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Source: Guardian

Jun 29, 2023

Inside the Iranian Uprising review – an unforgettable memorial to teens who died for freedom

This moving documentary uses smartphone footage to show the astonishing bravery of young protesters who gave their lives fighting a brutal regime. It’s unspeakably powerful

BY Rebecca Nicholson

Inside the Iranian Uprising hides a question in its title. How can it be possible to get inside a totalitarian regime, amid a brutal crackdown on protesters, activists and journalists, to tell the story of what has happened over the past nine months in Iran?

It opens with a powerful montage of the sorts of clips that are posted to social media all the time, around the world, of teenagers on a beach, at a wedding, blowing bubbles in the kitchen, swimming, singing, dancing. All of these young people are dead. As the BBC has been banned from working inside Iran, it has instead gathered footage shot mostly by young Iranians on their smartphones and worked with activists and exiles to verify more than 100 hours of clips. In this way, it attempts to piece together what happened after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, which led to mass protests across the country.

In September 2022, Amini was accused of not wearing her hijab properly and arrested. The police claimed that she died following a heart attack while in custody; most believe she was beaten to death. Protests against the “morality police” and the regime began outside the hospital when she was in a coma and quickly spread across the country, with young women, in particular, taking to the streets to chant “women, life, freedom” and burn their hijabs.

The footage here appears in phone-shaped boxes on the screen. In isolation, these clips (and occasionally photographs) are brief and tell specific stories. Many of them appeared on social media and spread across the internet, such as the photograph and footage of Amini unconscious in hospital, and of her grieving relatives when they found out she had died – taken by a journalist who had snuck into the hospital and who is now in prison, under threat of execution.

There are also the scraps of footage of 16-year-old Nika Shahkarami at protests in Tehran, on the day that she didn’t come home. There are schoolchildren chanting, writing graffiti on a wall and chasing away government officials, and a teacher threatening to report her students to the special forces and have them arrested.

There is an unspeakable power in pulling these fragments together and allowing them to tell a fuller story. It is horrifying, harrowing and a testament to the remarkable bravery of those who dared to protest, as well as those who recorded it. We see what happens to a woman as she is filming the authorities shooting at protesters in the streets; it is horribly clear that documenting the actions of the security forces can have fatal consequences.

The story is told in three chapters. First, there is the uprising and the immediate aftermath of Amini’s death. Next comes the bloody government crackdown on the protests. Two more young women take centre stage. The final movements of Shahkarami are pieced together from digital fragments. The YouTube videos of 16-year-old Sarina Esmailzadeh, first about makeup, food and music, then about policy, politics and freedom, have become a memorial. In both cases, the authorities say the girls fell from high buildings. Eyewitnesses claim Esmailzadeh was beaten to death with police batons.

Chapter three moves on to the “black sites” and the torture endured by those in police custody. A man speaks of being tortured and raped while detained. He believes that younger men were sexually assaulted “to break their spirit”. There is fighting in the streets, with unarmed protesters behind makeshift barricades, facing AK-47s, snipers and more. The regime says it was cracking down on “terrorist separatist groups” and blamed the US and Israel for “engineering” the “riots”.

This uprising has played out on the internet, and the film tames the bursts of information, pressing them into a coherent timeline. It is only an hour long, but manages to give a brief history of modern Iran, as well as talking to activists in exile, relatives of those who have suffered at the hands of the morality police and individuals who have endured horrific “punishments” for protesting.

This is a difficult film to watch. It is disturbing to see footage of such violence and brutality. It is devastating to watch families grieving for their young loved ones. It ends by returning to the footage of young people singing, smiling and dancing, before their lives were taken from them. This steady-handed documentary is a powerful, indelible account of – and testament to – their courage and conviction.

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