Creating An Icon for a Century Disappeared

Hot Docs 2014: Dress Rehearsal for an Execution

17 mins read

Every now and then a photograph emerges that is so riveting, so revealing of a moment in history, that it instantly captures the imagination of mass audiences and becomes iconic. Such photographs are often symbols of resistance against oppressive regimes. This is what happened in 1936 in Spain with the photograph “Death of a Loyalist Soldier” by Robert Capa. It is what happened in Viet Nam in 1972 with a photograph taken by Nick Ut of a girl running, crying in utter despair and naked. Naked because her clothes had been burned by a napalm bomb. And it is what happened in 1979 in Iran, with a photograph of a mass execution of eleven Kurds. It was published world wide but anonymously. The photographer was not identified the first time the picture ran, and he chose to maintain his anonymity for 26 years out of fear for his life. Although the photographer was on an assignment and he took the photograph with permission of the authorities, it was powerful enough to be an indictment of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The eleven men were apparently tried summarily in a makeshift courtroom in an airport; no evidence was presented, the men were condemned and executed right away. After the picture was published in Iran, United Press International distributed it through its system, calling it “Firing Squad in Iran.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Sajid Rizvi of UPI said, “It is a picture between life and death.” The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 (submitted by UPI), the only time in its 97-year history that the organization has awarded a prize to “Anonymous.” Eventually the photographer, Jahangir Razmi, would reveal his identity in a major story published by the Wall Street Journal in 2006. There is a parallel with Josef Koudelka, who photographed the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and whose pictures were published in the west anonymously. Like Razmi, Koudelka would not reveal that he was the photographer until 16 years later, after his father had died and he no longer feared reprisals.

Why is this photograph so emotionally powerful? It shows a group of 11 blindfolded prisoners facing a firing squad of camouflaged soldiers at close range, at the very moment when they fire their weapons. Some of the prisoners have fallen to the ground, others are in various phases of falling, one is still standing, his right hand pressed against his chest. Defiantly. It immediately brings to mind Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” (painted in 1814), in which a group of Spaniards rounded up in pre-dawn raids are being slaughtered at close range by a firing squad of the occupying French Army. In the painting, one man is kneeling amid his fallen and falling comrades, but his arms are stretched out in defiance in front of the bayonets. Like Goya’s painting, the photograph gives us a modern-day archetypal image of the unspeakable horrors of war, of injustice reigning supreme. It is more than an indictment of the war of the moment, but of all wars. Man’s ceaseless inhumanity to man.

We know that a photograph contains deeper layers of meaning due to the things that it does not show. Willi Baumeister wrote, “The photographer fundamentally converts the movement of life into the stillness of form. The person viewing the photograph converts the stillness of form back into the movement of life by means of his imagination.” We don’t need much of an imagination to know that in a short moment even the last standing man will have toppled down into the dust like the rest. And we can easily imagine the repercussions that a photograph like this can have on both sides of the conflict.

Enter Bahman Tavoosi, a young filmmaker studying English literature at Montreal’s Concordia University. Born in Iran in 1984 to a Kurdish-Turkish family, he moved to Canada in 2006. He is part of the generation called “the children of the revolution.” Ironically, it was as a result of the Islamic Revolutionary regime banning Hollywood films that he and his generation watched a lot of independent auteur cinema. He became fascinated with in the role of images in culture and particularly in a certain aesthetic of cinema. “Cinema is a universal language,” he says.

Though not personally connected to Razmi’s photograph, the haunting image has always had a certain resonance for him. He was 18 years old when he first saw the photograph. Recently he recalled how “still after all these years, I perfectly remember what an immense impact it left on me. In the photo, it seemed to me as if everything is over and over rehearsed and placed, actors have practiced and repeated their role again and again, the lighting condition has been studied many times, until that final result is achieved. From the first time it appeared to me as a strong work of art not merely a political document. It is much more than a political document.”

He wanted to explore the image both as a piece of art and as a political statement, but he could not do so until he came to Canada. Through theatre and cinema, he wanted to make of the image more than an icon of war, but an “an icon of a century disappeared,” as the narrator states in A Dress Rehearsal for an Execution. For him the image is as important as the image of the footprint of man landing on the moon, and “belongs to human culture just like the music of Bach or Chopin.” In the film, the narrator states that, “the first target of the revolutionaries are the TV and radio stations. Revolutions are aware of the importance of the image. They want to change the image that has been previously created of them. When the revolution is installed, the new images are produced,” and the old images are suppressed.

Tavoosi decided to use the form of a docu-drama, not so much to tell the story of the photograph as tell the story of the re-enactment of the image for his camera. But 34 years after the photograph was made circumstances are different for him. He lives in Montreal, a city known for its accueillement of refugees from the world over, where the story of persecution and oppression resides deep with many residents. Political refugees can relate personally to the sense of anguish that the people who were executed must have felt in those final moments. Providing refuge has been part of our Canadianness for a long time, and Tavoosi saw an opportunity in Montreal to fuse Razmi’s photograph of a moment in time in the history of Iran with the universal experience of oppression. In this sense, I also see the film as an example of art that can be created within the embrace of an often-overlooked phenomenon, the Canadian immigrant experience.

Tavoosi points out how in Iran and abroad the image of Razmi “represents a great spirit of the twentieth century, with all those qualities that are associated with it such as resistance, freedom, revolution, etc. To me it was important to ask how an image can be elevated to such position from which these strong connotations appear.”

Structurally, A Dress Rehearsal for an Execution is based on the process of selecting two groups of actors who audition for the privilege of playing the executioners and the condemned; the search for a field location in which to stage the re-enactment; and extensive newsreel footage of war and conflict (from the Revolution, the Iran-Iraqi war, and other unidentified conflicts). The narrator’s voice, the plaintive music of Tchaikovsky’s “October (The Seasons)” and the searing strains of Maria Callas singing from La Traviata can barely be heard through the bombings and automatic gunfire. It is a story within a story, with parallels between the director within Tavoosi’s documentary and Tavoosi himself. The line between documentary and drama is very thin at times.

The film is broken up into distinct sections with titles, like chapters, (“In Search of Actors,” “The Face of the Victim,” etc.) which at times makes it verge on the didactic. If there is a weakness, it is that the film is overly concerned with explaining through narration. Yet it does not explain for the audience the context of the photograph or the photographer, whose name is never mentioned. In a recent interview, Tavoosi explained that he kept his name anonymous because he opted for a time structure that took place before the date that photographer revealed his identity. Yet I would argue that in making a documentary after that date (2006) to elevate the image to new heights of iconography, the name of the author should be part of the “DNA” of the image. This fact creates some confusion. As the film progresses, there is also little sense of climax. Yet it is still very forceful because of its message.

In the end, it is the magnificent narration that carries the film through, helped by the music; together these two elements effortlessly weave together the dramatic news footage of war and the lengthy footage of auditions and rehearsals on site. I had the feeling that more rigorous editing and a slightly condensed story would have made the film even more compelling.

The search for the right actors was painstaking, as each has in his or her own way “experienced the trauma of oppression in twentieth century.” Tavoosi and his crew spoke to some 2,500 individuals to collect the half dozen stories presented in the film. They rehearsed the scene intensively in a field near the airport in Montreal, where the terrain had been carefully shaped by bulldozers to resemble the scene of the execution. As the actors searched for the right gaze and the right gesture in a telling scene, it is clear that the story is equally about themselves as about nameless characters that they portray. There is Oscar who has escaped oppression in Latin America, and who in his spare moments immerses himself in works of Peruvian poet of Cesar Vallejo. There is Tadious, a refugee who fled from Zimbabwe in 2001 after being tortured under the Mugabe regime; Nicolas, whose grandfather fought in the French resistance but was captured by the Gestapo and sent to the death camps where he perished; Amir who lost his family in the Algerian civil war; Katarzyna, who grew up in Poland in a theatre environment and whose father played the role of Lenin in street theatre; and Kenneth, who grew up amidst racial segregation in South Africa. Kenneth later calmly tells us “what is happening in the documentary is similar to what happened to my grandfather …he died trying to free the South African people from apartheid… It is also kind of touchy to be working on this project. It kind of reminds us and brings a lot of pain…this is real and a lot of people actually suffer up until today because of things that happened in the past.” Tavoosi is to be credited with using both men and women in the reenactment. Even though there were no women among the executioners and the condemned in 1979, by using women in the reenactment, he takes his work to a higher level of universality.

When the actors finally take their positions in the film, there is a cut to Oscar reading to himself from a book by Vallejo. But we hear his booming voice says in Spanish, “There are blows in life…such hard blows. Blows seemingly from the wrath of God; as if before them the undertow of all our sufferings is embedded in our souls.” One of the most moving moments of the film comes at the end, as both groups of protagonists take their positions under an ominous, lifeless sky. One by one the actors walk on “stage” until original photograph is re-enacted. Slowly the performance dissolves into the original black and white photograph, as the two images merge into one. It is as if time stood still on that dusty field in Iran in 1979. Tavoosi has succeeded in performing a masterful ritual: by pushing the limits of documentary cinema he has baptized the photograph with the music of Chopin and Verdi, the strains of Maria Callas, and the poetry of Vallejo, and elevated Razmi’s “Firing Squad in Iran” among greatest icons of the 20th century.



Vincenzo Pietropaolo has published over a dozen books on social justice issues, in which he often combines photographs with his own original writing. Toronto in Photographs: Fifty Years of People, a retrospective journey in words and images, will be released in May 2022 by Cormorant Books. His next project is a collaborative exploration of queer spaces.

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