Gabbeh – Iran – 1996 -Drama, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Gabbeh is a kind of carpet woven by the Qashqa’i people of Iran. “The movie plays like a mix of documentary and dream”-Liz Braun. “Has visual eloquence to spare, a rhythm that pulls you along and a sense of yearning not too often encountered in movies.”-Joe Baltake
Sacramento Bee. Gabbeh was scheduled to be part of the first Festival of Foreign Films, but was not shown due to technical difficulties. The film was made for an Iranian audience that already knew about the Qashqa’i, and had a native understanding of what to us will seem foreign concepts, so I believe some background is in order.
The word Iran is derived from Aryan, people who migrated from the steppes of southern Russia/Ukraine to central Iran thousands of years ago. The language of the Aryans, part of the Indo-European family, evolved into Farsi or Persian. It is the dominant language and Aryans are the dominant people in Iran today. However, over 1/5 of Iran’s people belong to other ethnic groups and speak other non-related languages.
The Qashqa’i, the subject of the film Gabbeh, are the last of Iran’s nomads – people whose lives are dictated by their flocks of sheep and goats –people who are constantly on the move, following autumn’s greening grass down from the mountains to the plains near Shiraz, and on to the marshes of the Persian Gulf. It is an annual migration of over 300 miles – the longest in Iran.
The Qashqa’i are a confederation of Turkic-speaking tribes who travel in smaller clans. Clan size is dictated by the size of the herd, which is dictated by available grass. A clan that falls on hard times is helped by donations from other clans. The entire migration is coordinated by tribal chiefs, who decide how long a clan can stay in one place, so as to leave edible grass for others. Everyone in the clan lives for the good of the clan, as directed by the clan chief – there is very little individual choice for anyone – male or female, as the clan and its animals only survives if everyone cooperates.
With few possessions and much time spent travelling, a woman’s time is largely spent working with the byproducts of the herd. That means milking, making butter and cheese, spinning and dyeing yarn, and weaving carpets – all done on the road. Mostly, they’re making carpets, which are known for their exceptionally high quality. Most carpets termed “Shiraz” are made by the Qashqa’I, and require the efforts of several women. They are made from traditional patterns, to bring money or prestige to the clan.
A woman may also make a carpet for her own use, known as a Gabbeh. Gabbeh is a Farsi word meaning something raw, natural, uncut or “in the rough”. These are smaller, coarser, and the design is the creation of the weaver. It may tell a story, depict a landscape or scene, or even convey an emotion.
The film’s director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, originally intended to film a documentary about the Qashqa’I, but during production decided the culture would be better served by a drama. The film’s plot is only incidental – a girl’s longing to unite with her suitor. The film is really about a people at one with their natural surroundings: about feelings, colour, beauty, the spirit of a place, and its effect on the psyche: where myth becomes reality and reality myth.