Documenting from a distance: Iranians’ uproar over the death of Mahsa Amini

Sasha Joelle Achilli, documentary filmmaker
29th November 2023
13:00 - 14:00

The context and the speaker

Documentary filmmaker Sasha Joelle Achilli is the producer of a new Frontline documentary that explores the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s death and Iranians' ongoing protests about the issue. Mahsa Amini, 22 years old, was visiting Tehran on 13 September 2022 when she was arrested by Iran’s religious police for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly. She was taken from custody to the hospital in a coma and died of her injuries three days later. Leaked photos of Mahsa led to mass protests across Iran. In the following crackdown, 500 people were killed including 70 children, according to a report published in December 2022 and subsequent updates by U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). Two journalists remain imprisoned for their reporting of Mahsa’s death: Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi.

Barred from entering the country, Achilli worked with Iranian director and co-producer Majed Neisi to deploy collaborative techniques to collect footage and interview Iranian citizens. 

Achilli is a BAFTA and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker who has worked for major UK and US broadcasters and has spent her career getting at the heart of difficult stories in some of the most remote parts of Africa and the Middle East. She has investigated war crimes in Syria and produced the BBC’s critically acclaimed film Outbreak about the Ebola crisis in West Africa. She also investigated the terrorist attack in Nairobi's Westgate Mall for the documentary Terror at the Mall, gaining exclusive access to the CCTV footage and victims of the attack. 

Most recently Achilli filmed, produced and directed Inside Italy’s Covid War for PBS Frontline. She went inside a hospital in Northern Italy and told the story of an A&E doctor on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.

The video

Seven takeaways from the discussion

1. Activists risk arrest and charges for collaborating with foreign journalists in Iran. "Everybody featured in this film faces a risk, and the risk is that working and collaborating with foreign journalists, particularly American and British foreign journalists, is seen as a crime and colluding with the enemy. It's dangerous, they could be re-arrested and charged," Achilli said. In this context, like in several other countries around the world, people who work with journalists are risking their safety. Reporters have a special responsibility to make sure any potential source is aware of the dangers and fully consents.

2. Iranian journalists are themselves under threat. Achilli remembered Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, who are currently in prison. The two journalists were present at the hospital when Mahsa Amini was in a coma and had taken photographs of her grieving family, as well as attended her funeral, Achilli explained, adding that, although they had also been accused of taking the viral picture of Mahsa lying in her hospital bed, that had not been them. Nonetheless, the reporters were quickly arrested and have been in prison since. “There was a moment in the spring of this year where there were talks about them potentially facing the crime of ‘crime against God’, which can carry the death sentence,” Achilli said.

3. Remote filmmaking presents both challenges and opportunities for journalists. Achilli explained how the first time she conducted interviews for a film remotely was during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how this solves a key problem for journalists unable to travel to a specific location, but also presents new challenges. On the one hand, remote interviewing makes it harder to build a rapport with your sources and to interpret the energy in the room, also, in some countries like Iran with unreliable internet connections, you risk outages disrupting your conversations. "It's always better if you can be in the room with contributors, but given the climate we're living in, and given the difficulties to reach certain parts of the world, it's also really important to know that this is possible and it can be done in an effective way," she said. "There's always a way to film in impossible places like Iran. A colleague of mine recently made a film looking at one year after Mahsa Amini's death, and she had undercover journalists working for her filming inside Iran. That's a way of doing it," she continued.

4. The internet and social media play a key role in the Iran protests as they allow young people access to the outside world. “Gen Z has access to the internet and social media in Iran, using lots of VPNs to access a lot of platforms that are forbidden, so they have access to the world outside of Iran,” Achilli explained. Young people have been leading the protests, and internet access contributes to their motivations, as well as the lack of freedom and opportunities they face.

5. Filmmakers should be open about their ethics when asking for documentary interviews. Achilli stressed the importance of filmmakers operating with transparency and not overpromising to potential sources. Interviewees should know that they can also change their mind at any point of the process, she added. "Just because you give an interview it doesn't mean then that's it, you still have the power to pull out. It's very inconvenient when it happens, but it's important that people know that if circumstances change, you can rescind consent," Achilli said.

6. Representation and diverse perspectives are important for effective storytelling. Achilli highlighted the role of Majed Neisi in not only directing but also offering an Iranian perspective throughout the production process. “Representation is really important and I think our industry is changing a lot in that way. And I think in filmmaking people are becoming really, really mindful about who's telling whose stories,” Achilli said.

7. Mental health support for documentary filmmakers is key, particularly when dealing with traumatic content. Achilli said that mental health and psychological support were available to her team as they worked on the project. As well as that, she said that a personal coping mechanism she has used over the years is talking about what she’s witnessing with her friends and family. “There are psychologists who are specialised in working with journalists because I think what journalists experience in terms of trauma is different to others in the sense of, you know, for a long time, I never accepted therapy because I felt guilty about the fact that the story wasn't my story,” Achilli shared.

The bottom line

New communications technologies are enabling journalists to report in new ways, reaching places that they have been physically barred from. This opens up new opportunities: as Achilli said, there is always a way to report about ‘impossible places’. However, there are particular challenges to using these methods, from the lack of personal rapport with sources to technical issues presented by unreliable internet. And yet reporting from afar has the same requirements as any other type of journalism: a duty of care to your sources and colleagues on the ground, particularly when they are likely to be targeted, diligence and fact-checking, representation and intentional storytelling, and measures to protect your own and your team’s mental health. 

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