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.