There was a sad irony in watching recent events in Iran -- the newest set of news clips of stone-throwing and gunfire in the Middle East. Now, as always, it is violence -- or at least the potential for violence -- that grabs the headlines and focuses our attention, however briefly, on something happening far away. I am familiar with the phenomenon, having been on the ground during Israel's withdrawal of its settlements from Gaza in 2005 to film the documentary Unsettled. Then, as now, the world -- and the US in particular -- paid attention to the story while there was immediate, dramatic, visible confrontation at hand. Then, as now, the story remained in the headlines only briefly.
It makes sense that images and descriptions of conflict command our attention -- we can identify "sides," the good guys battle the bad guys, and we can reduce situations to black and white. As Americans, perhaps we were never more conditioned to see the world in black and
white than we were in 2005, having re-elected a president who warned the rest of the world that the time had come to choose sides -- you're either with us or against us. And, of course, the implication was clear -- if you're not with "us," 100 percent, you're wrong. No shades
I think that it's hard to understand people and the problems we create if you don't see gray. I had quit my job at MTV and maxed out my credit cards to make Unsettled because I believed the story, about a bunch of twenty-somethings at the front lines of a conflict where religion, democracy, and identity collided, was about something more than the Gaza withdrawal or even the Middle East -- it was also about the lunacy of expecting real life to conform to stereotypes.
Instead there was Lior, the ultra-mellow shaggy-haired surfer and lifeguard who was also a Gaza settler. Lior opposed the withdrawal but said he'd leave if he thought it would lead to peace. There was Lior's surf buddy Meir, who saw a Divine mandate for remaining in Gaza,
dismissing any competing claim that Muslims might make to the land, since "their Torah is not true." There was Ye'ela, who at age 13 was devastated when a suicide bomber murdered her sister, yet campaigned alongside her parents for compromise and reconciliation with
Palestinians. There was the soldier Yuval, son of a left-wing political activist, who shared his mother's opposition to Jewish settlements in Gaza, yet cried with the settlers he removed because he shared the basic sadness of people losing their homes. There was no
such thing as a single Israeli viewpoint, and it was possible for citizens to be both "with" and "against" one another.
If at some point I hoped that the Gaza withdrawal might augur progress toward peace, if I thought that this rare example -- a military force being trained to understand and respect the cultural and religious values of the communities in which it was to be deployed -- might be
repeated in the region and beyond, subsequent events have illustrated the depth of my naivete. The events that have unfolded in Iran remind us yet again of the immense obstacles that stand in the way of democracy, tolerance, and respect for human rights.
Yet if Unsettled taught me the folly of trying to fit people and situations into categories that defy their complexity, there is cause for optimism. A new US president demonstrates consistently his ability to assess conflict from multiple perspectives -- indeed his insistence upon doing so -- affirming the humanity of even those with whom he may disagree. A new set of social networking and video technologies provides glimpses behind the curtains of fundamentalism and authoritarianism, making it impossible for repressive regimes and institutions to claim to speak for entire peoples. And while posts on Twitter and Facebook, and even an explosion of grassroots documentary content, cannot by themselves substitute for a free and accountable press, they at least ensure that we cannot put a single label on any
society. And if we cannot easily stereotype, if we are forced to see shades of gray, it will be harder to dismiss or demonize another culture as "other."
I have never been to Iran, and I do not know many Iranians, but in addition to the names in the news -- Khamanei, Ahmedinejad, Mousavi -- I can put a name, and sometimes a face, to individuals like Hanif, a courageous citizen photojournalist, and Neda, the young woman whose
senseless killing was quickly seen around the world. Perhaps her death, like that of Hector Pieterson, killed in Soweto, South Africa during the same week 33 years earlier, will be remembered as a turning point for a society whose youth were no longer willing to be silenced
or spoken for by a regime that had no legitimate claim to represent them.
This is a start. I must also try to find faces and names from within the large population of Ahmedinejad supporters, who are perhaps less likely to use social networks to communicate, and less likely to be interested in communicating with me. Not because I am likely to agree
with them. Not because I would equivocate in condemning the violence that was unleashed in support of their views. But somewhere between Hanif and Neda and their opponents is the gray area in which Iranians will ultimately have to live.
More about Unsettled here.