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Source: The Guardian

Mar 25, 2024

Celluloid Underground review – love letter to a lifelong passion for film and illicit treasure trove

Iranian critic Ehsan Khoshbakht’s personal essay about a man’s smizdat film print collection shows the lengths cinephiles will go to to protect the art form

The passion of cinephilia is the subject of this absorbing personal essay movie from Iranian critic and film historian Ehsan Khoshbakht, now co-director of the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy, who narrates the film in a style that reminded me a little of Mark Cousins and also perhaps Werner Herzog.

Khoshbakht grew up in post-revolutionary Iran where he developed a love of movies and of moving images generally, even the sternly meagre output on national TV. I laughed out loud at Khoshbakht’s entranced description of the TV’s humble colour test card: “As exciting as an MGM musical!”

Khoshbakht (daringly) started a film club as a teenager, digitally projecting foreign movies videotaped from TV. He got into serious trouble for showing the Iranian classic The Cow by director Dariush Mehrjui, an anti-government protestor who was murdered last year (and sadly not included in the Oscars in memoriam section).

But even more importantly, Khoshbakht got to know an extraordinary man called Ahmad Jorghanian, a dedicated rescuer of 35mm films and posters whom this film honours as the “Iranian Henri Langlois”; that is, Iran’s unofficial equivalent of the celebrated French archivist and preservationist, hero of the 60s French New Wave. But unlike Jorghanian, Langlois was never arrested and tortured for his westernised film collection.

Jorghanian spent decades hoarding cans of film in his chaotic apartment and in cramped basements and hiding places all over Tehran, buying them from the warehouses and junk shops into which they had been dumped after being confiscated. Khoshbakht was able to project at least some of this illicit treasure trove on a samizdat basis, using borrowed projection facilities, and is ecstatic seeing these movies come to life once more.

In exile in London, Khoshbakht hears about the death of his old friend, and ponders the fate of Jorghanian’s collection: is film, like our own vulnerable human bodies, liable to decay into dusty nothingness? Historians will still protect what material they can, and protect the cinephilic language and culture that allows these films to be appreciated.

Celluloid Underground is at Bertha DocHouse, London, from 28 March

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