Thursday, January 16, 2014

NYJFF ’14: Before the Revolution

Jimmy Carter made the call to pressure out the Shah and give the Ayatollah a chance running things in Iran.  Needless to say, it did not work out well for his administration.  Given his vehement prejudices, it was probably grim consolation knowing developments in Iran were also bad for Israel. This seems rather obvious, but the pre-revolutionary extent of Israeli-Iranian cooperation and the size of the Israeli expat community will surprise many who watch director Dan Shadur & producer Barak Heymann’s Before the Revolution (trailer here) during the 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival.

As Israel’s old Iran hands note for Shadur, the Persians never considered themselves Arabs.  For the Shah, an enemy of my enemy alliance with Israel was hardly unthinkable, but maybe not something he would broadcast from the rooftops.  Still, before the revolution heated up in earnest, Israeli contractors and assorted attaches socialized freely throughout Tehran.  The Embassy even sponsored standing room only outdoor screenings of Operation Thunderbolt, the Oscar nominated dramatization of the Raid at Entebbe.

This all changed rather quickly.  While Shadur only spent his infant months as an Israeli expat, friends of his late parents recount in great detail how fast the welcome back was pulled out from under their feet.  Not surprisingly, many of the talking heads in BTR demonstrate Israel’s liberal inclinations, blaming themselves for not showing more curiosity and concern for average Iranians’ living conditions.  Still, at least one senior consular veteran claims the Shah could have easily put down the uprising, but was blinded by his paternalistic (or condescending) love for his people.

Shadur certainly convinces viewers when the living was good, it was quite a party in Tehran for the expats.  The film indicts the Shah at every opportunity, obviously fearing it might be accused of trying to rehabilitate the friendly authoritarian, yet ironically, it is hard to avoid the conclusion the world would be a better place for everyone—especially including Iranians—had he been emboldened to cling to power.

Regardless of its geopolitical analysis, BTR vividly captures the spirit of a lost time and place and the Argo-like intrigue of their final days in-country.  It also adds further dimensions to how viewers might think about Iran’s place in the Bedlam of the region.  Recommended with mild quibbles, Before the Revolution screens with Pur, an excellent short documentary about the Soviet Refusenik experience, this coming Monday (1/20) and Tuesday (1/21) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.