“The only way to make this film was to get emotionally involved,” says Babak Payami. The director of 752 Is Not a Number, which premieres at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, breaks by necessity an arbitrary facet of documentary filmmaking. As Payami observes the trials of Toronto-based dentist Hamed Esmaeilion, the film challenges the authority of filming one’s subject at a remove. 752 Is Not a Number follows Esmaeilion as he seeks answers regarding the tragic attack on Ukrainian Flight PS752, which was shot down by missiles shortly after its takeoff in Tehran on January 8, 2022. All 176 passengers on board were killed, including 55 Canadians and 30 permanent residents. The victims include Esmaeilion’s wife, Parisa, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera. Faced with a seemingly endless cycle of bureaucratic indifference and red tape, Esmaeilion finds in Payami an empathetic ally in the search for justice.
Payami, an award-winning dramatic filmmaker by trade, says during the film that he had no concrete plans to make a movie, but simply pulled out his camera during his visits with Esmaeilion to chronicle the proceedings and to offer the father an outlet for his grief. Esmaeilion, meanwhile, says that it took a while to adjust to the shoot, but that it helped him process the trauma.
“I could see how tireless Babak was in documenting and I worried that it was going to end up as another tragedy because I couldn’t last, because I couldn’t tolerate this pain,” explains Esmaeilion. The film observes as Esmaeilion endures Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting as he and the families of other victims are shuffled from one panel to another as representations for the nations involved sidestep accountability. “This was very important, the moments of disappointment,” adds Esmaeilion. “Most of the time, when you’re going to a meeting with all of your heart, you’re crying; you’re in pain. Then you see some lawyers or some people who could not care less. If you can share that with somebody who is documenting you and wants to show that pain to the world, then it becomes very important.”
The film also offers a snapshot of how radically the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted life as Esmaeilion and other were isolated in their time of grief. Filming for 752 Is Not a Number began in March 2020 as Payami reached out to Esmaeilion to see how members of the Iranian-Canadian community could help each other. “The pandemic honed the film down to its purest form without any distractions,” says Payami. “I couldn’t have a crew around. In the first few weeks of lockdown, it was practically illegal for us to sit in a car together, so we had to drive to an empty office I had downtown and just spend hours over there.”
At the same time, the film shows how news of the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed other tragedies. “We were obviously very disappointed and cognizant of the fact that, with COVID, society is distracted and the system is distracted,” adds Payami. “Obviously, the Iranian regime would love nothing more than that to shove another crime under the rug.” The clandestine nature of the production, moreover, evokes the furtive nature of Esmaeilion’s quest. With conflicting narratives and numerous bureaucratic hurdles impeding any sense of closure, 752 Is Not a Number illustrates how families had to take it upon themselves to seek justice.
As a result, the film gradually builds the filmmaker-subject relationship into its dramatic device. Partway through the film, Payami reframes the dramatic axis and explains how a documentary grew from a simple gesture. “I confronted the cardinal rule of documentary by Werner Herzog where he says, ‘Don’t get emotionally involved in your story,’” observes Payami. “But I found myself being a fly on the wall of a smoldering oven of emotion and pain, and I fell into it. For every rule, there’s an exception.” While observing so much indifference in the face of Hamed’s visible pain, the film counters the emotional detachment of the officials hoping to console the bereaved with their chequebooks. It illustrates the role of active engagement in the aftermath of grief.
“I was a party—a sympathizer and empathizer—who very quickly faced the question of feeling sorry for these people,” says Payami. “Holding vigils is not enough. Hamed lost his wife and daughter, so multiply that by 176. What is our responsibility?” The chemistry between the director and subject leans into Payami’s experience directing dramatic films with non-traditional actors, including 2001’s Secret Ballot, which won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. 752 adopts a vérité aesthetic as Esmaeilion and Payami converse in long takes, while the circumstances of the COVID-era shoot become part of the film’s design as Hamed suffocates in the endless loop of Zoom calls. “Part of it was by default, because of COVID,” says Payami, “and part of it was by design. We have to make sure that the authenticity of the relationship between the viewer and what they’re seeing remains.”
As Esmaeilion reaches out to contacts to learn what happened, and as he makes the trip to Iran to bring his family’s remains home, his story attracts attention. Mysterious phone calls arrive late at night and offer information at a price. These anonymous sources are sketchy and predatory, but important aspects of the puzzle. “I think many of them were operatives of the [Iranian] regime, who were trying to infiltrate Hamed’s mind,” says Payami. “Then there were charlatans and posers who wanted to take advantage of the families. That raised the dilemma of how we navigate this part of the story. How do we fact check? The film is depicting how those questions were being dealt by Hamed without the film itself becoming contaminated or falling into the trap of legitimizing something that is illegitimate.”
Esmaeilion adds that the shady solicitations and conflicting evidence, some obviously falsified, underscored the fight that motivated him and other families to press for answers. “That’s why we asked for a criminal investigation several times,” he says. “I’m not a police officer. I’m not a detective. But we encountered fakes and forgers, and when I brought the information to the RCMP, they just said they couldn’t do anything about it. But we can show it with a documentary.”
Payami admits he toyed with making Hamed’s quest a procedural to reflect the mystery. While 752 Is Not a Number inevitably has some investigatory elements as Esmaeilion hunts for answers, the core of the film is the father’s journey. Payami says he had multiple edits of finished and polished work unpacking tangents like the missile launcher system or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but recognized that the film didn’t need the minutiae. “What this really is about is the humanity of it and the fact that one man was orphaned and must be a warrior in order to survive and continue this heroic unending quest.”
For Esmaeilion, however, no answers bring justice. “If there’s any justice, it is for survivors, not for victims because the victims are gone. They were gone in three minutes and forty-two seconds of horror, he says. “The problem we had was ignorance. This is the second worst terrorist attack against Canadians after Air India, and we see history repeating itself. With making this film, we want to show the world that this can never happen again.”