One Man’s Harrowing Search for Justice

Dec 8, 2022

On January 8, 2020, a Ukraine International Airlines flight heading from Tehran to Kyiv was shot down shortly after departure by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, killing all 176 people on board. That in itself is tragic enough, but the families of the victims of Flight 752 have since been faced with prolonged pain and grief at the hands of Iran’s current regime, whose excuses ranged from denial, to feigned grief, to outright pride. The events gripped the Iranian community around the world, and the Iranian-Canadian community in particular, as the majority of those on board were bound for Canada. There is never any sense in a tragedy like this of course, but whether closure can be found is the subject of Babak Payami’s heartbreaking documentary 752 Is Not A Number.

Told primarily through the perspective of Hamed Esmaeilion, a Toronto-area dentist who lost his wife and daughter in the crash, the documentary follows the chain of events in the week preceding the crash, where tensions between Iran and the United States escalated rapidly, leading many to fear the two countries were on the brink of war. While initially, it feels like the sort of impersonal, political documentary that combines news footage with interviews from subject-matter experts, as soon as the timeline reaches the morning of January 8 — with some genuinely chilling, grainy footage of the missile hitting the plane — the scope changes, with Esmaeilion’s perspective standing in for the many families and friends who had their worlds irreparably damaged that day.

The film functions both as a narrative documentary following one man’s journey through grief and something of an investigative piece. As details surrounding the crash begrudgingly emerge, the intimate focus on Esmaeilion means the audience experiences every fresh wave of grief along with him. This was not a documentary shot years after the fact, with the advantage of time, closure, and answers allowing the subject to adopt a sad detachment from the pain at hand.

Rather, with Payami making the film in real-time, and following Esmaeilion’s quest for answers — because what justice can be had in a situation like this — 752 Is Not A Number truly lives up to its title. The victims of the crash are not a statistic or faceless names to be read out in memoriam. They are real people whose losses are still keenly felt by the schools, communities, and families they left behind. With every new piece of his wife and daughter Esmaeilion finds, be it an insurance card, or something left behind in their home, their absence is felt anew.

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In Farsi, there is an expression to indicate that someone is missed: you say “their place is empty,” with the understanding it won’t always be. The film does have an undercurrent of hope in it, with Esmaeilion founding The Association of Families of Flight 752 Victims, but leaves audiences with a lingering feeling of loss, grief, and fear mingled in with that hope, particularly for those of us in the affected community, who remember those first few horrible days with stunning clarity. Our grief is nothing close to what the families experienced, of course, but it goes to show that none of these feelings will ever exist independently.

Beyond being a treatise on grief, 752 Is Not A Number, as an examination of the Iranian regime’s disregard for its own people, has now become a more necessary watch than ever. Just days after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it placed third in the Documentary Award category for People’s Choice, massive protests erupted across Iran in response to the death of Zhina Amini — popularized in the press under her legal name “Mahsa.” As of this review, the protests are entering their fifth week, with no end in sight despite massive, deadly crackdowns.

In a bid to find justice for not only his own family, but for all those whose places will forever be empty, Esmaeilion has been a constant presence at solidarity rallies in and around Toronto. Perhaps then in its way, 752 Is Not A Number is not only a depiction of one man’s grief and search for answers where justice is impossible, but is also one of many prologues in a much longer story about the fight for lasting change.

Rating: A

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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