The unexpected moment in Israeli director Dan Shadur’s new documentary, Before the Revolution, about the Israelis who lived and worked in Iran at the end of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s rule, comes just as the revolution succeeds. In archival 8mm footage, found and remastered by Shadur and producer Barak Heymann, triumphant demonstrators celebrate the Shah’s departure in January of 1978, the culmination of months of mass protests against his regime.
What’s surprising is not the images themselves, but the music that Shadur has provided for them: Rather than the threatening minor-key soundtrack that usually underscores Israeli depictions of the Islamic Revolution, a rumbling doom that signifies the birth of an existential threat, the music that plays as the smiling crowds celebrate is upbeat and free. As people shout “Khomeini, Khomeini, we wait for you!” in expectation of the ayatollah’s impending return from exile, the music is joyous, inviting the Israeli viewer to celebrate along with them.
“That was the catharsis of the film for us,” Shadur told me when I spoke to him after film premiered at Tel Aviv’s Docaviv festival last month. “The point when you identify with the demonstrators: What is melancholic and sad for us Israelis is—very short and tragically—a happy moment for them.”
Thirty-five years after the Islamic Revolution, today Israel and Iran seem natural enemies. But during the shah’s rule, Iran had deep, if never official, military, diplomatic, and economic ties with Israel. For the thousands of Israelis who lived and worked there in the 1960s and ’70s, Iran meant opportunity: Oil to be bought, weapons to be sold, and, through lucrative development projects, money to be made. Though some had contacts with the upper echelons of Iranian society, most Israelis were cut off from the growing opposition to the Shah among everyday Iranians, and, when the revolution came, they were caught by surprise: The shah’s government, Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East, suddenly vanished, almost without a trace.
Using archival film, much of which was recorded by Israelis themselves, and interviews with Israeli former diplomats and expatriates, Before the Revolution seems at first to rehearse the standard Israeli story about Iran—“We built them a country,” as one interviewee, Ofer Nimrodi, puts it—everything was great until the Islamic Revolution came. However, in scenes like the one described, Shadur subtly undermines that narrative, and the viewer is left with more questions than answers. What really happened in Iran, outside the camera’s frame and the unreliable reminiscences of the Israeli protagonists? Was the Israeli alliance with the shah good? Was it justified? And what does Shadur, who has succeeded in making a political documentary both captivating and subtle, really think of it all?
Dan Shadur, 35, spent the first year of his life in Tehran. His parents were among the Israelis living and working in the city, and the film includes their snapshots, home movies, and excerpts from their letters. In the family mythology, Tehran is remembered as the setting for a golden age and not only because Shadur’s parents were young and in love. Soon after the family’s return to Israel, his father suddenly collapsed and died during a basketball game; his mother passed away from cancer some 15 years later. But Shadur goes far beyond a recounting of his own family tragedy. His search for his parent’s lives becomes an exploration of the cultural and political moment of which they were a part. “I kept their memory very personal,” he says. “In that way the film benefits and my family benefits. The film benefits because the family story doesn’t overpower it.”
The political story the film tells is of an Israeli community insulated from Iranian society and shocked when the shah’s regime begins to crumble, refusing to believe, until it was almost too late, that their time in Iran was over. The interviewees paint a picture of an easy life in the posh neighborhoods of North Tehran—of wealth, material comforts, and imported Western products that were unavailable in Israel.
This lifestyle was underwritten by Israel’s intimate diplomatic, trade, and security relationship with the shah’s regime. Iran was then Israel’s largest supplier of oil, and, in turn, Israel sold weapons, developed agriculture and built infrastructure, advised SAVAK, the dreaded secret police, and even helped launch Iran’s nuclear program—the same program that, in the hands of the Islamic Republic, so bedevils Israeli politicians today.
While interviewees describe being invited to sumptuous dinners with the royal family and hobnobbing with generals, none mention having middle-class friends, or even the existence of Iran’s then-growing middle class. As several interviewees admit, most did not understand the divisions and tensions in Iranian society, or recognize that masses of people were left behind in the shah’s top-down industrialization. While many were aware of the repression and fear inspired by the omnipresent secret police, none took it to be a matter that merited their concern.
“We lived on a different planet,” said Nili Yanir, a friend of Shadur’s parents and one of the film’s interviewees. “We didn’t really know, we weren’t involved in their internal politics. We were not really interested. We were very young.”
Some Israelis living in Tehran did break out of the bubble, studying Persian language and culture, and making connections with everyday Iranians. Before the Revolution also leaves out Iran’s sizable, and then influential, Jewish community, as well as the Iranian intellectuals who, from the early 1950s until sentiments turned after the Six Day War, admired Israeli socialism and even visited the young country. The most prominent of these was Jalal Al-e Ahmad, one of 20th-century Iran’s leading writers, who came to Israel in 1963. In the travelogue he wrote on his return, Al-e Ahmad expresses his admiration for the kibbutz and Israeli education and argues that the Jewish state should be the model for Iran’s own political development.
However, if these aspects of the Israeli-Iranian relationship are left out, it is because Shadur does not aim at comprehensiveness. Before the Revolution uses a particular history to explore the Israeli character: that mix of naiveté, hubris, good intentions, and isolationism exemplified by the decades-long support for the shah’s repressive regime and the refusal to accept the regime’s impending fall. “I did think about putting Iranians in the film,” Shadur recalled. “In the end, I felt that I shouldn’t. The film is about Israelis, their state of mind, their psychologies, and their fears.”
One scene, among others, illustrates Shadur’s point. On Sept. 8, 1978, months into the protests that eventually toppled the regime, the Iranian army opened fire on a peaceful demonstration. Yossi and Sara Shtainman, friends of Shadur’s parents, recall that their maid was convinced by rumors circulating at the time that Israeli soldiers, not Iranian troops, had perpetrated the massacre. “I said to her, ‘Zohara, look at us, we are Israelis,’ ” Sara Shtainman remembers telling the maid. “ ‘You know us. You know how we behave. Do you think we could do something like that?’ ”
“For me this is a beautiful moment because it contains so much,” Shadur said. “It shows you the anti-Israeli propaganda: Israel does a lot of stuff, but they didn’t send helicopters to shoot people. It also shows you the naiveté. You did sell weapons, you did train SAVAK. When you do this you have to think of the consequences; don’t be so surprised that people hate you and that you’re isolated.”
For Shadur, the attitude characterized in this scene is also representative of Israelis’ perception of the world today. “Everything around us is still burning; it doesn’t matter that we’re not in Tehran anymore. If you go 10 kilometers from here,” he said, referring to the West Bank and Gaza, “there’s crazy stuff going on. We still live in this bubble.”
Before the Revolution has a critical agenda, but Shadur’s touch is light, never directly challenging interviewees’ statements, leaving room for a degree of confusion between the filmmaker’s perspective and that of its protagonists. Sheila Moussaey, who immigrated to Israel from Tehran in 1994 and now teaches at Haifa University and Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, was incensed that interviewees depict Iranian society as divided between rich and poor and leave out the country’s substantial middle class, as well as their failure to mention Iran’s native Jewish community. As Moussaey said, this centuries-old Jewish community, which supported the shah and was close to the royal court, “helped the Israelis to be awarded projects. They don’t talk about how the Jewish community served as a bridge that helped them make connections and corrected their errors in behavior, manners, and dress.” When told that Shadur himself saw the film as critical of this Israeli perspective, Moussaey responded: “That is what he thinks; I don’t see any criticism at all.”
However, for Haggai Ram, author of Iranophobia and professor at Ben Gurion University, its subtlety is the film’s great achievement. As he saw it, Shadur’s directorial discretion allows a subtext of regret to come through in many of the interviews. Though at the time interviewees believed that they were working for Iranians’ benefit, Ram said, “now in retrospect they get the idea that perhaps there was something terribly wrong in Israel’s decades of working with the shah.”
Read more about 40 years of the Iranian Revolution in Tablet’s special series this week.
Samuel Thrope is a Jerusalem-based writer and the translator of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s The Israeli Republic.