Israelis in Tehran, before the revolution

With Israel and Iran today the most implacable of enemies, it seems inconceivable that just a few decades ago thousands of Israelis lived the high life in Tehran, protected by the ruling shah as they forged arms deals and financial ties with his corrupt regime.

This is the little-known story told in “Before the Revolution,” a documentary by Israeli filmmaker and former journalist Dan Shadur that will have its U.S. premiere July 29 at the film festival.

Director Dan Shadur as a baby in Tehran, cradled by his mother

Much is know about the experience of Jewish Iranians before and during the revolution, but the role played by the Israelis who lived there in the 1960s and ’70s is something else entirely.

Born himself to an Israeli couple living in Tehran just a year before the 1979 Islamist revolution, Shadur is uniquely positioned to describe this rarefied Israeli ex-pat community — one that included his parents and their friends. He uses Super 8 home movies and family photos, as well as newsreel footage and recent interviews with Mossad agents, business leaders and high-level Israeli diplomats, brilliantly cut together into a tight 60 minutes by film editor Nili Feller, who also edited the Oscar-nominated “Waltz with Bashir.”

The director’s mother is interviewed by Israeli TV after being evacuated from Tehran in 1979.

It’s a fascinating hour. In addition to the story itself being incredible, Shadur personalizes it by reading extensively (in voiceover; he never appears on screen) from his parents’ letters, both early ones written to relatives back home in Israel, and then — after he, his brother and mother were evacuated along with the other women and children — between his mother and the husband who stayed behind in Iran to wrap up his affairs and got caught up, along with a handful of other Israeli men, in the violent upheaval.

The voices of this young couple as they first celebrated their newfound fortune — the money these Israelis made in Iran was three times what they could have made at home, one letter gloated — and then watched in disbelief as their “paradise” crumbled, are heartbreakingly naive.

Living in their Hebrew-speaking bubble, these displaced foreign Jews are unaware of the hostility toward Israel and the West that is fast brewing in the streets outside their protected neighborhood. That makes the final explosion all the more poignant. — sue fishkoff

“Before the Revolution,”
1:15 p.m. July 29 at the Castro in S.F., 3:50 p.m. Aug. 7 at the CinéArts in Palo Alto, 1:45 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Grand Lake in Oakland. In Hebrew and Farsi, with English subtitles. (Unrated, 60 minutes)