The world could have been different now

IRAN / Hidden for decades, never seen before archive material leads to explosive revelations about the overthrow of the Iranian government.
Director: Taghi Amirani
Country: UK, Iran

Coup 53 is a gripping historical documentary about the 1953 coup against the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, who drew the British wrath upon himself by nationalising their oil interests. Masterfully edited testimonials, archive materials, animations, and dramatic reconstructions bring about an important revelation. The coup against Mosaddegh, by now a rather poorly known event, was the mother of all covert operations that marked the second half of the 20th Century. It demonstrated the efficiency of such interventions. It made covert actions seem, to quote one of the film’s experts, «as a peace project». After 1953, governments that might obstruct the imperialist exploitation of their national natural resources were removed one after the other. In 1954, a democratically elected government of the Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala was ousted; 1960 Patrice Lumumba in Congo; 1961 Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic; 1963 Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam; 1964 Joao Goulart in Brazil; 1965 Sukarno in Indonesia; 1973 Salvador Allende in Chile, and so on.

Coup 53-MTR-1
Coup 53, a film by Taghi Amirani

In the DNA

From the perspective of the Global North, the crisis in Iran began with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the overthrow of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and brought the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to power. For Iranians, it was different. «The entire Islamic Revolution in Iran goes all the way back to the grievances of the Iranian people from 19th August 1953,» observes one of the witnesses in the film. Taghi Amirani, film’s director and producer, was born in Iran. His family moved to England when he was 15, 4 years before the Revolution. He studied physics but, at the same time, got into film school and was later working on British TV. He made 36 TV documentaries and Coup 53 is his first feature. Not by chance. «The coup in Iran is something that is in the DNA of Iranians, they grow up with it, that date has been hacked into the memory, in the heart and soul of everyone. It’s what defines Iran from 1953 right to the revolution and to now. The story chose me, it was just a matter of time until I was ready enough (…)», he said in a talk following a screening. «I knew about Mosaddegh but not in a depth that I found out during the research and shooting. It was a challenge to tell a story that Iranians knew intimately but also to reach an outside audience who don’t know much or have a sketchy idea.»

The coup against Mosaddegh…was the mother of all covert operations that marked the second half of the 20th Century.

Against orientalism

The major quality of this documentary is that it introduces the Iranian perspective. For centuries, the romanticised ideas of the « orient», populated by charming odalisques and wild horses, savage warriors and dangerous terrorists have been created by scholars, educators and artists, preserved in TV series and films to this day. It is quite ironic that in the last century, the orientalist fabrication of truths about the Global South resorted to naked force and clandestine operations. Yet, Coup 53 is, first of all, a film about Dr. Mosaddegh, a Persian nobleman and a democrat who was ready to protect the interests of his homeland. Memory of him is preserved in other popular media. For example, in the indie video game The Cat and the Coup, one can play as Dr. Mosaddegh’s cat and learn about the events. In Coup 53, we see the testimonies of Dr. Mosaddegh’s family members, his closest collaborators, and his enemies along with CIA and MI6 agents, researchers, and historians. The legendary editor and sound editor Walter Murch who worked on films such as Apocalypse Now and American Graffiti and is also a co-writer of this film, significantly contributed to connecting both views, says Amirani.

Coup 53-MTR-2
Coup 53, a film by Taghi Amirani

The documents

Early in the film, we see Amirani visiting the US National Security Archive, a non-governmental organisation that keeps a collection of CIA materials covering the relations between Iran and the USA. «I am standing in front of a filing cabinet, of a drawer full of documents, that essentially changed the fate of my country, changed my faith, what happened to me, what happened to my family (…) encapsulated in a half of a file cabinet. This just changed Iran, this box of papers.» Not exactly. Later, we learn that the key document is stored in the UK. A great part of the film, formally the most innovative one, centres around this transcript of the video interview that, according to the «official» version, never took place. British actor Ralph Fiennes, together with a crew involving both cameramen, brilliantly reconstructs this interview that unveils not only who the real authors of the coup were but also their techniques. The film was pulled from its digital distribution platforms in September 2020 and only returned after the updates were added, suggesting that that interview is an act of fantasy. I suggest you watch the film and see for yourself.

The focus on the documents, the archives and their keepers is another quality of this documentary. It reminds us how important the original documents are and how often those who should be working with them, from journalists to documentary filmmakers, are denied access. And how those in power are ready to take all kinds of efforts to keep these documents away from the eyes of the public.

Coup 53 is a film about the future.

The future

Finally, Coup 53 is a film about the future. For Amirani, dr. Mosaddegh was «potentially the father of future democratic Iran,» he was «the closest Iran came to having its own Mahatma Gandhi». In the words of one of the experts, «had we not overthrown Mosaddegh in 1953 and had allowed democracy to grow, we might have had a flourishing democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East all these 60 years.» Nothing will ever change if we don’t start imagining what could have been different. Coup 53 is a start.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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