Review: Grass

Grass: A Nation’s Battle For Life

Ma Teng-yue

Although Grass: A Nation’s Battle For Life (1925) often is praised as the second most important documentary in history of film following Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, it is screened far less often than Nanook. People interested in documentaries can read about Grass in many books, but never have a chance to see it. With migration the main theme of the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival this year, this classic film about the nomadic Middle Eastern Bakhtiari and their move to find new pastures for their flocks has been chosen because, apart from offering a veritable feast for ethnographic film aficionados, image tension and content will be the sources of many discussions among viewers.

I will begin by offering a brief introduction to Grass and the background behind its making. During the early 20th century, the exploration documentary was an important part of the silent movie market. In a time when foreign travel still wasn’t commonplace, exploration documentaries satisfied audiences’ needs to see the world. These films also brought considerable profit to movie companies and producers. In particular, the invention of the small film camera made exploration filmmaking possible. The making of documentary-style films integrating adventure, travel and business reached its peak after the end of World War 1. Examples from this period are Admiral Byrd’s Polar Explorations, William Beebe’s Undersea Voyages, Roy Chapman Andrews’ Discovery of Dinosaur Eggs in the Gobi Desert, and Grass .

In addition to showing the Bakhtiari’s move to new pastures and their battle with nature, the film is also a travelogue about the eastern travels of the film’s producers and photographer, Marguerite Harrison, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The film begins with the two explorers Harrison and Cooper setting out on a journey to the East in search of “forgotten peoples.” The film follows their simple horse-cart from Ankara on its journey eastwards, traversing Asia Minor towards a distant Persia. Crossing barren plains and salt deserts, they pass village after village as they continue eastwards. The unfamiliar customs they encounter along the way set the tone during the first half of Grass — the fort serving as a refuge for travelers which they see during a night of desert storms, traditional hunters hunting and roasting goats in the Taurus Mountains, the camel-mounted police patrolling the deserts on the Arabic Peninsula and so on. These images of strange lands and customs gradually take the audience eastwards, to the roots of Western history, predating Western history. Finally, we “arrive at the very beginning,” “the forgotten people — the Bakhtiari tribe.”

Beginning with the encounter with the Bakhtiari, the film enters the second stage, which also is the focus of the film. In the eyes of the makers of the film, the Bakhtiari, who rely on livestock to make their living, move with water and pastures, live in simple, ancient tents, and maintain a traditional way of life unchanged over 3,000 years, are a people forgotten by history and civilization. As they arrive, the 50,000-strong Bakhtiari are facing a serious challenge posed by the searing sun, dried up wells and withered grass. The Bakhtiari leader, Haidar Khan, somberly says that there is no more water or grass, and that their cattle will die, followed by children and women. Finally everyone will die, and the whole people will perish due to the lack of water and pastures. In order to survive, they have to make a major move in search of water and pastures, and they must cross over the 12,000 ft Zardeh Kuh mountains in search of the necessary water and pastures in the east. The very day this major move begins, Harrison, Cooper and Schoedsack, three white Western people, arrive to document the whole move, making them the first white people in historic times to traverse the Zardeh Kuh mountains on foot.

Since film techniques at the time did not allow for extravagant methods, all scenes in Grass are quite simple, containing only fixed long-distance and medium-distance shots and close-ups. Without a doubt, however, despite using such simple shots, the audience still strongly feels the willpower and efforts exerted by
humanity in its struggle to survive, in particular in the scene where the 50,000 Bakhtiari cross the Karun River with their 50,000 head of cattle. Many of the animals struggle to swim across the violent river, finally perishing among the waves. The Bakhtiari, crossing the river on goat-skin rafts, have to fight the river while they try to rescue every animal. The six days it takes to cross the river highlight the battle against the elements to survive and the closeness to death, strongly touching the hearts of the audience.

Another moving part of the film is the dangerous crossing of the Zardeh Kuh mountains. One wrong step as they are trying to find a non-existent path among the precipices to cross the majestic mountains will mean a fall down a deep valley with sharp rocks. The snow lies deep above the snow line. The simple shoes are useless, and people simply walk barefoot. To make it easier for the animals, the men shovel the snow, walking bare-foot in waist-deep snow, step by step closing in on the top of the mountain ridge. The audience can feel the pain from the freezing snow. Following the men clearing the road we see a never-ending, meandering line of people and animals moving through the expansive, 150-mile long, snow-covered mountain area.
Viewing Grass today, 80 years after its making, it can be interpreted and discussed from many different angles. First of all, visually speaking, although it is a silent movie, the intense visual tension created by unfamiliar customs, the tough battle against and the overcoming of the elements, life and death, still awes audiences. Audiences will find it rewarding to admire the details in the Grass imagery. Secondly, the intense visual tension of Grass makes it even easier for us to experience the many particular customs of a nomadic people’s culture and society, in particular the ability to survive under harsh environmental conditions. In addition to shocking the audience with the nomadic people’s strong will and ability to survive, it also creates an exceptional curiosity towards the kind of culture developed under such environmental conditions and way of life. 80 years after the making of Grass, the film still holds up a window, making audiences want to see and understand the fascinating nomadic culture and society.

From another perspective, if we want to further understand the way Grass is arranged and presented, a lot of inspiration may be found in Edward W. Said’s book Orientalism. Starting out from Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony and Michel Foucault’s research into the relationship between intellect and power, Said points out that “The East” not only is a passive geographical concept, but that it exists in the centuries-old hegemonic Western intellectual construct of the East. From imaginary constructs of Eastern marginalization, backwardness, despotism and lack of civilization, the West has created a view of itself as the imperturbable center. While “discovering the East” became one of the most enthusiastic Western exploration undertakings in recent centuries, the West also used books to finalize its position as ruler of the East.

In fact, just like the many books about the East in recent times, the point of departure for Grass was the exploration of the unknown East, a rediscovery of a “forgotten people.” The focus of the whole film is, as the narrative text of the film says, “East, East, always East.” Together with innumerable other texts, images and art, Grass has shaped the contemporary Western perception of the East. The basic concept is that the East is unknown and waiting to be discovered, that the East existed before the beginnings of Western history, and that it is the cradle of Western civilization. While Western civilization has continued to develop for 3,000 years, the East still remains in the era of barbarians relying on nature for survival, unchanged from the way it were before the Greek and Roman eras 3,000 years ago. The peoples in the East have become peoples forgotten by the West (civilization), and they have to be rediscovered by the West. Grass is a journey in discovery of these lost Eastern peoples.

The Chinese often say that as rituals are lost, we have to search for them among the uncivilized. The West is not looking to the East for rituals, but rather for a lost and forgotten past. Although there is a difference between the two, both carry a strong sense of historic evolution, making the party being explored feel ill at ease. If we want to criticize this film from the point of view of Orientalism, maybe we should also review and clarify the historical and cultural hegemonic attitudes of China as the center that exists in our own cultural awareness.