Our Man in Tehran’s Drew Taylor on depicting the truth in film

Talking fact, not fiction with the documentary's director

Our Man in Tehran’s Drew Taylor on depicting the truth in film

When six American embassy workers narrowly escaped being captured by rebel students in the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Canada was quick and eager to lend a hand. Former Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor with the help of his wife and various Canadian embassy workers harboured the escapees and provided false documentation, identities, and alibis in order to sneak the Americans out of Iran. Those who watched last year’s Oscar winning Argo should be familiar with the plot; however, as with all Hollywood movies, entertainment — which blurs the lines between fact and fiction — is the goal.

Our Man in Tehran reveals the monumental role Canada and Ken Taylor played in the rescue plot of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979. Co-Directors Drew Taylor (no relation to Ken) and Larry Weinstein depict the untold story behind Argo  and demystify the many artistic liberties taken in the drama. The Varsity interviews Drew Taylor, a U of T alumnus and one half of the creative duo, and discovers that facts are often more entertaining than fiction.

 

The Varsity: What prompted Larry Weinstein and you to pursue filming the documentary? 

Drew Taylor: We get this question a lot, so it’s important to mention that Our Man in Tehran was conceptualized before Argo, and is not a response to Argo. Ken Taylor had divulged details of his experience that hadn’t been showcased in Argo, including his involvement in classified CIA operatives, which were an important part of the Canadian story. This led to the decision to document the extent of Canada’s involvement in Tehran, overlooked in Argo. Our Man in Tehran offers a broader perspective while staying true to history.


TV:
The first big chunk of the film focuses on the political unrest and social movements erupting in Tehran, prior to the invasion of the American Embassy, yet there is very little mention of the Iranian public’s involvement. Were you and Larry conscious to be empathetic towards the portrayal of Iranians?

DT: We were extremely conscious of the Iranian perspective —although Iranians could be either anti- or pro-revolution, they were ultimately known for their immense hospitality, which, unfortunately, is never recognized. The story isn’t black and white, there’s a big grey area, which is why interviews with people like Mohamad Tavakoli, who was born and raised throughout the Iranian revolution, are crucial to the documentary because of his objective opinion and first hand experience.

 

TV: Were the subjects you interviewed in the film like former PM Joe Clarke eager about the project? Or did they require prompting?

DT: Our subjects were more aware and conscious of our need to get their complete side of the story because of the liberties taken in the theatrical version (Argo) and were eager to tell, in full, their personal accounts in Tehran. We were committed to the true story, and so were the interviewees. Ken Taylor was especially generous with his answers, particularly about his CIA involvement, which he had to keep secret for quite a while. The goal, with getting so many perspectives, was that we wanted to leave no stone unturned.

 

TV: You feature all six embassy escapees and one of the hostages, William Daugherty, in the film. Why then was it important for you and Larry to include the perspectives of CBC journalists Joe Schlesinger and Carole Jerome?

DT: The media played a huge part in documenting the revolution- cameras and reporters were ever-present and captured the take over of the American embassy. At the same time the Iranians were very aware of the fact that they were being filmed, and it was almost like theatre how they played to the presence of the media, staring directly into the lenses of the cameras and initiating chants, and when the cameras were turned off, becoming more peaceful and diplomatic. We were really interested in the ground perspective outside the embassy, so the cbc was an important aspect to highlight in Our Man in Tehran because they were right up there with the people and evaluating the perspective.

 

TV: Was it important to you and Larry to disassociate Our Man In Tehran from Argo? Or did you encourage your subjects to acknowledge the film in their interviews?

DT: That’s actually the exact opposite of how we approached the documentary — Our Man in Tehran was not an attempt to right the wrongs represented in Argo, rather to highlight and expose some of the misrepresentations within Argo, which was made for a completely different audience. Our Man in Tehran is a completely different film from Argo and for a completely different purpose.

 

TV: How did you get into the entertainment business? And do you have any plans to work with Larry Weinstein again? Or direct any more films?

DT: It was a lot of luck. As first time co-director, I was very conscious of the ownership and quality people expect from Canadian films, so I wanted to get it right, and get it accurate. Larry, who is extremely accomplished in film, was on board with the idea of the documentary, and with his expertise the film came together pretty seamlessly. My next goal would be to approach Larry with another film project that he would like to be involved in.

The Varsity goes to TIFF. Again.

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Reel life observations

Seven TIFF films for the scientific cinema nut

Reel life observations

The 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) takes place from September 5–15, taking over the city with swaths of movie stars, swanky parties, and an incredible batch of films. In between attempts to bump into your favourite celebrity, be sure to check out the wide variety of films on hand — anyone under 25 can secure a single ticket for $17, purchased in advance or in the Rush line right before the screening. Since it can be hard to know which of the 288 films are worth your time, The Varsity presents a round-up of TIFF presentations for fans of science and technology.

 

For the technophobe or tech-obsessed

According to the TIFF website Beeban Kidron’s documentary InRealLife “encourages us to think critically about our adoption of technology.” Interviewing teenagers alongside experts from Wikipedia, Microsoft, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kidron sheds light on the effect of the internet on relationships, sexual attitudes, and the documentation of personal histories. Following the film is a talk with the director to further explore the ideas presented and reflect on the social rules created by a constantly connected society. You will probably think twice before sending that next tweet.

 

For the space enthusiast 

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play a pair of wise-cracking astronauts in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Taking place 600 kilometres above Earth, the film treats viewers to breathtaking visuals of our planet and the surrounding solar system. Space proves to be as terrifying as it is beautiful when things start to go terribly wrong, turning life into a thrilling fight for survival.

 

For the budding psychologist 


In Lisa Langseth’s Hotell, Erika (Alicia Vikander) finds herself in group therapy after a bout of catatonic depression following the chaotic arrival of her firstborn child. A spark of inspiration comes after hearing about a woman who thinks of herself as a hotel, able to change “rooms,” or perspectives, at will. Erika and her fellow patients ­— obsessed with Mayan culture, fear, and sex, respectively — try to start a new, healthier life by entering into a more positive room.

 

For the strong-stomached sci-fi fan


Seth (Graham Skipper) is traumatized when his best friend Mark (Josh Ethier) disappears in a pop of blue light, but the real horrors happen two years later in Joe Begos’ grisly Almost Human. Mark returns to town alongside a gruesome set of murders, and it becomes apparent that Mark really isn’t Mark anymore; a forceful alien abduction has turned him into something else entirely. Seth’s terrifying journey to stop the string of violence is bound to keep you looking over your shoulder for at least a week.

 

For the health nut

Mariana Chenillo’s Paradise follows a couple who make a pact to lose weight together, fueled by negative comments and body shame from their new big-city acquaintances. When increased focus on diet and exercise proves more effective for one lover than the other, the couple’s once-stable relationship is threatened. This romantic comedy highlights our society’s fascination with being thin.

 

For the environmentalist

A trio of environmental activists-turned-eco-terrorists plan to blow up a dam in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves. Both thrilling and morally poignant, this film is bound to make you question what you would be willing to do to protect the beliefs around which you build your identity.

 

For the science fiction historian


Jordorowsky’s Dune is a documentary directed by Frank Pavich that profiles the development of the never-made 1975 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel of the same name. A celebration of the creativity and vision put into pre-production planning rather than a lamentation about what never was, this documentary shows how Jordorowsky’s ideas cleared a path for the large-scale epics created in following years.

The Varsity goes to TIFF

The Varsity goes to TIFF

TIFF pandemonium began last Thursday with the arrival of big shot celebrities and highly anticipated films. Here is just a sample of our thoughts on some of the 300 or so films at this year’s edition of Toronto’s biggest film festival.

 

Kill Your Darlings

Daniel Radcliffe is already heading back to school. In Kill Your Darlings, the former Harry Potter star swaps the halls of Hogwarts for New York’s Columbia University to play the young Allen Ginsberg, another famous spectacled protagonist who raids the library’s restricted section.

As if Equus wasn’t daring enough, Radcliffe curses, masturbates, flirts with drugs, and sleeps with boys — cementing his and every child star’s dreams of redefinition by choosing the most licentious, adult roles possible.

But this is not yet the swinging 60s, when the Beat Generation achieved solidarity on a national, cultural scale. Kill Your Darlings is set in the 40s, when Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) were merely a band of innovative and irresponsible youth who rejected the antiquated notions of their close-minded professors, well-to-do parents, and Ogden Nash.

Together, the Beats plan to strike out on the road and execute their ‘New Vision.’ But before they were great writers mired in controversy, they were simply mired in controversy. When David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), Lucien Carr’s parasitic and possessive adult lover, is found dead, Ginsberg faces his most challenging and important writing project: Carr’s defense.

The story nicely imposes the institutional search for truth in school and the judiciary on the creative search for truth in writing, drugs and sexual promiscuity. Unlike Walter Salles’s adaptation of On The Road, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings succeeds at replicating the frenetic energy of the Beat Generation’s formative years. —DH

RATING: 3/5

 

Blue Ruin


Blue Ruin is the story of a scruffy vagabond, Dwight (Macon Blair), who turns deadly when he receives upsetting news that opens up old wounds. Dwight says a total of ten words for the entire first act of the film — they look and sound unnatural, like he’s got a perpetual mouthful of mashed potatoes. Blair (Hellbenders) lends a twitchy fragility to his amateur murderer. Director Jeremy Saulnier’s depiction of an outsider fashioning a life out of scraps shows promise.

But when a wobbly revenge story begins to unfold, Saulnier’s camerawork folds under the pressure to thrill and turns languid. Sequences often drag on for a beat too long. The camera follows Dwight around for what feels like hours, but it doesn’t incite us to care about him.

The film attempts to frame guns themselves as killers. It asks us to sympathize with a hesitant but willing murderer and to observe how objects take on a violent agency of their own. But Dwight is a homeless recluse without much regard for himself or others; it never seems like he has much to lose. His concern for the people who love him, a sister he abandoned and a former classmate he uses for his gun collection, seems half-hearted at best. Despite the heavy-handed personification of automatic weapons, Dwight’s most disturbing and memorable murder is committed without a gun.

Blue Ruin is an exercise in tepidness. While some may consider this thoughtful — tiff declares that it “never degenerates into a one-sided morality tale”— the film lacks the precision to convey a nuanced stand on American gun culture. It takes tact to explore this grey area — tact that Saulnier doesn’t have quite yet.  — EH

RATING: 2/5

 

The Armstrong Lie


There is an old adage that speaks of tangled webs and fractured ties in the wake of an intricate lie. When we commit ourselves to maintaining the illusion of a deception, we must work harder to ensure no one else discovers our plot.

In Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, truth is always hiding just beyond an earnest and almost believable deception. The film chronicles the rise and fall of superstar cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose survival of cancer, Tour de France wins, and Livestrong initiatives were eclipsed by a career of cheating. Gibney is ambitious as he narrates footage documenting Armstrong’s 2009 return to sports, and scathing as he investigates a history of doping in professional cycling.

In a bold move that echoes the study of documentary filmmaking itself, Gibney often inserts himself into his own narrative. He questions Armstrong’s motivations, as well as his own, through the use of voiceover, and neglects to edit himself out of certain interviews.

Ultimately, The Armstrong Lie is an exercise in unmasking deception. Though it offers its viewers what initially feels like an inspirational tale about overcoming life’s biggest obstacles, it becomes something much different. This is tricky filmmaking, an example of a documentary that hides its machinations in plain sight. Much like the fallen athlete himself, once Gibney illustrates the ways in which his subject lies, we are made to question everything we think we know about the truth. Most rewarding, though, is that we are made to question what we know about the film. — NG

RATING: 3.5/5

 

Don Jon


Joseph Gordon-Levitt must have had a hard time filming his feature directorial debut, and not just because he plays a porn addict – the titular, tit-loving Don Jon. Without the auteur’s equivalent of a little blue pill, Gordon-Levitt writes, directs, and stars in this triple X showcase of his triple threat talent. Needless to say, his potential is huge and Don Jon is a satisfying experience that will leave you wanting more.

A multi-hyphenate behind-the-scenes, Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello Jr., nicknamed Don Jon, a family-oriented, Church-going, gym-loving Jersey Shore-type, who is engaged in own balancing act of sorts between the disappointment of real sex and the joys of virtual sex. John’s case for the latter is quite the rhetoric.

John meets his match when Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett  Johansson), a neurotic sucker for romantic dramas, struts into his life and sets an ultimatum: it’s either her or the porn.

Less pretentious and more entertaining than Steve McQueen’s Shame, Don Jon’s take on porn addiction is more than skin-deep. With plenty of humour and stock footage, Gordon-Levitt demonstrates the plentitude and manipulation of sexuality in our modern culture. He makes a stirring argument that Hollywood romance is as fake and as guilty of perpetuating false ideals as pornography.

If feelings of enjoyment persist for more than four hours, view again. Nudity notwithstanding, this is a film that stimulates. — DH

Rating: 3/5

 

Blue is the Warmest Color


What can I say about Blue is the Warmest Color that hasn’t already been said? The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes has been scrutinized from every angle. It’s been called beautiful, heartfelt, and gut-wrenching. It’s been dismissed as a lesbian drama, an obscure art film, and a left-pandering trend piece. It’s been labeled voyeurism, exploitation, and porn.

With Léa Seydoux as Emma and Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle, Blue is the Warmest Color is a character piece. Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s camera functions like a lover; it finds a muse in Adèle and introduces us to her with fondness. There are lingering close ups of her lips while she is sleeping and eating. Sequences follow her unhurriedly as she cooks, smokes, and teaches young children in her class.

It’s true. Kechiche’s fixation with Adèle rings obsessive at times. His camera lavishes over her every move. But this attentiveness speaks to the spirit of unashamed passion at the centre of the story: no matter how uncomfortable, it wants to see, touch, and taste everything. Lust is the language of this film.

Exarchopoulos is exquisite. Though the camera is pinned to her every move, she remains elusive and free. We know her but we can’t seem to figure her out.

In Blue is the Warmest Color, the lines that separate where one person ends and another begins are blurred; Adèle is both reaffirmed and lost forever as she drowns in Emma, a demonstration of how a film can be both deeply erotic and deeply moving. — EH

RATING: 4/5

 

Watermark


Though Watermark features interviews with a range of individuals and captures human characters at work, Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s documentary is shot primarily in a poetic mode. Much like Burtynsky’s photography — which utilizes high-tech instruments to capture finely detailed portraits of natural (and unnatural or manmade) landscapes — this documentary is concerned with illustrating its point as well as explaining it. Baichwal and Burtynsky want to show their audience why a “common” substance like water is so important, and how it is ultimately a finite resource.

Perching, craning, and flying their cameras over vast expanses, the directors train our eyes on some concerning uses of H2O and strategically imply their dangers by contrasting them with images of immeasurable beauty. From the muddied waters gushing through China’s silt deposits in the film’s opening frames to the subtle trickle of chemically treated waste flowing into the rivers surrounding Dakar, this documentary is simultaneously breathtaking and alarming.

Insistent on letting the visuals do the talking, Baichwal and Burtynsky’s feature has breathing room to jump out of the screen and at the viewer. Many images appear static, but this is rarely the case; their pictorial quality is achieved by a nuanced, perfectionistic attention to detail and framing. What results is a compelling documentary that informs and entertains, allowing its audiences to marvel at its images while contemplating the very real environmental toll of human progress on water. — NG

RATING: 4/5

The Varsity @ TIFF: Festival guide, Part II

The Varsity @ TIFF: Festival guide, Part II

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) took over the city on September 5. The festival is by far your best opportunity to go out and see the best that the film world has to offer. But picking from the hundreds of listings can be tough; should you focus on foreign language films? Oscar contenders? Auteurs? Comedies? Anything French? It’s all a bit overwhelming, so here’s a healthy balance of obscure and hyped, drama and thriller, and laughs and sobs. Have a happy tiff!

 

Attila Marcel

This is the first live-action feature from the genius who brought us The Illusionist and The Triplets of Belleville, and it deserves to be seen for that alone. Sylvain Chomet’s gift for delicate storytelling results in films that shimmer with grace and perception, and the world of Attila Marcel promises to carry on that tradition. Chomet tells the story of Paul, a 33-year-old man smothered by his eccentric aunts after being orphaned as a child. Dissatisfied with his existence, he seeks out the mystical assistance of a neighbour — provoking larger-than-life visions and encounters. My hope is that Chomet is able to imbue the flesh-and-blood world with the same gentleness and vibrancy that he has afforded his animated ones. I have a good feeling I will not be disappointed.

Why you should see it: Paul could give any Wes Anderson character a run for their money.

When: Thursday, September 12 @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 12:15 pm | Sunday, September 15 @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 12:15 pm.

 

Bastards

Director Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) is one of the most important and prolific filmmakers of our time, and a mainstay at the Festival for over two decades. Her films operate in the grey areas of existence; in lieu of action, they boldly focus on absence, indecision, and the in-between. Bastards pivots around the three pillars of any satisfying cinematic experience: sex, murder, and revenge. Aided by her trusted cinematographer Agnès Godard, Denis’ take on disturbing subjects and complex characters is sure to be as evocative as ever.

Why you should see it: Bastards is French filmmaking at its most universal.

When: Tuesday, September 10 @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 9:00 pm | Wednesday, September 11 @ Jackman Hall, 3:30 pm | Sunday, September 8 @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 8:30 am.

 

Gravity

The world is abuzz with praise for the latest work of director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También); a ballsy space odyssey that uses all the hallmarks of a traditional blockbuster (big budgets, breathtaking backdrops, advanced digital techniques, high stakes) in service of the exploration of more intimate frontiers like human isolation and the impulse to survive. Many critics at the Venice Film Festival, where Gravity recently premiered, are celebrating the film as heralding cinema’s new era. Variety’s rave concluded, “Somewhere, one imagines, the spirits of Stanley Kubrick and Max Ophuls are looking down in admiration.” The film is being praised particularly for its bold opening scene: a 13-minute long single shot that instantly immerses the viewer in the unforgiving beauty and sparseness of space.

Why you should see it: Alfonso Cuarón is a shaman; Gravity is the kind of movie that demands a big screen. It could change the way films are made forever. Plus, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock banter in space.

When: Wednesday, September 11 @ Scotiabank 12, 9:00 pm | Sunday, September 15 @ Ryerson Theatre, 12:00 pm.

The Varsity @ TIFF: Festival guide, Part I

What to watch at TIFF 2013

The Varsity @ TIFF: Festival guide, Part I

The beginning of a new school year is best marked by the arrival of the Toronto International film festival (TIFF) and all the wonderful chaos that comes with it. The Varsity’s guide to this year’s edition of TIFF is, perhaps, a better alternative to pulling your hair out over the hundreds of different features, documentaries, and shorts selected for the festival. Pick up the September 9 issue of The Varsity for part two of our TIFF guide.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive

American indie icon Jim Jarmusch (still reeling from his encounter with Jay-Z, I’m sure) returns to TIFF with the story of Adam, a reclusive rock star who has flocks of adoring fans. Adam is also a centuries-old vampire in love with Eve (the inscrutable Tilda Swinton). Together, the lovers occupy a dilapidated estate near Detroit — transformed by Jarmusch and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux into a stylized, nocturnal netherworld. The pair’s love is tested by Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska, a.k.a Wednesday Addams with a talent for studied watchfulness). The film has been labelled a drastic departure for Jarmusch,  who also directed Broken Flowers (2005) and Coffee & Cigarettes (2003),  as he attempts to elevate the vampire genre from teen-pandering to slick and cerebral, with characters that are capable of thoughtful meditations on love and eternity. The film is among my most anticipated of TIFF 2013.

Why you should see it: Tilda Swinton is actually a vampire, Mia Wasikowska was stunning in Stoker, it features a great soundtrack (Wanda Jackson, Charlie Feathers), Adam and Eve count Copernicus and Darwin as a close personal friends.

When: Thursday, September 5 @ Ryerson Theatre, 9 pm | Saturday, September 7 @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 12:15 pm

 

The Past

This is director Asghar Farhadi’s latest after achieving critical success with 2011’s A Separation, which earned him the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Farhadi excels at character development through conversation, relying on the interconnectedness of his characters as a way of understanding them. Set in Paris with an emphasis on working-class immigrant communities, Marie (played by Bérénice Bejo of The Artist) is on the cusp of a new marriage just as her ex-husband flies into town to finalize their divorce. If Farhadi’s previous work is any indication, The Past will be consciously plotted, brilliantly written, and full of compelling camera work; if it’s anything like A Separation, it’ll be one of the most deeply satisfying cinematic experiences of TIFF 2013.

Why you should see it: Paris somehow appears more like Tehran, Bérénice Bejo is one of the most captivating and effortlessly beautiful women on screen these days, the final scene of A Separation was near flawless.

When: Thursday, September 5 @ Visa Screening Room, 9:30 pm | Saturday, September 7 @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 10:30 am

 


You Are Here

Starring Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, and Amy Poehler, You Are Here is Matthew Weiner’s feature directorial debut. The writing, producing, and directing extraordinaire — whose previous work includes The Sopranos and Mad Men — tells the story of a bipolar stoner (Galifianakis) who returns to his late father’s farm to collect his inheritance. He encounters a family he has lost contact with: an angry sister (Poehler) and a wacky stepmother (Laura Ramsey). Weiner’s gift for portraying contradictory, unforgettable characters with a knack for comedy and a zest for the cryptic logic of life means we’re all in for a treat with this film.

Why you should see it: Mad Men’s penultimate season was incredible (contrary to popular opinion); the three lead actors should complement one another well.

When: Saturday, September 7 @ Ryerson Theatre, 3 pm