Thursday, 20 November 2008

Epic Journey: How A Trio Of 1920s Adventurers Filmed The Bakhtiari Migration

HOLLYWOOD, November 21, 2008 -- The nomadic tribes of southwestern Iran fascinate rug lovers for their great variety of weaving.

But what is less known is how much they once fascinated Western cinema audiences.

Eighty years ago, people crowded into movie theaters to see a silent film about Iran's nomads that has since became a classic of documentary movie-making.

The film is "Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life," released in 1925. It follows a branch of the Bakhtiari tribe on its seasonal migration to summer pastures. Along the way, it offers an astonishing look at a nomadic way of life which, today, has all but disappeared.

The film was made by three intrepid Western adventurers and begins with their traveling east from Angora (today Ankara), following the caravan routes to Iran. As the trio says at the outset, they are in search of a "Forgotten People" -- the nomads -- whose life is unchanged since primordial times. And they find their subject in the Bakhtiari tribes, which migrate with the rains and grass to survive.

The epic feel of the film comes from the scale of the migration: 50,000 people herding half a million animals on a 500 mile trek. And the drama and suspense grow with the spectacular nature of the terrain. A raging river and a 5,000 meter high mountain range separate the nomads from their goal.

One unforgettable scene is the crossing of the Karun river, which is swollen with Spring snow melt. The tribes have no boats to cross and the racing water is a forbidding sight. But as proof of the age-old ingenuity of man against the elements, they have a solution.

The nomads' answer is to inflate goatskins and use them as floats for rafts to carry across the women, children, and weakest animals. The men paddle across individually, holding onto their own floats like inner-tubes. Whether anybody can swim and, indeed, whether it is even possible to swim in such rough water without drowning, is left to the imagination.

The Karun river, Iran's most voluminous, originates in the high peaks of the Zagros mountain range in Chahrmahal va Bakhtiari Province and flows to the Persian Gulf. The nomads cross it only to face their next and still more daunting challenge -- crossing the mountain range itself.

The difficultly of the task can best be imagined by thinking of the Alps. The crossing point is a snow-covered mountain called Zard Kuh which rises up 4,500 meters, just a few hundred meters short of Mont Blanc's 4,800 meters. There is no visible trail over it and, as the thousands-strong, barefoot tribes march toward it, no hint they will find one.

But, again, there is a solution. The first groups of men unpack shovels and, in the same way one might dig out a driveway, steadily clear a path up the mountain. It is unimaginable work, made possible only by the sheer numbers of men available. And over a period of days, the hordes of humans, goats, and mules zig-zag their way up the slopes and over the range.

Such scenes cannot be seen today on anything like this scale. All over the world, nomads have been steadily settled by governments determined to end the land disputes that arise from herders moving freely over vast territories. And, indeed, as this 1925 movie makes clear, past generations of nomads moved like small armies. The thousands of tribesmen have rifles slung over their shoulders and could both hunt game and fight the authorities with them.

But for anyone who might think that the nomads, once settled, simply become like everyone else, the film is a welcome reminder of just how extraordinarily different the nomads' experience is. And the images can only increase one's interest in the mysterious symbols that even settled nomads continue to weave into their carpets -- the echoes of primal hopes, fears, and strengths.

Who made "Grass," and why?

That story is almost as interesting as the film itself.

The co-directors -- who doubled as cameramen -- are two American soldiers who remained in Europe after World War I. As Central Europe fell into a power vacuum with the defeat of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires and the civil war in Russia, they joined the fight to carve out an independent Polish state.

One of the pair, Merian C. Cooper, was a volunteer pilot in the fledgling Polish air force and flew numerous missions against Russian troops until he was shot down in Ukraine. Taken prisoner, he escaped again eight months later. (He is shown here in Polish Air Force uniform).

The other, Ernest B. Schoedsack, worked with the Polish war relief.

The third member of the team, who appears on camera chronicling the migration, is Marguerite Harrison. She was an American journalist with the Associated Press who also spied for Washington in Russia and Japan. She was imprisoned for ten weeks in Moscow's notorious Lubyanka prison.

The three, who all met in Poland, decided to film the Bakhtiari migration following the box-office success of one of Hollywood's first documentary and ethnographic films: Nanook of the North (1922). Here they pose in Ankara in 1923 at the start of their journey. Their own highly adventurous life imminently qualified them for their work, which included nearly freezing to death with their subjects.

"Grass," was commercially successful and launched Cooper and Schoedsack on lifelong careers as filmmakers. The two went on to make a documentary in Thailand ("Chang" in 1927) and later teamed up again to make the 1933 classic "King Kong."

Harrison, who wrote several books about Russia and Asia, later co-founded the Women's Society of Geographers and the Children's Hospital of Baltimore.

The lives of southwestern Iran's nomads have continued to fascinate film-makers ever since "Grass."

The story of the Bakhtiari migration was retold in "People of the Wind" (1976), which followed the migration in reverse.

And the nomadic Qashqai were recently featured in "Gabbeh" (1996) by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

All of the films are currently available on DVD.

The whole of "Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life" also can be viewed on the Internet: CLICK HERE




Related Links

Wikipedia: The Bakhtiari

Wikipedia: "Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life"

Wikipedia: Merian C. Cooper

Wikipedia: Ernest B. Schoedsack

Wikipedia: Marguerite Harrison

Wikipedia: The Polish-Soviet War (1919 - 1921)

Wikipedia: Greater Poland Uprising (1918 - 1919)

Ryszard Antolak: Iran, King Kong, and Paradise Lost

Friday, 7 November 2008

Can Modern Weavers Revive The Classical Carpets Of The Ottomans?

SAN FRANCISCO, November 7, 2008 -- There is one question that probably has occurred to everyone who ever paged through a picture-book of antique carpets

That is: “Why aren’t these beautiful designs produced anymore?”

But only a few people ever take the next step of actually trying to get antique carpets woven again.

One person who has tried is Christopher Robin Andrews, an architect in the San Francisco Bay area. He fell in love with carpets while a student and now, half a lifetime later, devotes his spare time to reviving classical Ottoman designs.

The designs that inspired him to start were Lottos and Holbeins -- patterns one mostly sees only in early Renaissance paintings or in a few museums. So, he has not set himself a simple task.

(Shown here is 'The Alms-Giving of St. Anthony of Padua, by the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto in 1542. The carpet design is named "Lotto" after the artist.)

Still, he says, there was no other solution. A trip through Istanbul's carpet bazaars in 2001 confirmed that the easier option of simply buying an off-the-shelf Lotto did not exist.

Andrews' passion for classical Ottomans comes from the fact he studied architecture under Christopher Alexander, a teacher who is also a carpet scholar.

Alexander, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, believes buildings and living spaces succeed and satisfy people only when they embody the same harmonious order we see in living things.

And he believes architects can learn a great deal about giving a life-like appeal to inanimate objects by studying, among other inspirations, the designs of the old carpet masters. He has amassed an impressive collection of Ottomans and often requires his students to draw them in detail in order to better understand the designs.

What are some of the lessons the classical masters teach? They include harmony, differentiation through color and geometry, the coupling of opposites to create nodes of interest, the balancing of directional forces, the proper use of randomness, and much more. (For a fascinating summary, see: "The 'Life' of a Carpet: An Application of the Alexander Rules," by Nikos A. Salingaros)

Andrews has made hundreds of detailed knot-by-knot drawings of carpets -- enough to become very knowledgeable about their structure. Enough, too, that when he lost patience with the Istanbul bazaar, he dared to commission weavers himself to turn his drawings (like this one of the center field of a star ushak) into the rugs he wanted.

Initially, he tried producers of "bespoke" rugs on the internet but the results were disappointing. And steadily what began as an Everyman's dream of finding a shortcut to the past became, instead, a hugely complex journey into the rug-making world.

Finally, however, he located a partner in Ibrahim Tekin, a Turkish connoisseur and carpet producer who liked the challenge. But even with dedicated weavers on the project, and an experienced dye master, the results fell short.

The biggest problem turned out to be mind-set. Neither the weavers nor the dyer had ever seen a classical carpet. So, they reflexively adapted the project to what they assumed was the goal: a variation on the design, weave, and colors of a contemporary, commercial rug.

Then Andrews and Tekin discovered the answer.

"We agreed we had to take the dyer and the workshop manager we were working with near Konya to Istanbul to visit the museums," Andrews says. "And we told them these are the carpets we want to revive and once they saw them they said, ah that's what you want! Because their inclination was to make a commercial product and their perception of the commercial market was much different from those classical carpets."

The most striking differences were in the colors. While modern decorative carpets tend towards pastels, classical carpts have deep, fully saturated hues. And while modern carpets often have exaggerated abrash, the colors of classical carpets are always consistent across a rug.

Ultimately, Andrews obtained the results he wanted. He launched his line -- Classical Carpets -- in Spring 2007 and in Spring 2008 opened at the "Double-Knot Gallery" of his New York partner, Murat Küpçü. He has also found a partner in Italy, fellow architect and rug dealer Andrea Pacciani in Parma.

On the left is a Small-pattern Holbein produced by Classical Carpets.

But the story does not end there. Even labors of love must be funded and that means finding consumers who share your dreams.

Andrews says there is a small niche market for classical revivals, and its membership is surprisingly varied.

"I am selling to collectors who can't afford the originals, we are talking about carpets you really see in museums, and even people who can afford the originals are not going to put them on their floors," he says. "So I am selling to collectors who really love these designs and want to have a carpet they can actually put on their floor. And then I am also selling to some people who don't know anything about these carpets but who simply see them for the first time and get excited about them."

He adds that one group which has proven resistant to the revived classical carpets is -- oddly enough -- interior designers:

"In a way the carpet designs are perhaps too powerful. Modern architectural interior design really puts carpets in the background and when you look at the historical context of these classical carpets, they were popular in the 15th and 16th century when people did not have a lot of furniture, so something like a carpet had to make a big statement in a room. And now decorating really doesn't work that way. Most people don't want a carpet that is going to take over a room."

Still, serving just a niche market agrees with Andrews. For him to remain directly involved in all steps of the business, and keep his day job, the operation has to remain on the scale of a couple of carpets a month.

So far, Classical Carpets has reproduced designs ranging from Lottos to Holbeins to Ushaks, including a Chintamani. Many of the carpets are commissioned.

What are the current best-sellers?

In May, Andrews made a trip to Transylvania with Alberto Boralevi and Stefano Ionescu, both experts on the Ottoman collections kept in the area's Gothic churches.

After a lot of study in situ, he has reproduced 4' x 6' (1.22 meter x 1.83 meter) pieces like this one that catch the eye of Transylvanian enthusiasts.

The prices for all of Classical Carpets' weavings generally range between $120 to $200 a square foot ($1,290 to $2,150 a square meter), depending on carpet size and knot count.

(Note: The picture at the top of this article is a detail of the center of Classical Carpets' Lotto rug.)




Related Links

Classical Carpets - Christopher Robin Andrews

Links to Photos of 15th to 17th Century Carpets and Their Depiction In European Artwork

Oriental Carpets in Italian Renaissance Paintings: Art Objects and Status Symbols

New York Times: Using Old Masters To Shed Light On Turkish Rugs

"The 'Life' of a Carpet: An Application of the Alexander Rules," by Nikos A. Salingaros

Old Turkish Carpets: Carpets of the Ottoman Period

Barry O'Connell: Notes On Transylvanian Rugs