TIFF 2022 | 752 Is Not a Number (Babak Payami, Canada) — TIFF Docs

By Angelo Muredda 

“It is like bringing the dead to life,” a man says over the shattered Apple Watch he is trying to reanimate to yield a lost person’s heart-rate readings in Babak Payami’s absorbing 752 Is Not a Number, the Iranian-Canadian documentarian’s chronicle of one man’s efforts to do right by his deceased wife and daughter following the destruction by the Iranian military of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. This gesture to the tricky work of hovering over the possible remains of a loved one, going through the procedural motions of unlocking broken technology to speak for the dead in their absence, encapsulates the film’s nuanced depiction of the fight for information and justice in the face of political and bureaucratic intransigence. Namely, it shows that such fights fall to dogged individuals huddled over computers and phones, keeping the torch alive in the most banal settings during the worst times of their lives. 

In bereaved activist Hamed Esmaeilion, a dentist and a writer before the loss of his family made him a full-time agitator, Payami has an easily relatable subject, a preternaturally calm, soft-spoken man with the commitment of a knight. Payami captures his alternating exhaustion and devotional energy through a stultifying procession of Zoom meetings and phone calls with unmoved authorities, fellow victims, and even informants, these simultaneously painful and mundane scenes illuminating the impossible challenges of remotely seeking justice from a foreign power during a pandemic. Esmaeilion’s humility clashes at times with the film’s slick production values. It’s a shame Payami doesn’t fully trust his subject to carry this plainly powerful material, occasionally lapsing into clunky voiceovers that insert himself into Esmaeilion’s story and using unnecessary montages of news coverage of world events to paper over gaps in our knowledge. If anything these editorializing insertions only underline the irreducibly personal nature of such victims’ grief.