In 2002, just at the spearhead of the American invasion in Afghanistan, Iranian-born filmmaker Taghi Amirani made an episode of the BBC documentary television program Correspondent that depicted the immediate impact of the invasion to people living in the region. The response to the episode was very critical, with people accusing Amirani of exploiting other people’s suffering. His response could serve as raison d’etre for the rest of his career: “We have a choice of switching off to other people’s suffering and getting on with our lives or getting involved and seeing what our governments are doing in our name.” For Amirani, the responsibility of the documentarian is to expose the parts of the world the viewer may be otherwise blind to.
His latest project, Coup 54, is a massive undertaking that took a decade to complete. And while it is not a tale of immediate suffering happening at this very moment, the impact of his subject matter is felt still, and as always he keeps a personal-eye view on his subject matter. And in this case, it is highly personal. The film covers the 1953 forced removal of the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which re-installed the previously deposed Shah to power.
The coup itself has been well documented on the United States side, a matter of mostly public record. What has been less revealed, and is at the center of the documentary, is the United Kingdom’s responsibility and involvement in the coup. The key evidence that Amirani uncovered in preparing for this documentary is a lost interview with British MI-6 agent Norman Darbyshire who claimed to not only be involved, but to be the primary author of the coup d’etat, despite the UK’s still held position that they were only adjacently involved in the ousting.
This interview was allegedly filmed for a mid-1980s BBC documentary series, End of Empire. But the interview never aired, and some people involved in the program were skeptical if it ever existed at all, while others vividly remember it being recorded. This serves as the central document of importance of Amirani’s storytelling however, and as a visual storyteller he has to find a way to incorporate the material in an arresting way. His method of delivery? Ralph Fiennes.
Fiennes appears about 30 minutes into the film, where we have already been made aware of this mysterious and illuminating interview, but then becomes the axis of the film from then on. He plays Darbyshire, reciting the interview in character. It speaks to the strength of Fiennes as an actor that it is often easy to lose sight that he is in fact an avatar, other than the fact that he is in fact… Ralph Fiennes.
Even with Fiennes faux-interview being the center hub of the documentary, the majority of it consists of clips from End of Empire, interviews that Amirani conducted and footage of Amirani doing intensive research. Indeed, the primary task that Amirani does is pouring over thousands of pages of CIA official documents and hundreds of hours of interview footage to piece together the puzzle of what happened. Darbyshire’s interview is the Rosetta stone, but his perspective is not Amirani’s true interest. He is more interested in the stories of people who knew Mosaddegh, and the Iranian people who are left with only the imagination of what a free and nationalized Iran would look like.
The full impact of the coup is hard to understate. The installment of the Shah would eventually lead to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which in turn installed the Ayatollah Khomeini and led to uneasy relations with the United States ever sense. The true irony that Amirani investigates is just how close the coup was from not occurring; under the Truman administration, the United Kingdom was the primary instigator of hostile relations to Mosaddegh. In involvement of Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers changed the US position, and allowed the United Kingdom to get their specific goal of establishing a secure position in Iranian oil thanks to the creation of BP, but deny responsibility for the coup personally.
If this all sounds complicated and hard to summarise, that is because it is. Coup 53 is a dense work that fluctuates between history lesson, spy thriller and personal testimonies. It can be laborious at times, but it is a significant piece of 20th Century history that is often overlooked. The final moments of the film show the full impact of the Iranian coup, which impacted everything from American foreign policy, the political landscape of the Middle East and the ongoing global oil economy. Amirani, as researching, realizes he is holding documents that not only seismically impacted his home country, but also changed the world in nearly unimaginable ways.
Ultimately though, this is a human story. The most dramatic moment of the film is when it breaks down the moment of the actual coup itself, when local Iranian dissidents (armed and paid by the UK and US government) sieged the Prime Ministers home to forcefully remove him. Eye witnesses discuss the reaction from Mosaddegh himself, how he was ready to be martyred for his vision of a free Iran, and how eventually the toll of human life to protect him was just too high. Humans dying on both sides of the coup not for their own ideals but to protect the financial interests of people half the world away is harrowing, even if the method of depicting the battle is through a strange watercolor filter. All the politics and economics that led to the coup aside, the human cost ultimately takes center stage in the final act. As always, Armani reminds us that we must never lose sight of human suffering.
Coup 53 opens in virtual cinemas August 19th.