He barely knew his father. His few memories of the man who abandoned him as a child with neither explanation nor apology made it easy for Cambiz Amir-Khosravi to shrug his shoulders at the news of his father’s mysterious death in 1956.
But Amir-Khosravi is 71 years old now. He looks back on his childhood and wonders at his fractured history and how it relates not only to the stranger who was his father, but also to the role that his father played in the murderous regime which he served in pre-revolutionary Iran.
Amir-Khosravi is haunted by a single sharp memory of a day just outside the front door of the comfortable home in which he lived for a time in Teheran in 1953. He was nine years old on August 19 of that year, when he was drawn outside to the street by an angry, chanting crowd. He remembers the man the mob attacked and killed. He remembers seeing the man’s body thrown on the back of a truck as if it were garbage. He didn’t know it then – could not have understood it if he did – that he was witness to a day in world history that no Iranian has ever forgotten and few Americans know: the day the duly elected president of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, was deposed by a military coup that was backed by the CIA.
For anyone who doesn’t remember the hostage crisis of 1979 – which among other things gave us the presidency of Ronald Reagan, decades of diplomatic paralysis and a constant drumbeat of hatred toward the West in general and the US in particular – that day has to be numbered among the most infamous events of the 20th and even the 21st century. Yet few Americans knew about it at the time, and even fewer remember it today: a situation that Amir-Khosravi means to remedy, however modestly, with his memoir/documentary. He has spent the past four years pursuing an understanding of that event and the geopolitical events that have resulted and transpired since then. That memory is the linchpin in Inheritance, the movie that Amir-Khosravi has made that explores the intertwined roots of Iran’s tumultuous history and his own.
Amir-Khosravi is a widely recognized, award-winning documentary film and video producer whose work ranges back to the early 1980s. He’s also a well-known figure in the Woodstock area. Before Inheritance, he did his adopted hometown a solid with the documentary Woodstock: In Search of Utopia – what he calls an unknown tale of Woodstock, told by and about the artists who helped create it. Inheritance is a film about a search of a different kind, one that’s simultaneously vast and personal.
Amir-Khosravi, like so many documentarians whose art lies in the depiction of others, said that he was loath to become the subject of his film. At the same time, he knew that an exploration of Iranian history couldn’t be told without a person at its center. So he made an artistic compromise.
“Even though it [the film] is about me, it is not,” he said during a recent interview at his home in Shady. “I created a persona. I picked out things from my personal history that were reflective of a colonial-dominated Third World country: all the dysfunction, the racism, that contributed to what Iran was and what it has become.”
Following his footsteps through a childhood that was at once privileged and utterly mysterious to him, Amir-Khosravi recalls the few memories he has of his father. What little he knew of the man, he didn’t like. But in his search to learn more, he found a number of academic and even best-selling books, many of which, in pursuing their stories about Iran, relied heavily on US State Department files. Shock still echoes in his voice as he marvels at the fact that these strangers – and his own government – knew more about his father than he ever did.
Amir-Khosravi’s father, Reza Gohli Amirkhosrovi, was a powerful, shadowy figure in the autocratic, West-friendly regime of Reza Shah, the man whose son, the infamous Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, was forced to flee the country in the weeks before religious militants seized the US embassy in Teheran in 1979. He was the government’s minister of finance. His signature graced the country’s currency.
Then as now, oil was the determining factor in the United States’ relationship to Iran. It was bad enough for American interests when Mossadegh was democratically elected and brought elements of democracy to the ancient country. But his decision in 1953 to nationalize the country’s oil industry – representing roughly a fifth of the world’s oil production – was too much for the US and Great Britain; their secret backing of the military coup that removed Mossadegh from power is a memory as strong among Iranians as the memory of 9/11 is among Americans.
What Amir-Khosravi’s father had to do with all this political turbulence is a question that the film explores through the use of vintage newsreel footage and interviews with such expert as Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men, and with the personal testimony of friends of Amir-Khosravi, who recount some of his early adventures, both political and personal, as a painter who found his life’s calling as a filmmaker.
Inheritance asks more questions than it answers, which is the way that Amir-Khosravi likes it. No one with the slightest knowledge of the history of the Middle East in general or Iran in particular can fail to recognize how the contortions of political power have shifted with the ages like no other place on Earth, and for as long as history has been recorded. Amir-Khosravi knows this in his bones, and Inheritance is his attempt to show how he, his father and his country of origin have contributed to the river of history.
Inheritance local premiere, Saturday, June 25, 6:15 p.m., Time & Space Limited, 434 Columbia Street, Hudson; firstname.lastname@example.org.