Todd McCarthy: ‘Coup 53’ And A Great Documentary’s Struggle To Find Its Audience

Coup 53
London Film Festival

At a moment in time when documentaries are in greater favor, and more widely accessible to the public than ever before, it’s both disturbing and ironic that the most enthralling and revelatory documentary I’ve seen over the past year hasn’t yet found a clear path to the public.

But that is the case with Coup 53, Taghi Amirani’s deep dish, sometimes breathtaking examination of the U.S.-British-instigated coup that brought down the democratically elected president of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in the summer of 1953, as the young shah waited in the wings. It’s a complex story involving considerable history (there’s amazing early film footage of the world-changing discovery of oil in the country) and a multitude of political shenanigans on all sides. It also proved to be globally consequential when the shah was ultimately overthrown, in 1979, by Islamic forces led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The general history here is no secret, of course, and there have been documentaries and news broadcasts touching on the story before. But no one has ever grappled with this story on film so extensively, or deeply, as has Amirani. He was a teenager when his family managed to move from Iran to the UK, where he studied physics at university and made a film about entering a black hole before turning to a career in television documentaries.

He didn’t intend to, but Amirani ended up spending 10 ever-more obsessive years on Coup 53, and his struggle is far from over. The reactions at film festivals have been tremendous. At the Telluride Film Festival screening last September, when I originally reviewed it, I chanced to be sitting next to Werner Herzog and his wife, who were rapt and amazed (Herzog recently gave the filmmaker a quote to use in promotional materials), and the film has been selectively shown in certain key venues to create public awareness and entice potential buyers. There have been several sold-out screenings in Los Angeles (factoid: more than 20% of the current population of Beverly Hills is of what is called Persian extraction, and many more in other neighborhoods).

With the appetite and potential broadcast venues for documentaries currently at an all-time high, one would have thought that such an enthusiastically embraced film would be a slam dunk for theatrical distribution, or certainly a deal with Netflix or another docu-friendly service. But to everyone’s bewilderment, no one—in Europe, the Middle East or the U.S.—has yet stepped up with a serious offer to distribute or broadcast this eye-opening film, which quickens the pulse and provokes the brain for a full two hours.

Ralph Fiennes
Fiennes Felix H'rhager/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

How could this be? Are the filmmakers asking for too much money? Is the material too touchy and potentially volatile for distributors to risk it? Is not the key presence of Ralph Fiennes in a novel and crucial onscreen role enough to entice buyers?

Given that nearly a year has gone by without a sale, it seemed high time to check in with the filmmakers to find out what’s been holding things up. When I reached Amirani at his home in London, he calmly stated that, “It’s still a mystery. The Telluride screening has been replicated at all the festivals and screenings we’ve had since. It works with people. My inbox is bulging with great reactions. We’ve won prizes and we were nominated for the BFI’s Grierson Award. But,” he added dryly, “it seems to not have had the same effect on distributors and sales agents.”

Pressed further, Amirani allowed that, “I have a convoluted theory that this is not the kind of film people expect from an Iranian filmmaker. This story is making the West look at themselves and what they did. They are not used to getting criticism along with the criticism of Iran. There could be a subconscious bias about the elements of criticism of both Iran and the United States, about the ‘original sin’ involved.”

Digging yet another layer deeper, the filmmaker added that, “Those who love Iranian cinema might not be the types who would like this,” by whom he means international critics who embraced the second wave of new Iranian cinema that sprang up in the post-revolutionary 1980s.

The film was co-written and edited by the virtuoso film editor Walter Murch, who these days only gets involved with projects in which he deeply believes. This one, it can fairly be said, ended up occupying far more of his time than he originally anticipated. From London, the author of the classic volume about film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, told me that he’s more than half-way through his writing his latest book, which he hopes to finish by September.

Coup 53 was co-produced by Ahmad Kiarostami, son of the late, great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who lives in San Francisco and is, among other things, CEO of Koantum, a platform that teaches science to elementary school students. He also makes music videos and is a fellow at the Aspen lnstitute. Noting the rapturous standing ovations the film received at the packed houses of Persian viewers at the Los Angeles screenings, Kiarostami explained that, while still keen to find a first-class distributor for the film, the producers have also decided to take a novel route to reach the public.

Using the streaming platform, Coup 53 will show for one day only, on August 19 in the U.S., the UK and Ireland as part of what is called the Trans-Atlantic Film Festival. The film will be available online for a 24-hour period in what are being called “virtual cinemas,” which in practice means websites controlled by the participating venues. “Tickets” will go for $12, with proceeds split 50/50 between the theaters and filmmakers, and the screenings will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and actor Fiennes.

August 19, it should be noted, marks the 67th anniversary of the CIA/MI6 coup in Tehran.

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