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Reviewed by:
  • Grass: Untold Stories
  • William O. Beeman (bio)
Grass: Untold Stories, by Bahman Maghsoudlou . Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2009. $45.

This book is a fascinating narrative of the making of one of the greatest documentary films of all time: Grass, the astonishing silent documentary of the spring migration of the Bakhtiari tribe of Southwest Iran undertaken in 1923-1924. Author Bahman Maghsoudlou's text is exceptionally well written and easy to read. The scholarship is also impeccable. Maghsoudlou's reputation as a film scholar and critic is well established, [End Page 520] and he has done a masterful job in this historical film study. He has done his utmost to completely exhaust all sources that would add to the story he is telling — the story of director Merian Cooper, cinematographer Ernest B. Schoedsack, and traveler Marguerite Harrison — and the events leading up to the making of the epic film.

The film presents a gripping narrative starting with the journey of the filmmakers through Asia Minor, and the unbelievably strenuous migration of the Bakhtiari over the frozen Zayandeh River and the snow-covered Zardeh Kuh to their summer pastures. There has never been such a film made since. The viewer is struck with wonder at Schoedsack's cinematography. Director Cooper would have been justly famous for this film alone had it not been overshadowed by the mega-success of his next film, King Kong.

The title of Maghsoudlou's book is somewhat misleading, however. It leads the reader to believe that the book will be primarily about the making of the film Grass. In fact, however, the actual making of the film takes up a small proportion — less than a quarter — of the narrative. In telling the long back-story of the makers of the film, Maghsoudlou consumes more than half of the book before he reveals the point in time where the filmmakers come together and decide to make the film of the Bakhtiari migration. The reader plows through a long and complicated narrative of the lives of the filmmakers — lives that are as fascinating as one could ever hope to find. However, the decision to make a film about the Bakhtiari migration is seen as an afterthought — almost an accident. This may be a slight let-down for people who really love the movie. The lack of knowledge of the filmmakers of the Bakhtiari will also be astonishing to some, since almost all who know the tribe agree that the film captures something deeply essential about the life of its people through the lens of the migration. The impression one gets is that Cooper and his crew were amazingly lucky to have produced something so beautiful, enduring, and profound.

The post-production material presented in the book is fascinating. It includes a number of reviews, and an article by adventurer Marguerite Harrison, who it seems helped finance the trip with Cooper's crew and is seen frequently in the film. Maghsoudlou owes a great deal to Ms. Harrison; large sections of the book are paraphrased from her autobiography.

As fascinating as this post-production material is, I wished that Maghsoudlou had been able to better identify and underscore the elements in the lives of the filmmakers that led them to decide to make Grass. He tries to do this by documenting the search for a story to rival Nanook of the North, the great hit documentary of the time. However, this narrative is somewhat weakly presented, and much too focused on each of the minute events occupying the filmmakers at any given moment to provide a dynamic story to drive the book. I confess that it may be wishful thinking on my part to desire material that would explain in compelling psycho-social terms why three sophisticated Westerners would just up and trot off to Iran to make a film about transhumant migration. Of course such speculation by any author risks alienating the reading public, who may find this interpretive hand too heavy in positing motivation and life-directions. Indeed, Maghsoudlou's restraint in sticking to the known facts may be seen by many as a virtue.

These caveats aside, I recommend this book enthusiastically to all...


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pp. 520-521
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