Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Turning Point: The new documentary “Coup 53”

A historical turning point is a moment, perhaps small, perhaps larger, that becomes uniquely causative of events that follow. Obvious examples might include the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand that set off World War One, the U.S. Supreme Court handing the election to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore, or 9-11.  

The enthralling new documentary directed by Iranian film maker Taghi Amirani and edited and co-written by the renowned film editor Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now”; “English Patient”) is a meticulous backward look at an event that still determines much of the resentment Iran feels toward the government of the United States—and Britain: the 1953 coup which overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran.

At least the U.S. has admitted its complicity; the British intelligence service, MI6, never has, and thereby arises the thriller aspect of this astonishing film. Combing through reams of old documents, film archives, audio- and videotapes, Amirani and Murch come upon a shocking find that explodes a long and careful cover-up.

Meanwhile, multiple interviews with Iranians and Brits who were present at the time of the coup, some of whom are so old that they have died since the film was finished, illuminate the context and the actual tragic events as they unfolded.

We begin to know Mossadegh himself, a dignified, intellectual, and incorruptible official whose laudable goal was to transform Iran into a modern secular state. For him, that required that Iran nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had for decades been screwing Iran out of its fair share of oil profits.

Suddenly Mossadegh beat out Eisenhower or Churchill for the choice of Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, not as a hero of reformist government but as a sower of chaos. The U.S. and British powers that be, via their intelligence services, provided the cash—amazingly, it did not take all that much—to buy off Iranian journalists and hire mercenary provocateurs who took to the streets and inspired mobs to rise up against Mossadegh.

We know the rest of the story—or we certainly ought to. The Shah of Iran was installed, with the US. training his notorious secret police, SAVAK, in rituals of torture and surveillance. Eventually there was the inevitable reaction, and the Shah had to go into exile, leaving the ayatollahs to take over, which led to the 1979 taking of 52 American hostages as well as deep Iranian-American mutual resentment and suspicion that has lasted to this day. And the hostage-taking was surely a crucial factor in Reagan’s defeat of Carter.

The American secret establishment drew precisely the wrong lesson from the “success” of the overthrow of Mossadegh, and from thence came a rolling series of perversities such as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, leader of the Congolese independence movement, the overthrow of Arbenz, another democratically elected leader in Guatemala, the attempt to overthrow Ho Chih Minh in Vietnam,
and the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Of course it is impossible to say exactly what might have happened if Mossadegh had been allowed to stay in power, but one possibility, crushingly unrealized today, is that there would be one more modern, thriving democracy in the middle of the Middle East.

One thing is certain: given the low state of American-Iranian relations at the moment, this film, riveting on its own merits, now carries the weight of a profoundly greater relevance than the filmmakers could have possibly expected when they began the project over a decade ago.

The film - which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2019 - has received audience awards from the Vancouver International Film Festival and has been nominated for the Grierson and BIFA awards.  It will be theatrically distributed later in 2020. Here is a link to a preview.

Perhaps “Coup 53” itself will become a turning point—toward a warmer relationship between the “West” and Iran.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

How Long O Lord?

Some years ago my daughter and I had the privilege of visiting the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. Not far from the millions of wildebeests and zebras migrating across the Serengeti Plain, the Olduvai Gorge museum was occupied that day by a single gentle African supervisor. There were no other tourists. We had this place of origins to ourselves.

The museum celebrated Louis Leakey and colleagues' discoveries of the fossil remains of our most distant bipedal ancestors. The most striking exhibition was a replica of 3.7 million-year-old footprints in fossilized mud, clearly those of a male, a female, and two children. These fragile indentations were poignantly immortalized by volcanic ash that rained down from a sudden eruption, preserved until Leakey’s team unearthed them.

As we exited the museum into the windswept parking area, I experienced my own inner eruption from some foundational depth. Tears began to pour. I had no clear idea why. The gentle curator came out and put his arm around my shoulder. From his kind gesture I sensed that others besides me had had a similar response to the museum’s displays, as I tried to put into words whatever had me in its grip. “All the wars. . !” I sobbed, and he nodded.

That was part of it—the sad waste of human-on-human violence through the passage of millions of years—but not all of it. We had experienced a visceral connection with that far-off little family not only as tragedy but as hope. Their footprints had erased the immense chasm of time between us and them. They and others like them had managed to reproduce and carry the human experiment forward, in a delicate unbroken chain stretching across millennia to the present. Their meeting of their survival challenges had made our own lives possible.

The experience in Olduvai Gorge rushed back as I read of President Trump’s assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. My moment in the Gorge twenty years ago, the experience of a connection across time deep enough to cause tears, of feeling overwhelmed by all that our species has gone through, begged the question: when will we ever learn?

Secretary Pompeo’s and President Trump’s rationalizations for the killing of Soleimani were typically Orwellian: “We did this not to start a war but to stop one.” It’s the same kind of absurd calculation that motivated bin Salman when he had Jamal Khashoggi strangled and dismembered—and went on to sentence to death half the team that did the deed under his own orders.

We feel weariness and exasperation at the banality of our tit-for-tat violence against each other. After endless tribal clashes, crusades, Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s or Saddam’s or Assad’s exterminations, the Turkish or Nazi or Rwandan genocides, have we learned nothing about the ultimate futility of an eye for an eye, which, as Gandhi said, only makes the whole world blind?

A plague on both their houses, the American and the Iranian “leaders”—a plague on all their houses—the murderous, up-to-no-good Soleimani, the Russians who support the Iranian militias and Assad as he decimates his own people, the grotesque excesses of ISIS, Putin’s own thuggish assassinations of dissidents, the Chinese forced ”re-education” of the Uighurs, the cowardly Saudis trembling at the independence of the mild-mannered Khashoggi.

So much militarism and murder and cruelty and torture around the world so that dictators can keep ordinary human beings in line by intimidation and violence and gross violations of privacy—by “facial recognition” technology without real recognition— of mutuality.

So many refugees, so many children mentally or physically damaged. Where is the Greta Thunberg who will hurl indignation at the shameful failure of grown-ups to keep children safe from war’s ravages?

To say we are children is an insult to heroic children like Greta. We are not children, we are infantile—I mean we the human species. Not to have learned from 1914 assassination of the archduke which began WW1, or the treachery of Pearl Harbor and the first use of the atom bomb in war, or the partition of India and Pakistan that still reverberates in Kashmir, or the British-American overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953, or the Cuban Missile crisis, or the failures of Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not to have learned how futile it is to hate our enemies more than we love our children.
Not even to have begun to see we are not Shia and Sunni, Arab and Jew, Iranian and American, Hindu and Muslim, dark or light-skinned, but one species, all facing the climate emergency together, all wanting security, nourishing food, clean water, a better life for our kids, all equally in search of meaning, dignity, fulfillment. Which means that the two words “diplomatic solution” go together far better than “military solution.”

Meanwhile the juggernaut of the arms race rushes headlong toward apocalypse, enriching the few as the threat to all increases. The Russians boast of a new hypersonic missile that can glide to an exact target anywhere on earth in half an hour or less, and we Americans mindlessly vow to equal or surpass this latest destabilizing innovation. We are hell-bent toward the next global war, but even the most war-loving generals won’t like it when it actually happens. And it will, it will, unless we start to picture ourselves in each other’s shoes and work out our differences. As Auden wrote, “we must love one another or die.”

Isn’t the 3.7 million years between the footprints of our forebears at Olduvai and 2020 time enough for us to have learned that violence and war are perfect vehicles for the perpetuation of conflict, but completely obsolete when it comes to the genuine resolution of conflict? How much more time do we need? How much more time do we have?