We’re not experts about the Middle East or foreign policy, so we don’t know what to make of the political messages or leanings within the documentary, A Dying King.
But what we can say is that we found the film to be unique and original – watching how the health of one man can influence a family, a nation, the world, and, ultimately, history.
Expertly weaving old footage and current interviews, A Dying King is an exploration of the Shah of Iran’s health, both in and out of exile – and the sway it held over personal, commercial and governmental interests.
The back-and-forth between doctors personally involved with his care is especially engrossing – and lends a human quality as you watch a man deteriorate amongst a backdrop of political turmoil.
If you’re a filmmaker, a medical professional, a fan of documentaries, or a lover of world history and politics, we think this a film well worth your time.
And if you’re not watching your health or keeping a diagnosis a secret from your family, this film serves as a cautionary tale to receive health checks, discuss your results with family members, and get to know and trust the doctors overseeing your care.
A Q&A with Bobak Kalhor, Director of A Dying King
NAME: Bobak Kalhor
HOMETOWN: Born in Tehran, Iran. Have lived in Los Angeles since the age of 7.
CURRENT TOWN: Los Angeles
Why did you make A Dying King?
To get a better understanding of myself and my story as an American of Iranian descent.
Take us through the filmmaking process. How difficult was this film to make? How long did it take to produce? How did you gather all that footage? What were the costs involved?
It all started as a simple video interview with Dr. Leon Morgenstern of Cedars Sinai Hospital about a medical article he wrote called “The Shah’s Spleen,” chronicling the late Shah of Iran’s health care upon leaving Iran in 1979. I came away from the interview with more questions than answers as to what ailed the Shah, when he got sick, how he was treated, how he died, and more importantly how the illness affected the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran.
This started a seven-year self-financed voyage of discovery taking us to New York, Texas, Florida, to Mexico, France, Switzerland, and even back to Iran to speak with the medical doctors that treated the late king. From there, explaining the full context of the medical story required a political/economic backdrop which led us to interviewing the people close to the Shah at the time of the revolution.
The film is a mixture of interviews and historical archival footage.
What has been the reaction to your film, both good and bad?
So far, the reaction has been very positive. We have had enormous support from people across the world, wanting to bring this story to their communities. I’m happy to say we have been invited to screen the film in London, Geneva, Zurich, and Paris.
From a political standpoint, what is the message you want people taking away from your film?
Besides understanding how this man died, I’d like the viewers to come away with a better understanding of the Iran situation.
The history of the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran has been mired in secrecy and confusion for close to 40 years now. I don’t think we can go on dealing with the regime in Iran without an accurate understanding of this history.
The US is heading into possible military confrontation with a government we helped create, and there is no clear appreciation of the events that have led us to where we are today. There is no discussion today of when and why the imposition of sanctions started, the real reasons for the taking of the US Embassy and the ensuing hostage crisis, the true US attitude about the late king, or even America’s role in toppling the shah in support of political Islam.
What would your critics say to that?
For some reason this important piece of history has been kept silent and I am sure there will be people that don’t want this story to be told. I welcome any form of debate as it will increase awareness and hopefully create an intelligent discussion.
Is there any truth or validity in what your critics have to say?
This is only a narrow piece of the medical history of the Pahlavi king and the Islamic revolution in Iran. I continue to do research and work towards a more comprehensive analysis of this critical period of history. I would be very interested to hear intelligent comments or critique of the story as it always helps to see things from all perspectives.
What do you think would happen if the Shah received proper medical treatment immediately? How would that have shaped his life or world history?
He died at age 60. The Shah would definitely have been a vocal opposition and influential voice on the world stage against the government of Iran. Iran was consequently mired in a decade-long war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, costing hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives. It would be conjecture, but perhaps his presence would have made a difference. No one can tell for sure.
How did you get all those doctors to speak about this subject on camera? It’s fascinating stuff. Did any of them contact you having seen the film? What did they think of the finished product?
Dr. Morgenstern put me in touch with the doctors he interviewed for his article and it just mushroomed from there. At every interview, I presented my findings to the physicians and they reciprocated with their version of the events. It almost seemed like a collaboration, with each interview completing and cementing the final story piece by piece.
It makes me proud to say that all the participants in the documentary have all seen the final edit and their response has been overwhelmingly supportive.
What is your next project?
We hope to next expand this story and convey the complete history of the Pahlavi dynasty starting with WWI and the creation of modern Iran, to WWII, the abdication of the king”s father Reza Shah, the Mossadeq era/1953, the shah’s reign, the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the shah’s death, leading up until today and the US’s standoff with the Islamic Republic.
There have been different parties that have approached us to provide support in making this happen. I see the final format as a mini-series docudrama or a full feature film.
Any advice for any independent filmmakers?
It was challenging to initially pitch this idea to anyone and even when I tried, it was hard to convince anyone to the merits an obscure medical story about a forgotten king that most young people do not even recognize today. I had no idea who my target market would be, and didn’t embark on this project to make a movie. I did it to tell a story, one which affected my own life immensely.
My advice to young people, especially independent filmmakers, is to keep telling their personal stories no matter how trivial, or off subject, or far fetched the idea may sound.
The Pahlavi Crown
All images courtesy of Bobak Kalhor