Political movements are powered as much by emotional tethers to leaders as by legislative demands. For proof, consider this June’s twin paradoxes concerning the Egyptian presidency, whereby the same week saw Hosni Mubarak sentenced to life in prison and one of his Air Force strongmen winning enough votes to enter into the runoff election. Iran is another story: Beyond coiffured politicians and press-hungry academics clamoring to turn its dissent into a billboard for Twitter, the wave of protests that engulfed the Islamic Republic for a few months in the summer of 2009 gets curiously scarce consideration in today’s domestic press. Our antennae are back to nuclear refineries, big bad imams, multilateral sanctions, stymying Hezbollah, deterring the worst impulses of the Israeli military, and (on some days) also our own. Given the events of 2011 (“Arab Spring,” “Arab Uprisings,” “Arab regional transformation,” your choice), it is a depressingly familiar yarn, as well as a missed opportunity for Americans to find some solidarity with the actual citizens of our most reliable nemesis-government. When all is said and done, we may ultimately find we were more comfortable with Iran as an autocracy.
Ali Samadi Ahadi’s half-animated documentary The Green Wave could do a fair bit to enliven this conversation, working best as a compendium of first-person stories gleaned from interviews, anonymously quoted tweets, blog entries, and documentary footage. There are fewer than a dozen talking heads in the film, with preference given instead to drawn reenactments and cellphone videos. (Whether or not the intent was to anonymize, it’s sometimes hard to tell if the voice-acted characters in the illustrated sections are stand-ins for Ahadi’s interviewees.) It begins as a mosiac of resentments; in the months leading up to the election on June 12, 2009, a steady consensus against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been building across classes throughout Iranian society. (In an interview, one Shiite cleric refers to the regime’s first four years as “the reign of Iran’s riffraff proletariat.”) Students, in particular, were mobilized toward the polls, with huge gatherings on campuses and in public squares, calling for his ouster. One of the film’s many narrators recalls that in the 2005 elections, “I was deceived so badly that I swore never to vote again,” only to find himself peer-pressured, hurtling toward a huge opposition rally in a soccer stadium.
Green—the official campaign color of Mir Hussein Moussavi—was popularly embraced as both anti-Ahmadinejad and as a hallmark of national pride, and straw polls indicated Mousavi stood as good a chance as any opposition candidate. Journalist Mitra Khalatbari says the rallies were less about changing the government than about the right to public expression: “The important thing was that for two or three weeks, Iranians could laugh again and be out on the street until morning, shout as much as they want, or call out any slogan they want.” But results were announced two hours after polls closed, giving the incumbent government a whopping 69 percent of the votes. Immediately, people took to the streets, and the government began shutting down student newspapers, blocking SMS reception, and making mass arrests. Supreme Leader Khomeini claimed that the protesters, “whether they like it or not, are the ones responsible for the bloodshed and brutality.” The situation deteriorated, as the politicians say, into a brutal crackdown that saw hundreds arrested, the shit beaten out of them either by cops or Basij agitators, still-untold numbers vanishing into secret prisons to be interrogated, tortured, or raped.
In one of the movie’s more complicated passages, one of these vigilantes confesses to a blogger: “In the last few days we’ve committed so many crimes that we won’t ever be able to sleep peacefully again. Most of us are plagued by feelings of guilt, but unfortunately, there’s no way back; everyone is scared that the tables will turn and we’ll be prosecuted.” The speaker appears onscreen as a shriveled oil painting leaning against the wall of a torture chamber, and these slick tableaus are where it’s hard not to wish Ahadi were, in fact, more daring. Storyboarding and animating scenes like these is a massive undertaking, but once the commingling of interviews and drawn passages becomes a rhythm, no room is left in which one can intuit much for oneself. Using art to cope with the total darkness in which the state harbors its cruelest tendencies, the director actually seems to lose faith in his viewers; droning voiceovers land with a thud, and treacly cello and piano music rubs the audience’s nose in the visuals. As if cellphone footage of militiamen drag- ging a protester around by his legs or a young woman dying of sniper gunshot wounds couldn’t speak for itself, important footage from the real world is held hostage to somebody’s idea of “cinema.”
Worse, the documentary shunts off any responsibility to honestly investigate the crackdown’s success, to explore the systemic organization of the protests, or to chance guessing their implications for the next generation of Iranian civil society. Most interviewees, speaking from their respective exiles, appear content to say it gave them hope in the long run, or to express their frustration at the world’s passivity to the country’s political problems. Hawkeyed journalist Mehdi Mohseni claims, “When I see people here in Europe, the young people on the street, in the subway or on the train, I can see that they’re happy. When I see how carefree they are on a Saturday, enjoying their time off”—and here he pauses for a second, gripped with emotion—“I wonder if they even know where Iran is.” Ultimately, the Iranians’ words push the film further than its director’s strategy.
Their fears, recollections, and indignations are impossible to argue with, but it must be said that The Green Wave’s insistence on emotionalism makes for a bizarrely dogmatic watching experience. Only rarely does its narrative branch out in more imaginative directions, like when a digital camera—one can’t know if it’s Ahadi’s or not—slowly pans across the landscape of nighttime Tehran, more vivid and provocative in its lo-fi blotchiness than the airbrushed purple effigy that opens the documentary. Cheering and howling and screaming are all vaguely audible in the background, and a voice-recorded message tearfully asks: “Where is this place in which the world hears our calls for freedom only through our silent protests? Where is this place in which the blood of young people is shed and later prayed on? Where is this place in which the citizens are referred to as criminals and riffraff? Where is this place? Would you like me to tell you? This place is Iran!” The speaker is never identified.
The Green Wave opens in limited release this July.
STEVE MACFARLANE is a filmmaker, writer, and programmer based in Ridgewood, New York.