As the Fellows program turns five, we catch up with Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani – a member of the Fellows inaugural class and the first recipient of the TED Fellows Hero award – to get the scoop on the premiere of Amirani Media’s latest film, We Are Many (see the trailer, above) – a documentary on the February 15, 2003, global demonstration against the invasion of Iraq. In between mainstage sessions at TED2014, he offers his old-timer’s perspective on the latest class of Fellows, the evolution of the Fellowship program, and how the Fellowship dared him to dream big.
You’ve just released a trailer for Amirani Media’s feature documentary We Are Many. You’ve been working on this project for as long as I’ve known you; it must be very satisfying to have finished it!
Absolutely! Seven years in the making, We Are Many has been a labor of love directed by my brother Amir. It tells the story of the largest protest march in history, when up to 30 million people in 800 cities on one single day marched against the invasion of Iraq. Although we didn’t stop the war, the consequences and the legacy of that day — which will be revealed for the first time in the film — will blow you away.
We have a great cast of individuals on and off the screen who have made this film possible, including executive producers Signe Byrge Sorensen (The Act of Killing); Steve Milne of Molinare (The King’s Speech); actor and comedian Omid Djalili (The Infidel) and filmmaker Wael Kabbani. Music is by Brian Eno and Simon Russell. The cast includes Damon Albarn, Richard Branson, Danny Glover, Hans Blix, Mark Rylance, amongst many others. The film is almost done, and I am excited to say it will have its world premiere soon at a major film festival I can’t yet disclose.
Fellows director Tom Reilly honored you with the first-ever TED Fellows Hero award at TED2013. Did that change things for you?
The TED Fellows Hero award happened to coincide with the beginning work on a new film Coup 53, my first feature documentary. Coup 53 is about Operation Ajax, the CIA-British secret service coup d’etat in Iran in 1953 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstalled the Shah. For a bit of fun with Ben Affleck, we say our movie is a prequel to Argo.
Getting the award totally fast-tracked the project. I’ve been trying to get this film off the ground from the beginning of my TED Senior Fellowship. But after the TED Fellows Hero award, the dam burst, and the project gathered momentum to the point where a year later we have just signed a development agreement with a company whose leaders I’ve admired for years, and passionate creative collaborators who believe in me and the need for this story to be told well.
There’s no question that the TED Fellowship has made me think bigger. The Iranian coup of 1953 – I grew up with that story. You know how when there’s something that’s very important to you, which means a lot personally, politically and creatively, but because it’s so big, you’re scared of it, and don’t dare take the jump? When I was invited to apply for the Senior Fellowship, I thought, here’s this community that could potentially help make this film a reality. And that’s exactly what’s happened. I’m still scared of it, but in a good way. And if all that was not enough, because of connections made through TED, I got to meet and interview the legendary film editor Walter Murch at Sheffield DocFest 2013.
You’ve been a part of the Fellows program since day one. What changes do you see?
The program has grown in leaps and bounds and is now almost unrecognizable from what it was back in February 2009. And I think Tom Rielly and his brilliant team have done a magnificent job. They are the real heroes. The Fellows Talks in the first year were in a small room somewhere in the nether regions of the Hilton Long Beach, and it was brilliant in its own charming way. But now, the production values, the attention it gets, the slot it gets – it’s just amazing. I hear over and over from veteran TEDsters that the Fellows are now one of their favorite parts of TED. And the caliber of the new Fellows every year — this is not false modesty — if we, the first class of Fellows, were running against these guys now, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Well, I wouldn’t anyway.
What was your career trajectory?
I did physics at Nottingham University, then went to film school at University of Bristol and got my break as a director in 1989 with a film about amateur astronomers that was inspired by the great Carl Sagan and Mr Happer, Burt Lancaster’s character in the wonderful movie Local Hero. Then I went on to set up Amirani Media in 1993 and made some 30 documentaries for broadcast networks such as the BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic and PBS. By the time I applied for the TED Fellowship, I had been making films for 20 years.
So you are an older Fellow.
I think I’m a Senior Fellow on account of age. Not for any brilliance. I’m 53. On paper I shouldn’t even be here. I don’t qualify. Whenever I read Tom’s description of the Fellows program — young trailblazers — I’m thinking, well, I’ve got an old blazer in my wardrobe. That’s as close as I will ever get.