Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Grass (1925)

A friend asked me the other day if documentaries were common in the silent era. I told him I’d seen a few—Nanook of the North (1922) for one, and Chang (1927), and that Nanook was the most famous. I also told him that silent documentaries differed a bit, philosophically, from what came later.

The qualities by which we judge a documentary successful today aren’t simply artistic ones. We also want a story we can believe in—on more than emotional grounds. If we see staged scenes, for example, we wonder how the real event differed from what we’re seeing. If persons or groups depicted in the film aren’t given voice, we wonder about the filmmaker’s bias. We acknowledge that bringing any story to the screen requires a degree of artifice—that documentaries are art, like other films. But like a well-written magazine feature (for example), they must be delivered with that objective sheen.

The reason my friend had asked me about silent docs was because I’d told him I’d just watched Grass. The film depicts a Bakhtiari tribe’s migratory odyssey from modern-day Turkey to western Iran, in search of pasture land for their livestock. Grass is, by the standards of the decade in which it was filmed, a successful documentary. By today’s standards, not so much.

In no decade, mind you, would Grass be a bad film. Directors Ernest Beaumont Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper produced a story that stays with you, at least in terms of its most harrowing sequences—most of which (I think) are authentic. Its centerpiece is a river-fording, which the tribe accomplishes with a minimum of equipment and considerable guts. Imagine crossing a churning body of water with all your belongings, your elderly and your young, and several types of large animal too—the Bakhtiari manage it with hard swimming, a collection of lashed wooden rafts, and the use of inflated goatskins for buoyancy. I’ve seen scenes like this in other films, but all of them were fictional.

The cinematography is often gorgeous. Schoedsdack and Cooper let their camera rest on vistas miles long: we see roads that wind and zig-zag through vast valleys; sheer rock faces and mountains capped with ice and snow. These sights would impress on their own, but they’re even more compelling because we know they’re obstacles the tribe must defeat; and furthermore, ones that we know the tribe really did defeat. All of this actually occurred! We are amazed that it could have. We wonder if we could have survived it, as these people did.

Grass acknowledges this feeling that we’re feeling. Spends a lot of time on it, in fact. “How would you cross this river?” an intertitle asks, addressing us viewers as though we’re all sitting on a couch together, looking at photos of a trip to a strange land. “…the ancient life of tent and tribe and herd,” another card intones. “The life of three-thousand years ago.”

This puts the 21st Century audience member in a slightly uncomfortable position. It’s true that Grass shows us places and people and events that, for a lot of us, really are unfamiliar, spectacular, and even weird. But nowadays we tend to recognize that as a gap in our knowledge. And this is not a thing to be satisfied with—the documentary’s purpose, then, is to open our eyes and widen our perspective.

Grass’s almost chummy way of addressing us is a reminder that, at the time it was made, attitudes were different. It was the filmmakers’ intent to dazzle, and to be dazzled was all they expected of us. And they know we would be dazzled, because they’re from the same world. This is a closed conversation between white, western artists and a white, Western audience, and though I am white and Western myself, I’m also living in 2015, and so this felt troubling.

Within a framework like this, can we ever really ‘know’ the tribespeople? Some are named, but for the most part they are presented collectively. They do not speak for themselves—instead, the narrator substitutes his own quasi-heroic rhetoric and lays it over both scenery and people. “No! Starvation lies behind and ahead lie Grass and Life!” reads another intertitle—one that could’ve been spoken by any one of the tribespeople shown in the previous shot. It could have even been spoken by the dogs, since the film does, occasionally, ascribe dialogue to animals.

I find it telling, and ironic too, that the directors and their collaborators, despite having taking part in this journey, still adopted a gaze more in keeping with the audience’s than the tribespeople’s. If we appreciate the Bakhtiari (and to the filmmaker’s credit, I think we do), it is only in terms of what their struggle means to us.

This is not really enlightening for the Western viewer. What the filmmakers have actually done is appropriate elements of a foreign culture for the purposes of entertainment—and if there is a deeper level here, it is but one-level deeper into our own past. The Bakhtiari become a means for us to contemplate ourselves, and I submit that Schoedsdack and Cooper could have followed many other people on long and painful journeys and achieved the same effect.

The directors of Grass would go on to make a better known, far more influential film just a few years later: King Kong. Whatever you think of Kong (and I find it fascinating), the through-line from this film to that one is quite clear. Fictional or not, the native cultures in both films conform to a type, defined largely by its alien-ness from our own. And while the differences between these worlds are made clear—perhaps they’re even the point of both films—there is no demand upon us to question who or what we are. We are only asked to be amazed by what is not us.

By the end of Grass, we’ve seen a lot. But what have we learned?

Where to see Grass:Grass: A Nation’s Struggle for Life was screened as part of the 2015 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. The film is also available on DVD through Milestone Films.

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