HBO has aggressively sought to get its documentary on Iranian dissident Neda Agha Soltan seen by as many people as possible within Iran as the anniversary of her death during anti-government demonstrations approaches.
The film, "For Neda," was shown online and through Voice of America in Iran even before its debut on U.S. television this week, an unusual step for a cable network that traditionally guards exclusivity of its material for its paying customers.
The 27-year-old Iranian music student was shot in the heart last June 20 during a Tehran protest. Fellow demonstrators recorded images of her dying on their cell phones, and she quickly became a symbol for the crushed movement to protest Iran's questionable election results.
"I didn't want these brave people who came out on the streets and risked their lives so courageously to feel that the world had moved on and it's been forgotten," said Antony Thomas, who wrote and produced the documentary.
The film shows several times the difficult-to-watch images of Soltan lying in the street, blood slowly streaming over her face and her eyes becoming vacant. Other brutal images of Iranian security officials beating demonstrators are included.
With the help of a journalist who sneaked into the country, "For Neda" includes interviews with her friends and, most importantly, her family. Soltan's heartbroken mother shows a colorful dress her daughter bought in her final days, a store's price tag not yet removed.
Rather than being frightened about the potential repercussions of appearing in the film, Soltan's family believes that visibility makes them safer, that the authorities would not want to risk reigniting a protest by doing them harm, Thomas said.
The people behind "For Neda" thought it was as important that the film be seen within Iran as it is outside. They worked with Austin Heap, executive director of the Censorship Research Center, a techie who helped develop ways for Iranian protesters to communicate with one another online last year while authorities tried to block them.
They arranged to show "For Neda" on the Voice of America's Persian News Network several times starting June 2. The Farsi-language network, funded by the U.S. government, is reportedly one of the most popular outside networks to be seen in Iran. Voice of America, which also showed the film on the Persian News Network website, received several messages from people inside Iran who had seen it, said Kyle King, Voice of America spokesman.
Some of the people said it was apparent that Iranian authorities were trying to "jam" satellite transmission of the documentary, since there were several examples of the power or the picture going out while it was being aired, he said.
Heap worked to distribute the film through YouTube and other Internet resources. It was put up in three languages — English, Arabic and Farsi — and in 25 different formats so it can be seen on smartphones and other devices, he said.
"The interconnectedness of the Iranian community is kind of astonishing," he said.
They tried to keep a step ahead of authorities who wanted to block them, he said. Thomas said a week ago he received e-mail correspondence he's convinced was a way the Iranian government was trying to hack into his computer to follow his messages.
"It's pretty clear that they don't want this story told in Iran," Heap said. The documentary shows how Iranian authorities have given several different stories to explain Soltan's death, including the claim that she was gunned down by the BBC or by the CIA, that she wasn't really dead or that she was an actress with fake blood.
Heap, who is interviewed in the film, also said that he "fought" to persuade HBO to distribute "For Neda" widely for free before it was shown on the American network.
"They look at YouTube and they look at Twitter as if it was some little thing that their kids use," he said.
HBO spokeswoman Lana Iny said the characterization that HBO initially fought against the idea was wrong and noted the network has a strong presence on social media.
Thomas praised HBO for the attention the network had given its film, including screenings in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington. He said the film was the idea of Sheila Nevins, who runs HBO's documentary unit.