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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925)

(click here for the Romanian version)

Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life, released in 1925, one of the earliest ethnographic documentaries in the cinema history. It's a great movie, in the same time the story of its making is amazing.

It all started with two guys having the ambition to create a movie as successful as Flaherty's Nanook of the North. One of the two guys was Merian Caldwell Cooper: a passionate promoter in both aviation and movie industry, a bomber pilot in WWI, twice shot down in fight. The other was Ernest Beaumont_Schoedsack: during the WWI a cameraman on the front, recording infantry actions under shell fire. The two had met for the first time in Poland, during the war with Soviet Russia: Merian Cooper was in the Kościuszko Squadron, while Ernest Schoedsack was there with the Red Cross Photographic Development. They would meet again in the early 20's and start collaborating in making movies. Meanwhile Merian Cooper had been made prisoner by the Red Army and managed to escape.

So, Cooper and Schoedsack decided to make a documentary to be a success as big as Nanook. Flaherty had gone to the Eskimo, their target was Kurdistan. The expedition started in October 1923 in Angora (today's Ankara). There was a fellow-traveler with them: journalist Marguerite Elton Harrison. She too had the taste for danger in her DNA: risky missions in Germany, Russia, Japan, China, imprisoned for a period in Soviet Russia.

It was during the expedition that they decided to go further, to reach a nomadic community of Bakhtiari, some place in central Persia, and to follow them in their seasonal migration in search of grass for their herds.

Twice a year the Bakhtiari have to migrate with their animals, once Eastward, then Westward, between their summer quarters (in Chahārmahāl-o-Bakhtiyārī) and their winter quarters (in Khūzestān). That means crossing the Kārun river (some identify it with Pishon, one of the four rivers of Eden, as mentioned in Genesis) and escalating Zard-Kuh, the highest peak of the Zagros Mountains.

By the times the three Americans were with the Bakhtiari, there were no bridges over the river, and all people were barefoot. They had to pass this way over the heavy snowed mountain. As for crossing the river, the animals had to swim, of course many of them were drowning.

There were about 50,000 people and half a million animals. The huge group was led by Haidar Khan, a man of great authority, exceptionally fit for his huge responsibilities.

The decision of Cooper, Schoedsack and Harrison to join the community of Bakhtiari proved fortunate: by filming their journey they created a masterpiece.

The movie has two distinct parts. Firstly it chronicles the trip from Angora towards Kurdistan, with a picturesque description of a caravanserai, and some other interesting moments, like the sudden meeting with a troupe of desert police, occasion for the filmmakers to shot a surreal scene with the policemen executing a complicate ballet while on their horses!

But it is the second part of the movie that is a masterpiece: simply filming the journey of barefoot people with their animals across the river and over the mountain transmits a great epic sense. It is there the whole drama of this ethnicity struggling for life, rendered with simplicity and greatness.

The journey ended in the spring of 1924 (a certificate issued in Tehran on June 24 that year, cosigned by Haidar Khan and Prince Amir Jang, certified that the three Americans were the first foreigners to have made the forty-eight days migration with the tribe).

Many critics have compared Grass with Nanook, giving to the work of Flaherty a better mark, and obviously the merit of having been the first. I found an interesting remark in an essay by Richard Griffith (who was a curator at MoMA Film Library between 1951 - 1965): Flaherty was an explorer filming a population he knew, while Cooper and Schoedsack were adventurers attracted by the unknown.

The images in "Nanook" could be more skillful worked, while what you see in "Grass" is the real thing: the epic on the screen is live.

I watched Grass on Netflix and I give total credit to its admirers: this movie is fascinating.

The copy available on Netflix includes some evocative pieces of Iranian music, composed and performed by Gholam Hosain Janati-Ataie (santur and daf), Kavous Shirzadian (tar, tombak and oud) and Amir Ali Vahabzadegan (Turkish tambur, setar, dohol, daf and voice). I found this very touching: a tribute paid to a courageous community who struggles with nature for their life. I should find some videos with music performed on such instruments and to publish them here on the blog.

Cooper and Schoedsack continued to work together. Chang was released in 1927: it was another very good movie, with amazing scenes with savage animals in the Siamese jungle, tigers, leopards, and elephants on rampage; these scenes give a formidable sensation of closeness.

Then came King Kong (1933): a huge success of public. The huge gorilla will become famous and will be the main hero in other movies made along the years: nevertheless it was created by Cooper and Schoedsack.

Then came WWII, and Cooper was again in the military. As for Schoedsack, his eyesight was severely damaged in the war, yet he continued to work after that.

The personality of Cooper attracted the attention of Kevin Brownlow, the great historian of the silent movie era, who made in 2005 a movie about this pioneer of the documentary (I'm King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper). It was actually through the information about the movie of Brownlow that I started my search on Grass. An information I got in a phone conversation with Jack Goelmann: my New Yorker friend that spent a life in search of finding and promoting quality films.


As for the Bakhtiari people, they continue their seasonal migrations. Now their herds are carried in trucks and they are no more barefoot, still it's hard.

Haydar Khan contracted yellow fever and passed away, the following year after the film was made. His son Lufta was nine years old in the movie. In 1990 he was interviewed by Iranian film scholar Bahman Maghsoudlou for his book Grass: Untold Stories.


Meanwhile I succeeded to find on youTube the whole movie. Enjoy!

(Jack Goelman)

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