Coup 53 (2019), Director: Taghi Amirani
Women Without Men (2010), Director: Shirin Neshat
A story is told of a puzzled Tony Blair asking Jon Snow why Iran hated the British so much. Snow answered, somewhat hesitantly, 'Well, you know, because of Mosaddegh'. 'Who?' asked Blair.
Mosaddegh was the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister who was toppled in 1953 in a coup orchestrated by the British and American Governments because he wanted to nationalise the country's vast oil resources, controlled by Britain through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). The coup, including Britain's involvement, has long been an open secret – and a harbinger of covert operations still to come: in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Congo, Chile, Cuba. Coup 53
, a documentary directed by Taghi Amirani and released on 19 August, the anniversary of the coup, should help Blair (and the rest of us) brush up on British and Iranian history. It is also a timely reminder of the deep roots of the seemingly never-ending crisis in the Middle East.
Born in Iran and educated in Britain, Amirani has worked mainly in television. It took him almost a decade to make Coup 53
, which aims to throw new light on Britain's involvement in the overthrow of Mosaddegh, something no history book mentions. MI6 is believed to have asked the US Government to assist Britain in removing the PM and replacing him with the Shah of Iran as a pro-Western leader. The US authorities, though initially reluctant, agreed to assist because it saw this as a way of preventing Soviet Russia from gaining leverage in the Cold War. Britain's interest was more nakedly commercial. Only 16% of oil revenue went to Iran, after tax paid by the oil company to the British Government who owned the company.
interweaves Amirani's own dogged excavation of information with a step-by-step account of events leading up to the coup, matching archival footage and interviews from a wide variety of sources and dates. It is a forensic quest for truth that does shine some new light on Britain's involvement in the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, a man described by Amirani as 'the closest Iran came to Gandhi'. Time
magazine's 'man of the year' in 1952, he was a politician who believed in an independent Iran with control over its own vast oil resources (perhaps a bit like the SNP's vision for an independent Scotland in relation to North Sea oil). President Truman sympathised with this point of view. It was only when Eisenhower took over as US President that policy shifted and British and US Governments united in seeking Mosaddegh's ousting.
The British Government has never publicly acknowledged its role in the affair. The US Government has done so on several occasions. Eisenhower actually came to regard covert operations as a peace project, a means of avoiding war. Amirani's ostensible breakthrough came when he gained access to unused footage from a 1985 Granada TV series entitled End of Empire
. An interview with MI6 operative Norman Darbyshire, filled with juicy details, did not appear in the broadcast programme and no film exists of the interview. But a transcript exists, as do the memories of those who filmed the interview at the Savoy Hotel. Amirani's brainwave is to restage the interview in the same location, with Ralph Fiennes standing in for Darbyshire and speaking his words.
It may not be quite the momentous breakthrough that Amirani claims for it, however. Somewhat endearingly, the claim is actually undermined by the film's own working methods. When we witness a meeting between the director and Stephen Dorril, author of a book on MI6, Dorril reveals that he too has an identical copy of the complete transcript. This somewhat chastening revelation becomes proof of one of the film's main strengths: Amirani's film manages to convey that it is continually interrogating itself, a process of self-questioning that is laid out throughout, as when we see the director with legendary editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now
, The Conversation
) mapping out their materials, including lining up a cut-up ('redacted') copy of a document (the interview with Darbyshire) alongside an intact one.
Placing himself at the centre of the film (possibly, too much) Amirani visits archives, rummages through boxes of recently unclassified papers and trawls through miles of talking-head interviews – a paean to old-style journalism. Putting Darbyshire's words in Ralph Fiennes mouth makes for an exciting retelling of the coup, including the machinations of Churchill and the British Government; an earlier failed attempt to replace Mosaddegh with a pro-Western PM; the mysterious murder of a chief of police, and then the actual coup.
A dearth of footage of the insurrection itself is compensated for by vivid animations of the fighting. These reminded me of Dancing with Bashir
(2008), Aro Folman's animated war documentary drama which reconstructs Folman's own memories of the 1982 Lebanon War. Coup 53
echoes Folman's film in the way truth depends not on facts but on who witnessed them and why (including Darbyshire, whose tendency to embellish the truth is remarked on by at least one interviewee).
Apart from brief shots of the jet-setting Shah's glamorous wife Soraya, and a glimpse of Hillary Clinton sharing a podium with Bernie Sanders denouncing US imperialist dirty tricks in Iran, there are no women in Amirani's film. Not one woman speaks. Ten years ago, Iranian art photographer turned director, Shirin Neshat, told a story of the coup from the fictional point of view of four women whose lives are dominated by it, prompting Peter Bradshaw to write that Neshat's Women Without Men
'underlines the fact that it is Iran which, in the 21st century, has repeatedly offered the world a vivid, unapologetically feminist, cinema'. In fact, women and gender politics have long been central to Iranian cinema. As the Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies
points out, before the 1979 revolution, for example, female characters in Iranian films never appeared veiled unless the role specifically required it.
Long celebrated as a photographer for her explorations of Islamic gender issues, Neshat was born in Iran but now lives in New York, where her parents fled shortly before the coup. She is not allowed into Iran, so her visually transfixing first feature was filmed in Morocco, with Casablanca standing in for Tehran. It actually began life as a video installation. In the severe beauty and precision of its cinematography – intense chiaroscuro shifting from stark black and white to richer softer hues – the film displays some of the detached formality of a medieval mystery play. Its four main characters, Iranian women from different classes and backgrounds, carry symbolic rather than flesh-and-blood weight.
The film opens with a woman standing on the roof of a house – a recurring image, as is that of a long dirt road along which the characters walk. The woman on the roof is Munis (Shabnam Touloueh), serious-minded and obsessed with current news of the Mosaddegh situation. She rejects the self-effacing womanly role demanded by her bullying fundamentalist brother. Her more timid friend Faeseh (Pegah Ferydoni) is in love with the brother but becomes inspired by Munis's rebellious actions. Zarin (Orsi Toth) is a prostitute who flees the brothel where she works. In one particularly memorable scene set in a bathhouse Zarin scrubs her emaciated body until it runs red with blood, while a child and several naked women look on. The fourth woman, Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), is the 50-something unhappy wife of a powerful Iranian general who derides her for being no longer young. She leaves him to live in a country orchard where the other three women seek refuge.
Based on a 1989 magic-realist novel by Shahrmush Parsipur, who plays the stern-faced madam in the brothel, Neshat's debut feature, which won the best director award at the Venice Film Festival, reminds us of a lost generation of Iranian society: the secular liberal intelligentsia, exiled and sidelined by the Shah's regime that followed the coup and by the theocracy put in place after the Islamic revolution of 1979. This intelligentsia is on display at a grand dinner party thrown by Fakhri at her newly purchased orchard estate. Magic-realist elements from the film's literary source surface when the army arrives in jeeps to search the property for seditious material, and stays for dinner and conversation with the guests.
Mysterious, dreamlike sequences in the orchard, beautifully shot and framed in lush colour by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, add to the film's fantastical sensibility. In contrast, the scenes in Tehran are filmed in muted, almost monochrome hues, akin to newsreels; while Katharina Woppermann's production design convincingly recreates 1950's Iranian settings in Morocco.
From the opening scene of Munis contemplating suicide on her rooftop – stark white building framed against a clear blue sky – the images are mesmerising. Neshat's interest is in the visual shape of stories rather than narrative coherence or character development. Sound, too, is another of her great strengths. The haunting musical score adds greatly to the film's melancholy power, and musicians playing at a wedding create sheer magic. In one brief sequence, women in black sit cross-legged as they wail and sway, setting off a strange resonance akin to the buzzing of bees.
By choosing to focus on the charged political atmosphere of 1953 during the summer of unrest that led up to the British-American-engineered overthrow of Mosaddegh, a move fatal to Iran's democratic future, Neshat invites us to imagine what Iran's future might have been. Both Shirin Neshat's and Taghi Amirani's films, separated by a decade and radically different from each other in tone and viewpoint, offer sober reminders of the terrible cost of imperialist ambitions. The legacy of the coup in 1953 is still shaping the world today.