During this, the 30th anniversary of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the establishment of an Islamic republic, both HBO and National Geographic are airing films this week that offer American audiences rare insights into Iran.
What timing! Obviously, no one at either channel anticipated the events of the past 10 days, so the films being featured don’t mention the developments of the hinky Iranian elections and the huge opposition rallies in their aftermath. But if you want the big picture on one of the most dangerous countries in the world, these programs offer a counterpoint to more in-the-moment reporting on cable news.
And this just in: Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” is also devoting this week to a special series of reports from the country that has provoked very few smiles from Western observers.
“Iran and the West” (9 p.m. Monday, National Geographic) originally aired in England and is redubbed here with American voices. This two-hour program melds terrific video and brisk storytelling to give a complete, if not thorough, history of the past 31 years since the legs of the Shah’s throne started to wobble.
The Brits interviewed most of the major players of that period: President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski walk us through the decision to admit the Shah to the U.S. and the fallout, including the hostage crisis and the botched rescue operation. But we also hear from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s closest advisor as well as the German journalist who interviewed Khomeini as he made the triumphant flight from Paris to Tehran in 1979. We hear from the people who OK’d the decision to send arms to Saddam Hussein to declare war on Iran — a decision with long-lasting repercussions — and the diplomats who negotiated the deal to free the hostages.
Then it’s on to the Reagan years and another confrontation with the Ayatollah. Iran was pivotal in setting up the resistance to Israel in Lebanon (the movement that would later be known as Hezbollah). The Iranian Revolutionary Guard trained those fighters and, very likely, had a hand in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983.
On and on through three grim decades: the bloody Iran-Iraq war, the rise of militant Islam, the kidnappings, the assassinations, the repeated and failed attempts to mend fences through diplomacy, the nuclear program, the clashes with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and of course the current war ... “Iran and the West” rarely slows down while covering a landscape strewn with the bodies of revolution’s victims.
The producers mostly achieve their goal of balance between Iranian and Western viewpoints. Some will dispute the non-American interpretation of events in “Iran and the West,” such as the view that George H.W. Bush’s administration did not extend a hand in a rare instance when Iran (to use President Obama’s phrase) had its fist unclenched. But with so many principal players interviewed on the record, and so much history encapsulated in so little time, it’s hard not to recommend this program wholeheartedly.
If you have more time, and HBO, two other documentaries will give smaller but telling portraits of Iran. HBO, which is airing the Iranian films on its HBO2 channel, is throwing its promotional weight behind “The Queen and I,” in which an exiled documentarian who grew disillusioned with the Ayatollah’s heavy-handed regime becomes friends with the Shah’s widow. The film, which debuted last week, reairs late Monday night on HBO2 (2:30 a.m.) and again next week (3 p.m. June 29).
To me, however, the more fascinating film is “Be Like Others,” which shines a light on the country’s bizarre but theocratically correct treatment of gay people. As I wrote last year, when I saw the film at Sundance, “In Iran homosexuality is punishable by death — but men surgically becoming women, and vice versa, is sanctioned under Islam. This unsettling film follows several young people who undergo the procedure.” That airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on HBO2.
To those who still buy Jon Stewart’s line that “The Daily Show” is just a silly little comedy program, I can assure you they are not laughing at the New York Times over the segment that aired earlier this month about that newspaper. Somehow, Bill Keller and other leading executives at the Times agreed to speak to correspondent Jason Jones, and didn’t cut him off when he started asking such diabolical questions as why he couldn’t find any of today’s news is today’s newspaper. The results were hilarious — but observant viewers noticed Jones slipping in that line about the Times “reporting the news! Making stuff up! Getting us into war!”
So I am expecting that Jones will have an equally potent mix of uncomfortable humor and insights when he unveils four nights of segments taped inside Iran. According to Comedy Central, he visited Tehran, Qom and the Imam Mosque in Esfahan; sat through a speech by President Ahmadinejad and interviewed a variety of locals, including “a Zoroastrian priest, an Iranian family, an underground rapper and a feminist blogger.” Not to mention an Islamic cleric who, I’m guessing, might be a little tone-deaf to Western irony. Then again, so was Bill Keller.