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In doc ‘752 Is Not A Number,’ Payami seeks to humanize victims of tragedy


TORONTO – In the 32 months since Iranian officials shot down Flight PS752, Hamed Esmaeilion has not had the chance to mourn his wife and daughter.

Instead, he’s spent the last two-and-a-half years fighting for justice for his family and the others who were on board, a gruelling process captured in the documentary “752 Is Not a Number,” which premieres at this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

“There is no time for grieving,” Esmaeilion said in an interview ahead of the festival. “From the outset, I got involved in the fight for truth and justice. And you see that I never gave up.”

Filmmaker Babak Payami immersed himself in Esmaeilion’s world, travelling with him to Iran to recover his family’s bodies and possessions. He accompanied him as he lobbied the Canadian government to take a more active role in the investigation of the crash and as he fought for the International Civil Aviation Organization to condemn Iran’s actions.

“I got so preoccupied with the technicalities and the details, I can practically imagine myself being able to sit down in one of these missile launchers and be familiar with the instrument panel. That’s how in-depth I went into it,” Payami said.

“But at some point, I realized that is not what this film is about. This film is about the pain and the devastation and the struggle of human beings whose lives were shattered.”

There were 176 people on board when the Ukrainian International Airlines flight crashed on Jan. 8, 2020, and nearly 140 of them had ties to Canada.

That included 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents, making it the second worst air disaster to affect Canadians, after only the Air India bombings of 1985, Payami said. In that case, a bomb hidden in a piece of luggage ripped apart Flight 182 en route to New Delhi, killing all 329 people aboard, most of them Canadians of Indian descent.

But Payami said he hopes “752 Is Not a Number” helps achieve a closure for the families of PS752 victims that wasn’t afforded to the loved ones of people on board Flight 182.

“It took 20 years before the prime minister even talked to the families,” Payami said, referring to an apology in 2010 by then-prime minister Stephen Harper after the release of a damning report from a Commission of Inquiry.

“The Air India victims were treated as foreigners in their time. And we wanted to make sure that doesn’t happen, and we communicate with the world outside of the Iranian community the depth of this devastation.”

While “justice” may not be possible for the families — “because it will never bring their loved ones back,” he said — correcting the record could be.

Canadian officials have taken a more active role in the aftermath of the downing of PS752. But Payami and Esmaeilion argue the government’s participation in a system that allowed Iran to lead the investigation into its own military’s wrongdoing prevented the families from getting real answers.

In the immediate aftermath, bulldozers rolled on to the crash site and swept away evidence, Payami noted.

“Meanwhile, what is Canada doing?” he said. “We’re not going to ask why did you bulldoze the place? Why did you destroy the evidence?”

For his part, Esmaeilion said he’ll continue fighting for those answers.

“Until that day that we find what exactly happened, what exactly happened on the morning of Jan. 8, we can’t give up,” he said.

“We have to continue and use all our power.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2022.

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