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Celluloid Underground – BFI London Film Festival 2023 (Film Review)

3 min read

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

“You'll vanish into the screen of secrets.”

A quote attributed to Persian polymath: Omar Khayyam, opens this and guides viewers into an odyssey that awaits. A journey that involves a celebration of culture amongst oppression and censorship. The two main subjects, Iranian filmmaker, and curator: Ehsan Khoshbakht and his late mentor: Ahmad Jurghanian take us on this poetic voyage into an underground of shared celluloid dreams.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, all forms of media became a target of critical restriction by the establishment of enforced values that artists had to strictly adhere to. The failure to comply with or merely critique these principles resulted in serious punishment and even imprisonment. Films evidently suffered through effective censorship or destruction. Both Ehsan Khoshbakht and Ahmad Jurghanian experienced this turbulent atmosphere, which is what Celluloid Underground primarily explores.

Khosbakht recounts his upbringing amidst 1980's-2000's Iran by exhibiting his past work of exhibiting a countless array of Hollywood, Iranian, and international . Within these screenings, an underlying tension to what seemingly presents as a passionate and harmless event becomes evident. An example that Khosbakht recalls is an officer being present in every screening he organised and was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. He further reveals a particularly tense experience that concerned an officer loudly berating him that consequently led to outright shutdowns of his screenings.

It is predominantly through the presentation of this documentary that significantly invigorates these personal accounts. Whilst only principally focusing on the filmmaker's own perspective could lean on the side of self-indulgence, Khosbakht equalises his narrative with another viewpoint, his friend, Ahmad Jurghanian. Whereas Khosbakht concentrated in film programming and discussion, Jurghanian specialised in film collecting. Upon hundreds of piles of film reels and memorabilia to the point where he had not cooked in the kitchen for ‘a very long time', was Jurghanian's deep obsession with preserving film.

In the course of a myriad of film reels, cinema posters, intimate film discussions, and the memories of a cinematic upbringing, lies a collage of recollection that is displayed passionately and sincerely. A distinct lack of talking head interviews helps in constructing a far more visual viewing experience that seduces a transfixing reflective narrative. Their stories interposed with collections of an estimated five thousand films that Jurghanian asserts he owned, further create a nostalgic sentiment throughout.

Nostalgia and tragedy blend together in narrating this reminiscence of a forbidden culture. Jurghanian's mission to preserve as many film reels as possible was not simply a possession it stemmed from systemic repression. Due to the governmental strict confiscation and destruction of films, cinema was more than a passion, but a life commitment. The documentary expertly further investigates cinephilic obsession to the farthest limit in which dire consequences materialise. Knowing the imposed repercussions and the persistence of such an enormous passion influences the question of how far a personal interest goes. This is an aspect pivotal because it proposes the debate to the audience and questions if one's passion is worth saving or as a potential act of defiance.

Ehsan Khoshbakht presents a well-crafted documentary that is efficiently worthy of dialogue and demonstration. Whilst Celluloid Underground only spotlights two stories of Iranian film culture rather than as a whole, what is depicted is a lyrical reminiscence of rebelliousness. It is a timely documentary that develops into an advocate of the significance of cinema for not singularly as a spectatorial experience but as a powerful ideology.

Celluloid Underground will be screened throughout the London Film Festival 2023