In This Article Grass

  • Introduction
  • Biographical Works about and Interviews with the Filmmakers
  • Reviews of Grass
  • Contemporary Studies of the Bakhtiari

Anthropology Grass
by
Amy Malek
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0235

Introduction

Seeking to capture a “natural drama” of epic proportions, in 1924 three American explorers spurred by wanderlust—Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison—traveled to the Middle East and filmed the semiannual migration of the Bakhtiari tribes and their flocks from winter to summer pastures. Filmed over forty-six days and only two years after the release of Nanook of the North (1922), the result became Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925). Unlike Nanook, the majority of the captivating shots that formed Grass were neither set up nor reenacted, nor could they be: the film documents the movement of an estimated 50,000 people and 500,000 animals crossing treacherous icy rivers, climbing harrowing steep cliffs, and undertaking barefoot hikes up the snowy terrain of the Zagros mountains of southwestern Iran. Critically, the film garnished generally positive reviews, but reviewers at the time repeatedly described the film as incomplete, bemoaning the lack of a central family, a romance, or a complete classical narrative—criticisms also leveled by both Cooper and Schoedsack. Despite an intent to film the return migration several months later to fill in these gaps, a lack of resources forced the filmmakers to make do with what they had captured. Padded with travelogue footage and intertitles to reach feature-length by Paramount, the migration itself is represented in the second half of Grass, highlighted by Schoedsack’s graceful compositions of long shots depicting the zigzag lines of migrating families and herds along breathtaking cliffs and across raging rivers. The lowlights, however, include Orientalist, essentializing, overdramatic, and wisecracking titles that reveal a problematic racial ideology and a self-congratulatory depiction of the heroism of the filmmakers, leading the Bakhtiari to be viewed by Western audiences as noble savages and primitive ancestors. Despite these shortcomings, Grass is counted among the first documentary films, valued for its cinematic innovations and ethnographic contributions, and it has inspired numerous Iranian filmmakers to document tribal migrations in the 20th century. Historians of ethnographic film frequently cite Grass alongside Nanook as the earliest films to document indigenous groups’ practices; they also almost uniformly describe Grass as ethnographic by accident or in spite of itself. Meanwhile, film historians have routinely considered Cooper and Schoedsack’s “natural dramas” filmed in Iran, Thailand, Indonesia, and East Africa as forming a crucial trajectory from thrill-seeking explorers to innovators on Hollywood soundstages, culminating in their most famous film, King Kong (Atlanta: Turner Home Entetainment).

Books and Articles on Grass

In 1925, Cooper began his travel book accompanying Grass with the following observation: “The time is not far off, I believe, when the motion picture will play a very real and vital role in education” (p. ix). This prescient statement underlies the debates that Grass would set off among film scholars, anthropologists, and filmmakers for decades to come. Cooper and Harrison themselves authored books recounting the migration, while their biographers have filled in details through published interviews and archival research. Many scholars have included Grass as part of cinema history, but fewer have focused directly upon it as a source of study; the exceptions have chronicled the making of the film, offered close readings and textual analyses, examined its ethnographic value, and interrogated the ideological imperatives and contexts of its making.

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