Monday 15 February 2021

On demand: "Coup 53"

Coup 53 represents a notable labour of love for the British-Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani, who in 2009 started documenting the role the US and UK governments played in the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled the democratically elected President Mosaddegh; after a decade of investigative spadework, the resulting film has had the misfortune of opening in the middle of a cinema-shuttering global pandemic. (It took its UK bow digitally; after a brief pause to resolve some legal issues, it has now been made available to stream again.) For Amirani, the story is personal: the coup, which saw the Shah of Iran reappointed as leader in what was a transparent attempt by British and American interests to retain their grip on the country's oil reserves, was the cue for his parents to flee the country and make their home in London. A key source in his quest to get to the bottom of these events was a 1985 episode of the Channel 4 series End of Empire, devoted to the coup: side-by-side comparison of the finished show and a production transcript suggests any testimony referring to a key figure on the British side, MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire, was redacted before broadcast. Darbyshire, by all accounts, was jointly responsible for overseeing the coup, and later ran his mouth off about it, miffed as he was that the Americans got all the credit; he died in the early 1990s, so there was never any chance of tracking him down, but Amirani has recruited Ralph Fiennes to play Darbyshire, and bring renewed life to the conversation this wayward intelligence operative had with End of Empire's researchers. The battle lines are thus redrawn: now it's busy-bee Amirani against the omissions of earlier generations of historians and the machinations of the deep state.

For some of its running time, Coup 53 plays as conventional history doc, blending rich archive footage with the usual talking heads shot against neutral backgrounds. Even here, though, you have to be impressed by Amirani's access. His interviewees include everyone from the researchers on the original Channel 4 series to Lord Owen and scattered allies of Masaddegh besides, their task to talk us through a story that hasn't much been talked about in the 35 years since End of Empire went out on what was then the UK's least watched channel. More compelling yet are those stretches where Amirani, as an independent filmmaker, goes rogue, chasing leads and storming dusty vaults, and shooting the material he turns up handheld using his phone, the better to document his working. (That it all cuts together so seamlessly is down to a coup of the director's own: the great Walter Murch, a key contributor to The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient and many other titles, has been drafted in as co-writer and editor to help make sense of this ever-shifting, late-developing story.) Amirani appears cheerful enough as he sets about digging through dusty stacks of newspapers and whizzes through decades of microfiche, but his chief characteristic is a certain relentlessness; we sense he can't switch off. This project would take him to Paris, Berlin and North Yorkshire, between stop-offs at the Savoy (where the original End of Empire interviews were conducted, a very old-world location) to coach Fiennes through a rather good impersonation of a jaded, grudge-bearing tool of state. Neither the pandemic, nor the row Coup 53 provoked with the TV show's producers upon its online debut, was ever going to stop this filmmaker; having Murch at his side presumably allowed Amirani to recut or refine his points in a heartbeat.

All this momentum is cinematic, exciting; even the talking heads are talking about action of a sort. The film could almost be claimed as a tutorial in how to stage a coup, and what part the media can play in such upheavals. (Darbyshire had a particular insight into the buying-off of local newspapers and - an especially intriguing wrinkle, this - how even the steadfast BBC were solicited to send signals to the Shah's daughter when the time came.) It was an imaginative choice to use rotoscope animation to describe the day of the coup itself, suggestive as that technique is of pictures being painted, gaps filled, but it's also an impressionistic one: these shifting, warping, newly unstable images speak to the way all this testimony is affected by time and memory. Nevertheless, certain facts emerge from Amirani's film unaltered, and perhaps even bolstered. This was the first of many such coups the US would engineer across the globe; it compromised the UK's international reputation (again, not for the last time); and - despite the plotters' best intentions - it set Iran on a hardline path, every step the country took away from Mosaddegh bringing it closer to Mossad, and the prospect of further hostilities in the Middle East. That's why the Darbyshire testimony - that of a vector or pointman, someone at the very centre of things - is so crucial to a full understanding of this coup: it was the inside line, the real skinny. In grasping that, Amirani has fashioned an engaging, multilayered item of film-reportage, giving us the story alongside an idea of how good journalism gets done. Furthermore, he offers a never timelier illustration of how history is never wholly set in stone: a TV broadcast compiled by the notional winners of this coup - and presumably believed close to definitive circa 1985 - has been finessed and improved upon, not to mention expanded into a real movie, by an assiduous Iranian investigator some 35 years later.

Coup 53 is now streaming online via 

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