This documentary has everything. An oil-rich kingdom. International espionage. A downtrodden, Middle Eastern populace. Riches stolen by a historical master. A treasonous monarch and a hero sacrificing himself on the altar of honor. It ‘s compelling.
In 1951, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh became Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. It was a landslide victory and came on the heels of a period of political unrest. Mossadegh’s reputation for being incorruptible imbued the Iranian people with hope that this was their Gandhi. But as his people celebrated, the Shah got nervous.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was all too aware he had allowed his country’s oil reserves to be exploited by the British. These corporate foreigners ran the sprawling oil refinery that dominated the skyline. They operated as an Anglo-Iranian company but they were the only ones with the well-paid jobs and luxury houses. The nationals were given menial jobs and lived a life of servitude in suburban slums. This inequity was of no consequence to the Shah, whose only concern was that his life of luxury should continue. The arrival of Mossadegh was threatening the status quo.
Taghi Amarani grew up under the dictatorial rule of this same Shah. His teachers were political activists and often mysteriously disappeared. His entire childhood was shrouded in a world of oppression. Even at a young age, he sensed this wasn’t how life was supposed to be.
He left his homeland to attend a British university in 1975 and subsequently carved a career for himself as a filmmaker. It was at this point that his curiosity about his country’s history piqued. He began to delve and became even more curious when he was met with a wall of silence.
He shares this wall with the audience. The winding garden paths and dead ends are a documentary in itself. Any other investigator would have abandoned their search.
One of the many villains in this story is a Norman Derbyshire. He was an agent for MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA. Taghi searched every military archive he could find, but all footage of Derbyshire was conspicuously absent. Many other incriminating interviews were discovered, but not his. He kept digging and eventually learned that Derbyshire had declined to ever be interviewed on camera.
But Taghi unearthed a jigsaw of transcripts that were, undoubtedly, the words of the British spymaster. With the cameras rolling, Ralph Fiennes delivers the dialogue that Derbyshire spoke all those years ago. And Fiennes has never been more slippery. In a chilling performance, he depicts Derbyshire as the most ruthless agent ever employed by British Intelligence. Or so one would hope.
This isn’t the most comfortable story to absorb. If you’re American or British, you’ll be appalled. But history isn’t there for us to like; it’s there for us to learn. Unfortunately, it seems little has been learned from the tragic tale that sculpted the death of Iranian democracy.