One day in Tehran, reported travel writer Rick Steves, his cab was stuck in traffic. To his astonishment, the taxi driver exclaimed, “Death to traffic!” then added, “Because we can do nothing about this traffic, we can all say ‘Death to traffic.’” Woodstock filmmaker Cambiz Amir-Khosravi observed that this anecdote puts an unexpected gloss on the Iranian chants “Death to Israel!” and “Death to America!”
It was largely to address such misunderstandings between the U.S. and Iran that he decided to make the film Inheritance, built around his recent discoveries about his Iranian father. This August, when the movie was shown at a film festival in Tehran, visa problems kept Amir-Khosravi from returning to the country he left at the age of ten in 1954.
The filmmaker has long resisted making a documentary about his own unusual life, but he changed his mind after reading several new books about Iran that revealed his father’s role in the government following the CIA-sponsored coup of August 1953. Amir-Khosravi remembers the coup. “I was nine years old, coming out of my aunt’s house in the center of Tehran, and I heard a commotion outside. I saw people wielding stakes and rioting. It was the beginning of the coup, thanks to the Dulles brothers. It’s all in the film. Most people have no idea. Americans were not told about the coup overthrowing Dr. Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister. His sin was that he nationalized the country’s oil. If we’d been a country of broccoli growers, we would’ve been left in peace.”
The U.S. and Great Britain conspired to overthrow Mohammed Mosaddegh, ostensibly to keep Iran out of the Communist camp, but Inheritance points out that oil was probably a stronger motivation. The Iranian oil industry had been under British control since 1913, and the Brits did not want to give up their assets, while the U.S. preferred to keep them in the hands of Western allies.
Following the coup, the pro-American government under Mohammed Reza Shah included a position for Amir-Khosravi’s father, according to the recently published accounts. “I found out things I had no idea about — and they were not good things,” he said. He also learned why his parents were in New York in 1944, when he was born — but you’ll have to see the film for the details.
In 1947, the family returned to Tehran. Amir-Khosravi remembers the aftermath of the coup, when Richard Nixon arrived to visit General Fazlollah Zahedi, who had replaced the imprisoned Mosaddegh. The schoolchildren were given little American flags to wave as Nixon drove past, on his way to the university to receive an honorary doctorate. Meanwhile, Amir-Khosravi’s father had divorced his mother, married an American nurse, and stepped out of his son’s life.
At age ten, the boy was shipped off to attend school in Germany. He didn’t hear from his mother for three years. When she finally telephoned, they were unable to communicate at first because by that time, he spoke only German. He visited her in Geneva, where, as he recalls, “One day she said, ‘We need to get you some nice clothes and shoes. We’re going to visit a family friend.’ It was General Zahedi.”
Many mysterious events of his childhood were explained as Amir-Khosravi reconstructed his father’s role in Iranian history. At the same time, he became aware of information gaps on both sides of Iran-U.S. relations. “A friend of mine recently went to Iran to visit a friend,” he said. “He asked the people making the travel arrangements if he should say he was going to see a specific person, and they said, ‘No, don’t do that.’ But when he got to Iran, his friend said, ‘No, that’s ridiculous. I’m not being watched or put in danger because of you.’”
The Iranians are equally in the dark about the civil rights of Americans. When the Ammar Popular Film Festival accepted his movie and invited him to attend the showing in Tehran, they conducted a Skype interview to find out more about the filmmaker. One of the questions was “Were you at all in danger while making this film?” Another was “How come you didn’t interview the CIA?”
“When they say, ‘Death to America,’” said Amir-Khosravi, “we think they’re going to come over here and kill us all. But they are very paranoid because of what we did in 1953, putting the Shah back in power — and he was a despot until 1979,” when the fundamentalist revolution deposed the Shah. “The film is also about the regime under the Shah and what they did to Iran — and my father was part of it.”
The Ammar Festival’s theme this year is coups d’etat around the world, in observance of the 63rd anniversary of the CIA coup. Festival organizers were going to pay his plane fare to Tehran, but Amir-Khosravi, who has dual citizenship, lost his Iranian passport many years ago. “When I traveled in Europe, it just created hassles for me, and I stopped using it,” he said. The government of Iran refused to issue a visa to an Iranian holding a foreign passport, unless he could come up with an Iranian birth certificate, which he doesn’t have. A week before the festival, he found out it would take two months to obtain the necessary papers.
“I’m sad about not being able to go to Tehran,” he said. “I went back to see my mother in 1960 when I was 16, on school holidays. The last time I was there was 56 years ago. I’d like to go back to the locations of my childhood and see the changes.”
He doesn’t expect to have visa problems getting to his next festival, in New Zealand. The Woodstock Film Festival does not accept movies that have already been shown locally, and he had a screening in Hudson in July. Therefore, he is holding off on showings until he hears back from a dozen other festivals. The next local screening of Inheritance will hopefully be in 2017.