When extreme change – a revolution – works to make access to the past virtually impossible.
Unsuitable films were burned after the Islamic regime took over Iran. But one man stashed away reels and reels of banned and western movies – to thrill a new generation in secret film clubs. --Guardian
There’s a bittersweet note to the picture, however, as Khoshbakht was prompted to make it following the news that Jurghanian had died unexpectedly. The fate of his collection is currently unknown. It may have been lost forever. But you sense that Khoshbakht will not rest until he knows for sure. --Wendy Ide, Screen Daily
Ehsan Khoshbakht’s documentary returns on the painful but beautiful period of his own burgeoning cinephilia and the past of his native Iran.
How films enrich one's life... how they ruin it – It's the story of Celluloid Underground, premiering at @BFI London Film Festival. Now we have a trailer for it: pic.twitter.com/z7I6pVU3d5
Although most of us already know that the Iranian government banned the making and showing of films after the revolution of 1979, it can be hard to fully grasp what experiencing that ban could be like.
In his documentary Celluloid Underground, which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Iranian filmmaker and curator Ehsan Khoshbakhtrelates his own experience of growing up under this regime as a young cinephile, discussing and illustrating with reconstructions and home video footage the ways he fought throughout his childhood, teenage years and young adulthood to see and show films — so many small yet significant victories that he played a major part in. But it’s a reflection born of grief and which he goes through almost reluctantly: those were very painful times, associated with unresolved feelings that he tried to leave behind when he moved to London over a decade ago.
In centering the heroic efforts of those who fought to protect and project films in those years, Khoshbakht also shows their sacrifice and the burden of guilt put on those who eventually decide to leave for a safer, more enjoyable life of the kind everyone deserves.
This atmosphere of introspection, as opposed to a straightforward retelling of facts, is established with a striking opening sequence showingKhoshbakhthandcuffed to a chair in a basement, his eyes closed while some footage of his younger self is projected over his face at the wall behind him.The young cinephile in the footage is talking about a pile of film cans containing films from the entire history of cinema, and which can only be shown in Iran in secret and against the law. A sombre silhouette then walks down to the basement and, with an axe, destroys a reel of film. What may at first seem like a rather indulgent way to begin a film gains in resonance as Khoshbakht talks in voiceover about what brought him to make this film in the first place: the death of Ahmad Jurghanian, a film collector who risked his life to save reels of film from destruction and oblivion.
Khoshbakht returns to the beginning of his own story before telling that of Jurghanian, once again allowing for a factual but also emotional contextualisation that makes for a gripping film. The reconstitutions, showing a small child marvelling at the static on the television before the programmes begin, or creating his own small projector under his bed to display the single frame of celluloid film he has been gifted, add a visceral dimension to the facts mentioned in voiceover, as does the choice of grainy film.
In fact, the tactile dimension of film seems just as important to Khoshbakht as cinema in a more immaterial sense (a perspective that is fascinating in our streaming era, and touching when considering Khoshbakht is co-director of Il Cinema Ritrovato — read our interview). This is hardly surprising considering the circumstances of censorship in Iran: films shown on television would be heavily censored, sometimes to the point of abstraction. Securing reels from before the revolution was the only chance to see them as they were made to be seen.
Much of the rest of the documentary is made up of extensive home videos showing Khoshbakht and his friends working their own borderline illegal cinema club — a sign of his youthful defiance, since home video was banned too.It is inspiring to see this 17-year-old cinephile in the old abandoned cinema that he has turned into a buzzing meeting place for film fans. But Khoshbakht’s own perspective on this footage is more nuanced, tainted by his reverence for a man who took even more risks than he did, and whom he feels he has abandoned.
Jurghaniancomes across as a secretive figure, whose trust Khoshbakht only slowly gained. The reclusive cinephile sent him reels after reels for his screenings, replacing the low quality VHSs Khoshbakht taped from television, before he finally agreed to have the young man visit him. In a flat filled from floor to ceiling with film cans and posters, we get a glimpse of a passionate but difficult life, where even the bathroom and the kitchen are consumed by cinema.
Jurghanianwas a man who didn’t give away his secrets even under torture, only ever condemning one small storage place to destruction but keeping many more hidden.Khoshbakht grapples with feelings of guilt and confusion when learning of this destiny, one he could have shared had he stayed in Iran. It would have been interesting to hear more of his final reflections on that topic, and on the somewhat ironic fate of Jurghanian’s film collection, presumably forever lost now that he has died with no one knowing its location. Was Khoshbakht meant to be its guardian?
Celluloid Undergroundis a moving reflection on the way the decisions we make around cinema can shape our lives in a very drastic way. But it is also a reckoning with the fact that films, like people, are alive, finite, and sometimes die.