Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Death of Neda Agha-Soltan: YouTube's Most Important Moment

Last Saturday, I watched a woman die. It was not something I set out to do, and had I known what I was going to see, I probably would have opted not to watch. But I was checking FaceBook updates as usual, and clicked on a link posted by a friend, urging me to "watch before the video was deleted". I hadn't scrolled the entire post into view; had I done so, I would have seen his warning that the video was quite disturbing.

Disturbing was an understatement. I've never actually seen someone die. It was so disturbing that I had to immediately stop what I was doing and try to find ways to take my mind off what I'd seen. It wasn't the kind of visual to induce nightmares, but had me close to tears.

In Hollywood feature films, we've all seen countless people die. But - and this is where I think film-censorship paranoia has it wrong - I believe people are fully capable of separating film fiction from real life. I remember seeing the Arnold Schwartzenegger blockbuster Total Recall, in which the crowd cheered loudly when one of the villains got his arms amputated by a fast-moving elevator. The one-upmanship in action movie violence has reached complete absurdity. We laugh because although the on-screen visuals become increasingly realistic with advances in film make-up, computer technology, and special effects, it also moves farther from reality in its scale. The more excessive film violence becomes, the more it seems to mimic video game shoot-'em-ups.

But watching this video of the protests in Iran was unlike anything I had seen. I was unprepared for the true horror. This is the morbid fascination of car wrecks: it comes from our wonder at knowing that this is reality; this is what death really looks like. And unlike film fiction, we want to help, as fellow human beings, we need to. But we are helpless to do so.

I wondered if the video should be freely available for all to watch. For a brief moment, I thought others might be spared my own discomfort or grief if the video were taken down. Then I remembered a conversation I'd had only the night before. Sitting around with friends, discussing films, we got onto the subject of "torture porn". This seems to be a phenomenon of the young - teens and twenties - who provide Hollywood with repeat business by attending films like Saw and its disgusting sequels. I know of no older adults who are willing to watch any of these films.

Two years ago, I was lucky to see a screening of the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, about gays and religion. It follows the stories of half a dozen gay men and women and their coming out to strongly religious families. The saddest story is of a woman who responded harshly to her lesbian daughter's coming out; before they could reconcile, the daughter committed suicide. The film director included police photographs of the suicide, which drew revulsion from much of the audience. In the following Q&A, the director was questioned about his decision to include the photos in the film. He tells of agonizing over the decision, until he had a chance meeting with a stranger on the NYC subway - a mother whose daughter was with friends, seeing one of the Saw sequels. The mother urged the director to include the photos - because young people need to see what death really looks like.

I don't know if YouTube did remove this video in the hours after I saw it. All I know is that countless people have begun to post links to it (possibly different links or using different online video providers). But a couple of days later, YouTube had added a link at the top of every page, leading to other videos on the situation in Iran. While YouTube will remove videos it sees as inappropriate, apparently nothing speaks more loudly to YouTube than a video that draws hundreds of thousands of hits.

I've used YouTube practically every day in recent months. It's become the leading source for all video - home movies, music clips, comedy, news, and film (much of it unauthorized). But the death video of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran is a turning point for YouTube, and for all online video. It is significant in so many ways: a symbol of injustice by Iran's government, a visual record of the protest movement, another sign that cameras and cellphones are ushering in an era in which crimes by the state will not be covered up. And it is a real look at death itself - something we cannot and should not ignore. We don't all need to watch it, but for Neda's sake - and for our own - the option to witness this death is important. It reminds us that these world events we are watching are not just academic debates; they involve real human beings, just like us.

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