Where did the idea for this film come from?
Well, I was struck, as millions of people were, by the video of Neda's dying moments. And to be frank with you, it never occurred to me to make a film about this. But (HBO's) Sheila Nevins called me and said that she felt that I was the person to make a film about Neda, but only if I could get beyond the heroic symbol, to the girl, and find out who she was.
The early reports about Neda's death said that she was riding in a car with her singing teacher, they got stopped by protestors, she got out to get some fresh air, and she was shot. Sheila had an instinct that that was not the true story. And that is one of the things we found out very early, that Neda was taking a prominent role in the demonstrations, and was attracting attention to herself which is the reason, I believe, that she was shot.
I wanted to start the film with this astonishing image and the effect it's had, and its significance. Then I wanted to raise the question: Who was she? What was she fighting for? All we knew was the symbol. We didn't know who she was as a living flesh and blood human being. I also wanted to really make it clear the conditions that women in Iran are living with or we wouldn't have understood what she was fighting for.
How did you connect with Neda's family?
That was a big challenge. I contacted every Iranian journalist that I know, that I could trust, and finally I got a recommendation to Saeed Kamali Dehghan who had done some reporting for the London Guardian in Iran. Saeed came over to London and almost at once he agreed to do this. It was a very, very difficult situation for me. I have done some dangerous films in the past. And I've always shared the danger with the people working with me. This was the first time I couldn't do that. So, I had to trust it to this young man who'd never made a film in his life. He spoke to Neda's brother and then gradually the family agreed to meet him. And what I think is so remarkable is that he formed such a close, trusting relationship with their family. And that mutual respect comes out in the film.
When you think of Iran, what images come to mind when you think of its people?
This is the interesting thing, because at one level there's no radical difference. You can meet Iranian people, as I've done many times in my visits, and you feel a very close connection with them. They're part of our common humanity. When you see Neda's family, it's striking how they could be your next door neighbors. And when you're talking of Iran, you're talking of an ancient culture and history. But under the current regime, the country is being ruled by a primitive, perverted form of Islam. And I stress the word perverted, because it is not true Islam.
"...she was like any girl anywhere. She wanted the freedom to fall in love when she wanted, to wear the clothes she wanted. But there was one difference: those things were so important to her that she was prepared to risk her life."
How is it that so few are in control of so many people?
Well, your main power structure there is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who have enormous economic power. This is a country of enormous resources, and rich in oil. It should be one of the most prosperous countries on the planet. But you have the central structure of the Revolutionary Guard who control many industries; it is a very corrupt, committed group who have a lot to hang on to, and an awful lot to lose if things go wrong.
Neda's death was unique in the sense that it was such a public death.
Yes. It was actually filmed by at least two cell phones. And there's an interesting reason for that, which is that some people in the crowd believed that Neda's music teacher, who was with her at the time of her death, was a famous film star from the 70s. So there were people hovering around him and Neda with their cameras. And for that reason, we have the most astonishing images of a young person's dying moments. And it is that death and the way it was captured that really brought the world's attention to what was going on in Iran. Suddenly people looked in a different way, in a more understanding way.
These demonstrations were not the first of their kind. There has been demonstration after demonstration in Iran during the lifetime of this so-called Islamic Republic. And those demonstrations have meant that there have been many deaths as a consequence. But now we're on the edge of a real revolution in communication, where people living in oppressive societies, with cell phones and digital cameras, can not only capture evidence, but can get it out to the world on the internet. That has changed everything.
One of the people you interviewed for the film said that, because of Neda's death, things will never be the same in Iran. What do you think she meant by that?
Well, nothing can be the same because this event not only reverberated outside Iran, but within Iran. The government has tried to distort the story of Neda by saying she never existed, then she was living in Greece, then she was shot by the CIA, then she was shot by somebody from the BBC; all these incredible stories. The ruling regime is very scared of, as I call it, the 'Neda Effect' - the actual waking people up to an understanding of what's going on in Iran. And that effect is felt internally as well as externally. Now, whether this regime will crumble, I can't tell. I come originally from South Africa, and I didn't believe Apartheid would ever end in my lifetime. Bang, it did. So, no one knows if this regime will crumble. But certainly things have changed.
What did Neda come to mean to you, having made a film about her?
Well, what one understood really quickly was, she was like any girl anywhere. She wanted the freedom to fall in love when she wanted, to wear the clothes she wanted. But there was one difference: those things were so important to her that she was prepared to risk her life. Life wasn't worth living, in her view, without those simple freedoms. She didn't want to be covered and hidden. She didn't want to be restricted. She wanted to live a life that was free. She wasn't a Joan of Arc, but to me she was a particularly special heroine because she was so recognizable to me.
We tend to divide the world into nations with boundaries. But through communication we're beginning to realize that we're all part of a common humanity, that an Iranian isn't a different species to you or me. We share the same feelings; we share the same disappointments, frustrations. And if this film achieves anything, I want to drive that message through: how close you feel to these people. They're not alien at all. They are people, just like you and I.
Summer Series 2010