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To celebrate its centenary year in December 2019, the picturesque art deco Aldeburgh Cinema in the English county of Suffolk welcomed local-boy-done-good Ralph Fiennes to present one of his own films.
Fiennes — who was actually born 43 minutes drive away in Ipswich — might have been expected to choose from his Oscar or BAFTA-nominated performances in films such as The English Patient, Schindler’s List, The Constant Gardener or The Grand Budapest Hotel, or perhaps even one of his turns behind the camera, such as Coriolanus or The White Crow. But he brought Coup 53, Taghi Amirani’s debut feature documentary about the covert U.S./U.K. operations to overthrow Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.
The CIA has long been credited and blamed for the coup, which still shapes international politics almost 70 years on, having held back democratic reform across the Middle East and become a dirty tricks template for how the U.S. would seek to topple future governments it disagreed with. The U.S. formally acknowledged its role in 2013, calling it an “act of foreign policy” that was approved all the way up the political chain to President Eisenhower.
But despite being an open-secret for decades (and even being named in a CIA report from 1953), to this day the U.K. has never made any such admittance.
Chronicling a decade of investigative sleuthing by Amirani — including the unearthing of a jaw-dropping interview with an MI6 agent (dramatically reconstructed on camera by Fiennes) — Coup 53 blows whatever cover is left with with shocking effect. Not only was Britain a participant and colluded with the CIA, the film shows, but it masterminded and led the entire operation, which put the young, ruthless and U.S.-friendly Shah Pahlavi in charge of Iran and — crucially — the country’s vast oil reserves back in the hands of the West.
Fiennes participation in and support for Coup 53 is just a small part of a groundswell of goodwill the film has received since it first bowed in Telluride in 2019 (where The Hollywood Reporter heaped praise, calling it “passionate and fearless” and “obsessive and yet bracingly clear-minded”).
Documentary Oscar winners Michael Moore and Errol Morris have both thrown their weight behind it, moderating several Q&A sessions (Moore — who described it as “one of the best documentaries of the last few years” — has also been screening it in his own cinema in Traverse City, while Morris wrote about the film in the Telluride magazine). Fellow doc icon Werner Herzog also gave it his nod of approval after he saw the premiere (“This is going to be big!,” he gave Amirani as a promotional quote).
Following a referral by Glenn Close, Argo’s Oscar-winning writer Chris Terrio recently hosted an online Q&A (in which Amirani revealed how he initially pitched Coup 53 as a film about Argo’s animated intro, explaining how the 1953 coup would eventually lead to the 1979 Iranian revolution). And then there’s Walter Murch, the legendary Oscar-winning editor whose credits include the Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now and The English Patient. Murch was so enamored with the project he joined in its development as editor and co-author with Amirani.
But despite this industry A-list fan club, Coup 53 — which is now both Academy and BAFTA qualified — appears to be largely MIA from this year’s awards season conversations.
For Amirani, it’s not exactly surprising, echoing the 10 years of struggle he had putting it together.
“It’s an extension of the journey of the film, right from the very beginning and its inception in 2009,” he says, adding that the project was rejected by all funding bodies and institutions that documentary makers usually turn to, plus sales agents and distributors. It was, he says, greenlit by a “major Hollywood studio,” only for them to pull the plug, forcing him to spend years “shaking a can” for individual investors.
“There seems to be this weird, invisible barrier around Coup 53 and its progress at every stage, whether it was the funding, whether it was getting accepted into festivals, and then, despite the spectacular launch we did finally get at Telluride, no distributor stepping up.”
Even after its rapturous critical reception, producers had to release the film themselves via the streaming platform Eventive.org.
Amirani’s theory — which he admits is based on “no research” — is that the issue lies with Coup 53’s subject matter, which he claims goes against what the industry expects of an Iranian director making a film about Iran (his family fled the country and moved to the U.K. when he was teenager under the Shah’s rule).
“Some fantastic films have been made by Iranians about Iran, challenging — politically provocative films — and inevitably and necessarily, they’re criticizing Iran and the system and the challenges and the problems and the issues,” he says. “But I would argue you’d be hard pressed to find a single film made by an Iranian that criticizes the West.”
According to Errol Morris, the struggles that Coup 53 has faced are “immensely interesting,” and fit a wider story about the concept of truth-telling in the modern age.
“They tell you just how history is endlessly fought over and abridged and censored,” he tells THR. “The story of how this film has been brought to market mirrors a lot of the underlying historical themes of the film itself.”
For Coup 53, however, the fight over history isn’t merely over Iranian politics, with a controversy having erupted over one of the film’s central elements.
At the heart of the documentary — providing its edge-of-the-seat detective-meets-spy-thriller plotline — is the transcript of an explosive interview with a shadowy MI6 agent named Norman Darbyshire.
Recorded for an episode of the 1985 ITV docu-series End of Empire, charting the final last days of British colonial rule around the world (and the first doc to reveal MI6’s involvement in the coup), this find is the smoking gun, with Darbyshire explaining in detail how it was he — as head of MI6’s Persia station — who actually devised and oversaw the overthrow of Mussadegh and the installation the Shah (an operation he claims “cost £700,000 — I know because I spent it”).
But the contents of the transcript never made it into End of Empire nor was Darbyshire — who died in the 1993 — mentioned in the Iran episode. In Coup 53, his words are read out by Fiennes — who just happens to be James Bond’s current spymaster M — and, copying the same style as the other End of Empire interviews, filmed while sitting in a room overlooking the Thames in London’s Savoy Hotel.
It was actually Murch who got Fiennes on board, with the two having stayed in touch since they worked on The English Patient 25 years earlier. The actor, who was preparing to play Anthony in Anthony & Cleopatra at London’s National Theatre at the time, was immediately intrigued.
“I was ignorant of the history of the coup, so I felt the importance of the story,” he later said during an online Q&A with Moore. “I had been brought up on British triumph and successes and it’s been a discovery — even now — to know the shadow side. This was a revelation.”
But he had one concern.
“He said: ‘I have this beard, my Anthony beard, and I can’t shave this off,'” says Murch. “But that was furthest from our mind.” They didn’t want Fiennes to play Darbyshire, just to speak his words.
However, the connect-the-dots implication in Coup 53 is that Darbyshire was actually filmed for End of Empire, only for his segment to be forced out of the final cut (presumably at the insistence of British authorities). And it’s this inference — despite not being explicitly spelled out — that has caused something of a stink for the team behind the series, who maintain that Darbyshire never appeared on camera, only agreeing to a taped recording, told off the record.
“He was recorded on a little Sony cassette recorder, in his little mansion flat in Kensington,” says Mark Anderson, who directed the Iran episode of End of Empire. “And he made it quite clear from the [beginning]… you know I’m MI6, you know about the Official Secrets Act, there’s just no way I can go on camera, you have to understand that.”
Anderson asserts that they used the information provided by Darbyshire — which included his claim to having being involved in the assassination of Iran’s chief of police — as background to help jog the memories of the other interviewees.
“We never filmed it, therefore there was no question ever of colluding with censorship because it never arose,” he says.
This resulted in a series of back-and-forths between the End of Empire team and Amirani and his producers, including a 12-page list of cuts and amendments, which he rejected, hiring lawyers to inform the series-makers that any legal challenge to his film was baseless. Due to a rights issue with ITV, Coup 53 was removed from its online platform for three months, but put back up in December, this time with credits outlining End of Empire’s claims. These claims are detailed in length on a new website set up by the End of Empire team, who have also been tweeting about their grievances, part of what Amirani calls a “smear campaign” to discredit his film, and “yet another obstacle” it has faced in its rather turbulent 10-year history.
But there’s never been any dispute regarding the seismic importance of the history contained within Coup 53, regardless of whether one agent was filmed or not.
“There was a chance in the early 1950s that the Middle East would be stabilized by two large democracies, Turkey and Iran,” says Murch. “And that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because democracies are fragile and in the early days of Iran’s burgeoning democracy, Britain and the United States pulled the rug out from underneath it. And the aftershocks are continuing to this day.”
Murch claims that the main “tragedy” for the U.S. was that the coup was a success, becoming the catalyst for a litany of CIA-backed operations to destabilize governments that continues to this day. Just a year later, the U.S. under Eisenhower did the same in Guatemala.
Says Murch: “And it almost wasn’t a success. It was Darbyshire who got it going. But its success meant that this became the template for how the United States would exert its power in the world without having to put boots on the ground.”
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