In “Coup 53” it becomes apparent that the truth always comes to light.
by Michael Bergeron
“Coup 53” is a compelling new documentary directed by Taghi Amirani and written by Amirani and Walter Murch that covers the involvement of British and American intelligence agencies in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.
Shaping the film
Amirani has produced and directed films for over three decades. Murch is best known for his work as a three-time Academy Award winning editor on films like “Apocalypse Now” and “The English Patient.”
Testset spoke with them via Zoom about the making of “Coup 53.”
We had one purpose, to tell the story in a way it had never been told before, using footage that hasn’t been seen and using people talking on camera that had not been heard,” says Amirani. “I am Iranian by birth but I live in England, I bridge that Anglo-Iranian cultural gap.”
Amirani had already been working on the film for five years when Murch became involved, and that was five years ago. Some film devices seen in “Coup 53” include animated sequences and a frame-within-the-frame composition used for some of the talking heads.
About the latter Amirani notes: “We call those the phantom flashbacks. The audio has an echo.”
Footage was taken from various videotape, super 8mm, 16mm and 35mm formats.
Murch adds: “This coup was in 1953 and there were very few cameras around that could shoot at length. If it had happened last year we would have hours of smartphone footage.
“Much of the archive material was shot for television and that is the 4 x 3 format aspect ratio,” says Murch. “The tendency is to put the image in the center or crop the top and bottom. What I did was push the image to the right or left and that gave me a sizable black area to put text.
“That creates a sense of dialogue between two archival interviews. Someone is looking one way and saying something and the next person is looking the other way saying something perhaps different, yet in a sense it’s like they are in the same room.”
“Coup 53” moves across a precise timeline of the events surrounding the ouster of Mosaddegh for Shah Pahlavi that reveals the British MI6 orchestrated the coup d’état with the aid of the CIA. The prime motive was oil. What was formally the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company became British Petroleum. Then British Prime Minster Churchill and US President Eisenhower both signed off on the affair.
The coup came in two waves, with the Shah leaving Tehran for Rome after an initial attempt failed. Undercover operatives took to the streets to create chaos supporting a second wave of the coup.
The filmmakers offer many points of view from a wide array of participants but they also find historical legacy accounts like Richard Nixon (Vice President under Eisenhower) admitting US involvement in the coup, footage found in the Nixon Library and Museum archives.
One thing that becomes quite clear is the British had more experience in international espionage than the Americans.
End of Empire
The most provocative revelations were gleamed through a combination of archival interviews and text and film footage from sources as diverse as the grandson of Mosaddegh and the British Film Institute, which allowed Amirani to digitize their archives of footage from and Granada/ITV 13-episode series from the 1980s “ End of Empire.”
“We interviewed Mosaddegh’s grandson in Paris,” says Amirati. “He was an advisor on the show. He had papers in his basement that had been there for 34-years.”
Even though Iran was never a British colony it was included as an episode on “End of Empire” because that country was treated like a colony in anything but name. (“End of Empire” is available on YouTube.)
The footage from the BFI contained 520-minutes of interviews. Cross-referencing the paper transcripts of the show brought to light testimony from a British agent named Norman Derbyshire who appeared to be the person of charge of secret operations in Tehran. Yet none of his filmed comments made it to the final cut.
It’s here where “Coup 53” cleverly introduces actor Ralph Fiennes to speak the lines of Derbyshire that were excised. The shots were replicated in the fashionable Savoy Hotel in a room overlooking the Hungerford Bridge over the Thames.
Murch met Fiennes on “English Patient,” and had kept in touch over the years. “He wanted me to edit a couple of films he’d directed,” says Murch. “In fact he had phoned me in 2018 about his Nureyev film but I was working on this film.” Fiennes sports a beard in his scene that he’d grown for a stage production of “Anthony and Cleopatra.”
“Ralph became the channel through which Derbyshire’s words become flesh.
“It was Darbyshire who brought the gang out on the street’s of Tehran to create the chaos that turned the tide,” says Murch. “He did that on his own, not clearing it with MI6 or the CIA.”
The CIA’s point man Kermit Roosevelt had been telegrammed to abandon the mission dubbed Operation Ajax. “He was a bag man with lots of money but he didn’t speak Farsi and he didn’t speak Persian,” says Murch.
“Coup 53” unwinds bulging with hitherto unknown information while also making a cinematic impression with its combination of style and technique. At times the documentary moves with the atmosphere of a complex spy thriller.
“Coup 53” opens theatrically in select markets and begins streaming August 19. For information on VOD check out the movie’s website: https://coup53.com/