On the 64th anniversary of the US- and British-led coup-d’état in Iran, Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani shares the first teaser of Coup 53, his forthcoming documentary investigating Operation Ajax.
In order to maintain control over oil resources in Iran, British and American intelligence agencies orchestrated a secret coup d’état in August 1953 to overthrow the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstall the Shah. Shrouded in secrecy until recent years and largely forgotten by the general public, the details surrounding this pivotal political event — the effects of which the world is still grappling with — will soon be projected onto the big screen by Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani with the release of his documentary film Coup 53 later this year.
On Saturday, 19 August 2017, on the 64th anniversary of CIA-MI6 coup, Amirani released the official trailer for the film. We caught up with him at his London studio — where he is currently cutting Coup 53 with renowned editor and sound designer Walter Murch — to sneak a peek at the work in progress and chat with the director.
Tell us a bit about this project. Why is the timing of this release important for you?
We chose to release this teaser on the 64th anniversary of the 1953 coup in Iran — an event that, while long buried in history, has never been forgotten by Iranians. It’s still an open wound, and has shaped the trajectory of the country to this day. This weekend’s release is also the first time we’re publicly announcing a project that’s been in the making for over seven years. It’s been a long labor of love, involving research, interviews, fundraising and finding witnesses and archival information. Some of the footage we have found has never been seen before.
What was going on at the time of the coup, and what were the stated motives?
Iran had a burgeoning democracy in 1951. The then Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, was elected on a ticket of nationalizing Iranian oil and ending British control, held by the British Anglo Iranian Oil Company (now BP, which was born in Iran). Unhappy about this, Winston Churchill reached out to Dwight D Eisenhower, and the CIA and MI6 organized a military coup to overthrow Mossadegh. Many of the political developments in Iran are rooted in August 1953.
Why do we need to consider the 1953 coup today?
The film is very much based in the present. There’s no point telling a historical story unless there’s contemporary relevance, and this story is important to tell now because there’s nothing past about the past. Harry Truman once famously said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” For Americans, Iran didn’t exist before the hostage crisis. For Iranians, the crucial moment was 1953 and the coup, or “28 Mordad”, as it’s known by all Iranians. Those are the two pivotal events that shape the Iran-US relationship.
There has never been a better time to tell the story of what happened back in the summer of 1953 and connect the dots to here and now. The echoes of the Anglo-American coup in Iran — regime change for oil, set against the backdrop of the Cold War — are still rippling across the world, giving the film a distinct contemporary and relevant edge in these volatile and uncertain times. Iran still leads the US foreign policy headlines.
What was your personal experience of these events, and how did it affect how you approached this film?
I spent the first 15 years of my life in pre-revolution Iran under the Shah’s rule. I went to a school where some of my teachers would disappear from time to time, picked up by the secret police, the SAVAK. I grew up in fear of reading certain books. I was aware something wasn’t right, but couldn’t say what. So I lost myself in movies.
In the film, I am both a narrator and protagonist in the process of retelling a historical narrative while documenting and finding new material along the way. Our story is being shaped by the telling of it. And all the while, world events related to the coup continue to unfold. We are shooting at a constantly moving target. It keeps us on our toes.
How did Walter Murch come to be involved with this project?
I met Walter — who is considered by the cinematic community the master of film editing and sound design — through a series of chance encounters and serendipitous events in New York. If you don’t know his name, you’ll know him by his credits which are among the greatest landmarks in the landscape of classic world cinema. Films such as Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The Conversation, The English Patient, and most recently Particle Fever, an excellent documentary on the discovery of the Higgs boson. It is the greatest gift from the gods of cinema to have Walter cut my film.
What have been some of the challenges?
Coup 53 has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. It’s put me to the test, creatively, emotionally, politically and financially. It was hard to convince people to come speak in front of the camera, to share their eyewitness accounts and archival material. The subject is still raw and divides people. It has also been equally hard to raise the money. Some very special individuals are supporting this film. I owe them a deep debt of gratitude for having and keeping faith in me.
As Walter Murch says, “Perseverance furthers.”