The latest political crisis in Iran has highlighted the difficulties of covering a country that is both anxious to open itself to the outside world and afraid of doing so. These days the authorities are expelling the foreign media because they do not wish television cameras to record the anger on the streets. In 1925, the authorities of the time were suspicious of the crude cameras used for making the first documentaries because they did not wish the outside world to see the abject poverty that reigned in the land.
One such camera belonged to a trio of American adventurers who recognized the power of film to record, present, and ultimately impose the changing vision of reality even in the remotest parts of the world.
The trio in question were two documentary film-makers Merrian C. Cooper, an air force pilot, and Ernest Shoedsack, an army cameraman, and Marguerite Harrison, a pioneer among women newspaper reporters.
Toying with a vague idea of looking for “lost tribes and forgotten cultures”, the trio traveled to the Middle East, scouted large chunks of Anatolia in the wake of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and reached the newly liberated Iraq without encountering any lost tribes or forgotten cultures. At each stage of the journey, the trio was told that the object of their quest could be found further to the east. It was in Mesopotamia that they first heard of a “mysterious tribe” whose life-style had not changed since the dawn of history.
The tribe in question was, in fact, a confederation of clans that, though unified by ancient blood ties, represented a galaxy of different life-styles and traditions. Known by the generic name of Bakhtiari, the confederation had carved itself a living space on the two sides of Zard Kuh (Yellow Mountain), an offshoot of the Zagross, a mountain range that begins in southern Turkey, passes through Iraqi Kurdistan, and continues in central-southern Iran right to the border with what is now Pakistan.
Having made contact with the tribal chiefs, the American trio succeeded in securing permission to accompany the confederation in its annual movement from winter to summer quarters.
The result was one of the first great film documentaries ever made, a veritable classic that ranks with Robert J. Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” as a masterpiece of the genre.
In this fast-paced and absorbing book, Bahman Maghsoudlou, an Iranian cineaste now living in the United States, devotes the first half to introducing the trio against a background of war and global turmoil. The second half of the book is devoted to the making of the documentary itself, its passage through decades of oblivion, and its rediscovery as a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.
The second part of the book that tells the story of that most astonishing of journeys could be read on three levels.
The first level is a narrative of the journey itself with all the excitement and danger that marked it at every stage. In the process, one learns much about the personality of three travelers. Cooper and Shoedsack were to become famous filmmakers, offering the world of cinema such classics as “King Kong.” Harrison, who had worked for US Intelligence in Germany and Russia during World War II, was to build a new and distinguished career as roaming reporter.
On its second level, the book, based on the documentary, now also available on DVD, is a masterpiece of ethnographical reportage. In that sense, it is all the more valuable today because the nomadic life that it records has become part of history. The Bakhtiaris are still around in south-central Iran, and some of them are still engaged in annual migrations in search of grass needed to keep their sheep and goats alive. However, all that is left is a shadow of the tribe’s past glory. The Bakhtiaris, as Mohsen Makhmlabaf’s beautiful film “Gabbeh” shows, have become a decorative motif, a folkloric ornament rather than a dynamic culture.
The book’s third level is the insight it offers into Iranian history at a crucial juncture. The country had just experienced the 1921 putsch that had brought a new reformist government to power under Prime Minister Sayyed Ziauddin Tabatabai. The new government included a single military figure: Reza Khan, commander of the Cossack Brigade, as War Minister.
At the time the documentary was being made, Reza Khan had moved up to become Prime Minister, having elbowed out the dapper but ineffectual Ziauddin. One of Reza Khan’s top priorities was to create a strong central government based in Tehran. And that required an end to the ancient system of tribal loyalties.
At the time the trio were making their documentary, Reza Khan had already subdued the Lur, a sister tribe of the Bakhtiaris, and was preparing to move against the latter. The irony in all this was that the Bakhtiaris had helped Reza Khan come to power, not knowing that he would prove to be their nemesis.
A filmmaker himself, Maghsoudlou offers his narrative in a distinctly cinematic fashion with close-ups, flashbacks and traveling shots. The Bakhtiaris’ quest for grass may be long gone, but the record of the tribe’s epic struggle for survival remains.
By: Bahman Maghsoudlou
Published by: Mazda Publishers, California, 2009