Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Grass depicts the 1924 migration of the nomadic Bakhtiari

There was a time before modernity corralled all people onto the global grid. A myriad cultures developed in niches throughout the world, and long ages went by as people lived off the land that shaped them with both bounty and deprivation. In the 19th and 20th centuries explorers sought adventure in remote places so they could observe these vanishing cultures distinct from the ever-expanding civilization that was absorbing and colonizing the world into a homogenized mass. Film technology developed while some peoples were still living within organic cultures, and I recently came across an extraordinary documentary called Grass (A Nation's Battle for Life) that depicted the ingenuity, courage, and hardiness of the Bakhtiari nomads of Persia.

The film was made in 1924 by the explorers and filmmakers Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. They recorded the harrowing annual migration of the Bakhtiari as they traveled to fresh pastures for their herds. The tribe was described as the "Forgotten People" because they lived beyond the fringe of civilization in remote highland plains and mountains. Numbering 50,000 the tribes amassed a half million animals (horses, goats, sheep, donkeys, cattle, chickens, and dogs). When their grasslands on one side of the mountains were depleted they had to travel to fresh pasture, which meant crossing the half mile wide Karun River and scaling a 12,000-foot mountain. Men, women, and children along with their herds made this incredible trek. They crossed the raging river on rafts of sticks tied to balloons made from goat skins. Many of the men and boys leaped into the torrent on mere floats made from two goat skins, and then they shepherded their animals through the water. It took a week for the entire nation to get across the river. The film of the people crossing the river is jaw-dropping. The current is so swift and wide. The multitudes of people and animals in the aggressive current look small upon the water as the long lines of their heads reveal the sinuous current.

Then the Bakhtiari face the mountains. The film shows them ascending a 2,000 foot sheer cliff on narrow zigzagging trails. The inclines are relentless and they trudge up them driving their animals. Women carry babies on their backs, and the filmmakers point out a young girl who is scaling the pitiless trail with a calf across her shoulders. She is amazing to behold. No girl today could possibly be as strong as she was.

When they reach the snowy heights, the people take off their shoes and go barefoot. Their canvas shoes are said to be worse than nothing. With shovels, crews of men cut trails into the snow and the Bakhtiari move onward barefoot in the snow. At last they are over the mountain and reach fresh grasslands where they can spread out and make their camps and return to a life of relative ease.

Witnessing the migration of this people was a gripping experience for me. I can't recall ever seeing so many people work together on such a scale to reach a common goal. The men were organized into crews and went forth to labor because it was how they lived. If they did not get to good pastures then they all would perish. These people were so vividly connected to their Earth. They lived among the animals and lived off the animals. They moved across the steep slopes like ants and no barrier could stop them. I also considered why these people occupied this treacherous niche in the ecosystem. I wondered if they had endured in this harsh back country because it gave them freedom from overlords and wars and confining laws of urban civilizations.

To anyone interested in indigenous peoples and living closely with the land, this documentary will let you glimpse the lost world of earlier times when all people had to have a direct relationship with the sustaining Earth. The documentary is also thoughtfully constructed with a compelling narrative and talented cinematography. Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack are only shown during the opening because during the rest of the journey they are behind the cameras. Their associate Marguerite Harrison traveled with them and she provides an attractive focal point for many scenes as she interacts with the people. You can really see what an adventure she had with those filmmakers. Merian is instantly recognizable as the real-life template for Indiana Jones. 

I'll conclude extolling the virtues of this archival documentary by stating two things: 1) I watched it twice because I could not get the images out of my mind, and 2) It has many cute puppies in it!