seen as a bigger threat to the West than all the others put together.
To an impressive degree, the huge, nonviolent demonstrations in Tehran were built through Twitter, YouTube, cellphone chains and videos, and through the myriad postings of a nation of obsessive bloggers. Inspiring and devastating by turns, The Green Wave charts the movement's heady rise and dispiriting fall with multiple narrative strategies that mirror the techno-tools used by both sides in a war that was fought first on the Web, then in bloody street violence.
The tweets, blogs and phone trees brought throngs of people into the streets and the voting booths, where they also helped voters make sense of the government's deliberately confusing procedures. Just as quickly, the government shut down the Internet, ran wildlife documentaries on television throughout Election Day, then lowered the boom by sending out squads of plainclothes thugs to terrorize, imprison and club the marchers into submission.
Ahmadinejad won the rigged election by a wide margin, and an uneasy order was restored. With the foreign press expelled, little official record remains of the revolt other than a few woozy videos, like the one that went viral after capturing the brazen shooting of the beautiful student Neda. That footage of her murder, and her friends' desperate attempts to revive her, is included in The Green Wave, but it takes its place among a lot of other, previously undocumented heartbreak.
Iranian feature filmmakers have long been adept at working around censorship by encoding political commentary into microscopic fictions of everyday life — Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon, say, or any film by Abbas Kiarostami — that play like documentaries. The Green Wave, by contrast, is a doc that plays like a multimedia tragedy. Based in Germany, director Ali Samadi Ahadi turns the lack of official reporting to imaginative advantage, bringing spoken blogs of composite students to life with animated illustrations, grainy cellphone camera captures, news footage and interviews with exiled activists, journalists and lawyers.
The movie shows what happened, but it also conveys what it felt like to travel from euphoria to despair in the space of a few weeks. Alireza Darvish's drawings are beautiful and horrifying, the students' faces sharply etched with zigzagging lines and shadows that underscore the trauma expressed in their writings. Nocturnal cityscapes of Tehran change color to reflect the shifting mood of a city first energized by the hopes and dreams of its young dissenters, then terrorized by the goons who moved in to bludgeon, arrest, torture and shoot them in plain sight or behind bars. Everywhere, the emerald green of renewal stands out in hair, nails, hijabs, T-shirts and a huge bolt of bright green cloth snaking through the city center, carried aloft by thousands of jubilant demonstrators before the boot came down.
Green is also the color of Islam, and the movie's ardently spiritual tone says much about the complex role religion plays in the politics of the region. Many of the protesters are Muslims, disillusioned not by Islam but by its perversion to build a regime every bit as totalitarian as that of the Shah that preceded it.
If Iran, or any of the other Arab Spring nations achieve democracy, they will do it their way, not ours. But we have a responsibility, the exiled activists say, to spread the word about what is happening in Iran at this moment. Nobel Prize-winning lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, now living in the U.K., quietly tells the West, if you want to worry out loud about us, don't just worry about your relationship to our oil and our nuclear arsenals. Worry about the gross human rights violations that continue today under Ahmadinejad.
In the short run, the bullies have won. The longer haul remains to be seen, but for now the sad judgment, if not the last word, goes to a blogger, reflecting in the movie on how she felt on emerging from prison after being beaten and tortured. "You realize that you have merely left a small prison for a bigger one. The prison called Iran." (Recommended)