If you’re interested in nomadic cultures and traditions of the world, or people in general, here is a documentary you should not miss. Anthony Howarth’s People of the Wind (1976) is a unique ethnographical documentary that graciously depicts the simple and obscure lifestyle of the Bakhtiyari tribe from Iran; of whom we know – or used to know – so little.
This forgotten film about a forgotten people is not alone when it comes to documenting this unique culture, the other most notable ones being the amazing silent documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925), as well as the later Bakhtiyari Migration: The Sheep Must Live (1973). These true cinematic milestones can be discussed some other time, as the focus of this brief review will be on Howarth’s work – which was and still is a major cinematic accomplishment when it comes to portraying the Bakhtiyari.
People of the Wind depicts an ancient lifestyle that is unique to the Bakhtiyari tribe. There are not many traditions like this in the world, full of trouble and hardship, that have survived for so long. Of course, different regimes viewed the way of Bakhtiyari in different lights, and their choices always came at a price. One has to be very persistent and eager in order to preserve such an outstanding culture.
Although the film certainly made a great impact on the public, soon after the premiere of the documentary, its fortune started to change. By a cruel coincidence, the film had a rather similar destiny as the people whose tradition it tried to depict on the big screen. It was lost in archives and forgotten. But luckily – not for too long!
The film, and the freedom that it depicts so graciously, were restored and once again brought out from the shadow, in this new cinematic era. Resurrected from oblivion, it could live and tell the story again, like the very people in it.
G.T. Moore – Thanksgiving (from the album: G.T. Moore & Shusha - People Of The Wind (1976 | Carolyn -- CRS 1001) Footage excerpts from ‘People of the Wind’ (Anthony Howarth & David Koff)
“There are two hundred miles of impassable mountains to cross.
There are no towns, no roads, no bridges.
There is no turning back.”
There is one important fact to note. To a stranger, who has little knowledge of the tribe, it could seem that this culture never succeeded to integrate in a modern world and because of this was left in isolation. But, the Bakhtiyari always had a choice. It is them alone who have always decided their fate and were always determined to stick to what they know the best. Their choice is personal. It is to pursue their freedom.
A nomadic transhumance, or simply migration (Lori: “kooch”), proved to be the best occupation for them. The film portrays the people who over centuries developed a certain resilience, which is certainly necessary for all the struggles the merciless Zagros throws at them. This makes the relation of the Bakhtiyari and the Zagros mountains almost a romance. By moving with their livestock and carrying all of their belongings on this epic hard-labor pilgrimage, their only goal is to reach high valleys of Zagros. They surrender their fate to this great mountain, where men and the animals will find refuge and will temporarily settle, before it is time to undertake this journey once more.
The film is a documentary with elements of drama; a turning point for an era of cinema in which drama was still the main narrative. Although with notable interventions by the author, the documentary still succeeds in portraying the Bakhtiyari tribe in a setting that is rather accurate. In fact, in this way the documentary only further reveals the astonishing reality that’s behind the screen. This is no anthropological voyeurism; the author is simply awed by the immense exploit of the Bakhtiyari, and he has no other intentions but to capture it.
By adding subtle elements of drama and including great narration, the director accomplishes an amazing close up view of this obscure tradition. In this way viewers build a deeper relationship with the nomads, as well as their leader and main protagonist, kalantar Jaffar Qoli – the chief of the Babadi, as a sub-tribe of the Bakhtiyari. Even if the footage was left unedited and crude (as only a nomad’s life can be), the picture still would be of immense intangible value.
Either by intention or by chance, the director sometimes leaves the viewer perplexed as to whether the nomads are acting for the screen or their lives are indeed so cinematic. Either way, there is certainly no question about the film’s power to bring the viewer to a state of contemplation about the nomads, their past – and their future.
One could say this is the best metaphor of life itself. It refers to every struggle and obstacle that only life can throw at us. In every shot, it never fails to give the most beautiful tribute to a man who battles Nature (or only his own nature) – all just to survive, and at the very next moment to continue the same battle.
It really is an Odyssey. You can clearly see Jaffar rising up to meet his duty, as many other kalantars did before him. Instead of a vast sea and a beaten boat, there is an unforgiving Persian soil, his exhausted companions and herds of livestock. There’s no Ithaca, but the refuge he seeks lies in the valleys of harsh Zagros mountains. In order to reach these mountains one must undertake a great effort, with trouble lurking behind every rock, that can make this effort futile in a second.
Throughout history there has always been danger and temptation for the Bakhtiyari, but it seems like it was never enough to deter them from the traditional paths. It is a story from which all of us can learn a great deal.
The documentary is a homage to a hardworking and simple people, who do not choose to change their ways. By choosing hardship over comfort, the Bakthtiyari choose simplicity over confusion, freedom over career – living over existing.
There is a beauty to this film. Every time you watch it, you have the feeling you are rediscovering a whole other world once again. In a world full of distractions, it is unlikely that such a small group of people have managed to stay free and untamed by civilization for so long. Although vulnerable, to this day the nomads continue to prosper.
This is the message that the picture is trying to send; to give the nomads the acknowledgement they deserve, and to ourselves, maybe, a chance to pursue our own freedom.