Truth is Better Than Fiction: An inside look at “Our Man In Tehran”

TIFF has always drawn in buzz-worthy films, and in 2012 the opening night feature Argo was no exception. It made waves as we learned for the first time of how Hollywood and the CIA saved 6 diplomats from certain death in Iran.  Argo is based on the story of Tony Mendez, the CIA agent in charge of the operation, and how he was assisted in the mission by film producers and Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor. It was a beautifully crafted film, but if you were in Toronto that year you probably heard the collective grumbling of those more familiar with the historical events (not to mention Ken’s lack of an invite to the premier).   Now in 2013 enter the documentary Our Man In Tehran.  It is the opportunity to tell the true story of how instrumental Ken, and many other Canadians truly were in what is known by some as Argo, but by many as The Canadian Caper.  I sat down with co-director Drew Taylor (who worked with Larry Weinstein on the project) and executive producer Elena Semikina for an exclusive chat about the making of Our Man In Tehran.

 

It started by chance, as many things do, when Elena was fortunate enough to met Ken at a private reception.  After exchanging pleasantries the subject of the rescue, recently declassified, came up.  Elena was aware of the story, but also amazed to hear how much the truth differed from what she’d heard.  She knew right away that the full story needed to be told, and what better way than with a documentary?

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Our Man In Tehran director Drew Taylor and Executive Producer Elena Semikina

Elena: And then Argo came out (laughs), and it gave us a sense of urgency in terms of funding for our project. We have nothing against Argo, it’s easy to Argo-bash, but it does have a lot of embellishments. In terms of the big picture it tells the story from just one person’s point of view. I guess the prism of Ben Affleck and what happened with Tony Mendez.

Drew: In one sense Argo did help by creating the resurgence of interest but it didn’t cover the Canadian aspect. It created a huge window for Elena to move forward with her project.

To get started they decided to dive right into the historical record of the events, reading the books and all news coverage that they could find. There was a surprising dearth of footage from those days which made the search more difficult. The full details of The Canadian Caper were not available until recently, as for political reasons Canada officials had long shied away from admitting how closely they had worked with the CIA. Author Robert Wright had written a comprehensive book on the events, and with his blessing and help they had the title for their movie.

While Argo tells the story of the extraction of 6 Americans, Our Man In Tehran tells of how Canada, and Ken Taylor specifically, also helped in the efforts to keep alive and save the other 54 hostages.  Ken was instrumental in providing intelligence info for the planned (and ultimately doomed) US rescue mission for the hostages.  As well he and John Sheardown harboured the Americans,  acts which would certainly have gotten them killed. While this is touched on in Argo there is so much more to Ken’s story that for the first time he is able to tell in full.

Drew and Elena are passionate that Ken get his due, and also that Canadians can know the story and take pride in it. Elena remarked that in her experience Canadians can be naive in celebrating their heritage and their heroes. Both she and Drew agree that we need more opportunities to celebrate our achievements, as we did when Heritage Moments were still around.

Drew: [Our Man In Tehran] is a pretty big, hour and a half Heritage Moment!  It shows in an instance that a friend was in trouble and we put our own well being in harm’s way, which is what being Canadian is all about. It’s our national identity.  The world embraces us as friends when we travel because of moments like this. Argo was an entertaining movie, but it’s important to have a documentary that maintains integrity and tells the complete story.

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Our Man In Tehran tells of more than Ken’s actions alone, as he was of course working in tandem with Sheardown and many others.  While Sheardown passed away before filming commenced they were able to access archival footage, and interview his wife Zena. There are many other interviews as well, as they looked to capture as much of the elements of the time as possible.

As pretty funny side note:  When they began the project they notified Ben Affleck’s people as a courtesy. Ben, very kindly but perhaps misguidedly, offered to narrate for them.  While on one hand it would have been an interesting bookend, ultimately they decided not to go with narration at all, and would not have taken Ben up on his offer.

Drew: It was interesting because in one sense Ben Affleck is a huge name, but it’s not about “the true story of Argo”, it’s about the true story of Ken Taylor.  We decided not to use any narration in any case, instead relying on interviews and archival footage to present the history as it happened. And in a way narration is something we wanted to stay away from, because it’s a way for filmmakers to impose their opinions on the viewers. We did not want to do that. We really want this to come only from the horses’ mouth.

Our Man In Tehran was chosen as a TIFF 2013 selection, but clearly the anticipation for it was woefully underestimated.  It was scheduled for only one showing and it was the second non-premium screening to sell out once tickets were available [According to the TIFFTALK Thread].  Fortunately TIFF’s organizers can see now how important that story is, and starting Friday, September 20th it will be showing at TIFF Bell Lightbox. After that it will be shown on TMN in Canada and they are hoping for US distribution soon.

This is Drew’s first feature film and while they have some more projects in mind for now they are closed-lipped. I’m sure that once Our Man In Tehran reaches a wider audience we will be seeing more of their work out there.

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Drew and Elena on the eOne Blue Carpet. Click the image for more great shots from the night!


See all of our TIFF 2013 Coverage: Hot Spots, Red Carpets & Film Reviews