Acclaimed 1925 silent film documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, recently screened at the 10th edition (online only this year) of Hippfest, a Scottish silent film festival. The film portrays an epic battle between man and nature as it traces the annual migration of the Bakhtiaris, one of the major tribes of Iran. It was a US film directed by Merian C. Cooper (who went on to make King Kong in 1933) and cameraman Ernest B Schoedsack.
According to reports, funding was provided by a loan of $5,000 by Cooper's father and brother. Another $5,000 was provided by Marguerite Harrison, an American reporters and film-maker, and one of the four founding members of the Society of Women Geographers. In filming the journey, Cooper, Schoedsack, and Harrison became the first Westerners to make the migration with the Bakhtiar. Grass was filmed over the 48 days it took the Bakhtiari to complete their migration.
Shortly after the film was produced, Reza Shah crowned himself as the first monarch of the Pahlavi dynasty. Keen on modernising Iran, he set out to disarm the Bakhtiari tribes and settle them, going so far as to destroy their tents and ban the men’s tribal dress. By the 1960s the nomads had been pushed to the margins and after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 any references to the Bakhtiari tribal chiefs were omitted in official documents.
Professor Nacim Park-Shiraz, Personal Chair in Cinema and Iran and Head of Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh, said:” Despite knowing little about the region and culture they were filming, Cooper, Schoedsack and Harrison nonetheless provided a moving and magnificent testament to the spirit and resilience of the Bakhtiari by the simple act of pointing a camera to the drama unfolding before them.
"In doing so, the humour and wit of the filmmakers themselves come through in their framings, and the in-title cards. For Iranians especially, and despite its limited availability, Grass reflected and represented a heroism and pride in their peoples.”
She added:” Grass went on to inspire a number of other documentary films, which also attempted to capture the nomadic way of life before its disappearance, not least The Flaming Poppies (Hushang Shafti, 1962), People of the Wind (Anthony Howarth, 1978), and The Shahsavan Nomads of Iran (Fereydoun Safizadeh, 1983).”