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Paul Zaentz Opens Coup 53 to Widespread AcclaimPaul Zaentz’s (Beta Pi ’69) documentary, COUP 53, was finally released to the public on August 19, 2020. Unable to release his film in movie theaters shut down due to the coronavirus, brother Zaentz, Producer, devised a unique and trail-blazing method for the premiere public showing.

Acting without a distributor (the traditional method), or a streaming service, to establish widespread screenings of his film, he created “virtual cinemas”. Over 100 virtual venues, including the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, and Canada, agreed to list the film on their websites, and then sell tickets to view the film. All ticket purchasers could watch the film within the comfort and safety of their homes.

The film will be available from August 19, 2020, through the middle of September 2020. In addition to viewing the film, ticket buyers were able to view a live question and answer panel discussion on August 20, 2020. Members of the panel included award winning actor Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient), who appears in the documentary. Filling out the panel were Oscar winning editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), and Taghi Amirani, director of COUP 53.

Edwin Arnaudin, on behalf of Ashville Movies, noted, “The temporary shuttering of movie theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent partnerships between independent cinemas and distributors to keep the stream of films flowing in viewers’ homes has resulted in the digital release of numerous great documentaries – none finer than COUP 53.”


                                                                          A Synopsis of COUP 53

Following the discovery of oil in early 20th century Iran, a British oil company, now known as BP, reached an agreement with the Iranian government to extract the oil. The financially poor and technology starved Iran was to be given 16% of the oil revenues, as determined by BP, and not permissible by Iran to audit the books.

When Mohammad Mosaddegh became Iran’s Prime Minister, following a democratic election, the Iranian government intended to nationalize the oil industry in Iran. Fearing a loss of control over the oil fields, the British government, with some help from the United States government, plotted an overthrow of the Iranian government with the intention of bringing back the Shah, then in exile, as the supreme ruler in Iran.

By paying less desirable elements of the Iranian population to organize protests, instigate riots, and perhaps assassinate those who may have been an obstacle to the coup, the British secretive agency MI6, and to a lesser extent, the United States secretive agency CIA, eventually were able to install the Shah as the leader of Iran. Although it was Britain that spearheaded the coup, the United States became the country with the greatest influence on the Shah.

A significant part of the documentary follows director Taghi Amirani as he goes about researching, seeking documents, and interviewing anyone who may have had information that led to the coup. Perhaps the most important retrieved document was a transcript of an interview that was believed to have been destroyed. An MI6 operative, Norman Darbyshire, was interviewed for a TV show in Britain. During this interview, he explained how Britain engineered the coup at a cost of a mere $50,000. Before this interview could be aired, the British government removed the interview from the TV program and sought to eliminate all records of the interview. Fortunately, during the years he spent gathering materials for the making of COUP 53, co-producer and director Taghi Amirani obtained a photocopy of the interview transcript. Painstakingly following the transcript, the interview was reenacted with world-famous actor Ralph Fiennes playing the part of the now deceased Norman Darbyshire.

With the cooperation of the Shah, American and British interests were able to continue overseeing the oil industry in Iran under favorable financial terms. It is believed that United States influence was so strong in Iran, America became the chief target for the hate and protests of the Iranian people. Hate led to protests, and protests led to the Iranian revolution that successfully removed the Shah approximately 25 years after the Shah’s return.


                                                   COUP 53 Public Debut Receives Rave Reviews 

The November 2019 Beta Pi eletter concerned a private screening of COUP 53 in New York City. At that time, brother Zaentz’s documentary had appeared at a handful of film festivals to great critical acclaim.

Since that time, COUP 53 has been selected by 14 more film festivals and continues to receive international rave reviews. The additional film festivals are: Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, Italy’s Taormina Film Festival, Australia’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards, California’s Palm Springs International Film Festival, Sweden’s Gothenburg Film Festival, Switzerland’s Geneva International Film Festival, Denmark’s CPH:DOX Copenhangen, California’s San Luis Obispo Film Festival, North Carolina’s RiverRun International Film Festival, Washington DC International Film Festival, Oregon’s Ashland International Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, Brazil’s It’s All True Documentary Int’l Festival, and DokuFest Kosovo.

                A sampling of reviews: 

                “a work of art and a masterpiece of political intervention” “a thriller that had me on the edge of my seat” “beyond extraordinary”, Ariel Dorfman, Author and Human Rights Activist

                “Explosive” “An incendiary documentary” “A compelling two-hour cinematic experience” “The coup is yet another black mark in our recent history”, Larushka Ivan-Zadeh, The Times (UK), Metro Newspaper UK

                “a superb work of journalism and research”, Vancouver Observer      

                “Amazing. Beautifully done. Clever use of archive. Unique.”, Oliver Stone, Film Director

                “an astonishing feat of film-making”, London Metro

                “masterful storytelling makes this a taut and thrilling watch” “captivating tour-de-force”, Elhum Shakerifar-BFI London Film Festival

                “Nail-bitingly suspenseful” “Plays like a thriller on the big screen”, Carol Nahra, International Documentary Association

                “Wonderfully compelling documentary” “Amirani’s passion is palpable from the start” “Twists and reveals that would make John Le Carre smile”, Raphael Abraham, Financial Times

                “remarkable” “passionate and fearless” “will enthrall documentary and history geeks” “jaw dropping revelations” “has the air of something that grew from an impudent home movie into a magnum opus”, Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

                “This is big. This is going to be big”, Werner Herzog, German Film Director

                “remarkable job” “bracing, absorbing filmmaking”, Ben Kenigsberg, New York Times

                “illuminating political history” “brilliantly self-referential exercise in documentary filmmaking”, Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

                “100%”, Rotten Tomatoes


                                             Why Did Paul Zaentz Decide to Back This Film?

The filmmaking process of COUP 53 was stalled after six years by a lack of funds and business side leadership. It was then that brother Zaentz stepped up, became Producer, and guided COUP 53 to its spectacular conclusion four years later.

Brother Zaentz offers the following explanation as to why he would take this film, that had been delayed for so long, and bring it to the public:

“Many of you have been asking me what drew me to become involved with COUP 53 almost five years ago…Walter Murch explains that the coup in Iran in 1953 was only the first overthrow of a government by the CIA. In 1973, the CIA helped General Pinochet’s coup in Chile that overthrew Allende. Orlando Letelier, one of Allende’s ministers, was living in exile in Washington DC and was a critic of Pinochet’s government. In September of 1976, agents of Pinochet planted a bomb in Letelier’s car that murdered him and his colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffit, who was my classmate, neighbor, and friend in Passaic, New Jersey. The first film I ever tried to make was about this murder; however, the script was never right. That is why I chose to help make this movie.”   

Thank you, Paul, for making this film. Best of luck at the Academy Awards in 2021. Bring that Oscar home.