Gabbeh (Makhmalbaf, 1996) is a grand, colourful romance set in Rural Iran,which employs a disjointed narrative, jumping back and forth between two interconnected time periods, leaving the audience confused as to the nature of what they’re being presented with until the very last scenes of the film. It’s very different in tone and style to director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s daughter Samira’s more muted docudramas. It does, however, follow the same tradition of walking the line between documentary and fiction.
Originally planned as a documentary for the Iranian Handicraft Industries Organization to be shot in southeastern Iran […] Gabbeh quickly turned into a fiction film once Makhmalbaf enlisted villagers to play the nomads and reenact a Ghashghai migration. He had plastic flowers planted in the backgrounds of certain shots, designed some of the gabbehs himself, and didn’t hesitate to make the migrations look more primitive than they actually are, with the tribespeople traveling on foot and horseback rather than in trucks. (Rosenbaum, 1997)
But despite its origin in documentary, it presents a deliberately misleading portrayal of Iran:
The task of packaging Iran […] for the international market borders on the quixotic, but Mohsen Makhmalbaf seems to have known precisely what he was up to when he made Gabbeh. A gabbeh is a kind of Iranian carpet produced by the nomadic Ghashghai tribe and compared by some people to American quilts as a form of folk art. Makhmalbaf estimates that only one out of every ten thousand Iranians owns a gabbeh and that only one out of every thousand has even heard of one. But as a luxury item that can appeal to the imagination, stimulate an aura of fairy tales, and summon up a preindustrial idea of Iran that can fit cozily inside any Westerner’s home, the gabbeh is a consumer object, Disney cartoon feature, and visionary art-movie icon all rolled into one. (Rosenbaum, 1997)
Makhmalbaf himself highlights his fantastical, yet simplistic representation of Iran:
I think Gabbehs are like good Iranian films. What attracts foreign audiences to Iranian films is their simplicity and their re-creation of nature. These are the same two qualities that have made Gabbehs popular in foreign markets as well. In western countries, people are overwhelmed by difficult, complicated, and rough situations. When they go to the movies they don’t want to see the same complexity and violence they are surrounded by. That is why they are fascinated by simple Iranian films that remind them of nature. (Makhmalbaf Film House, 2014)
Makhmalbaf’s use of colour is the stand out aspect of the film, lending it incredible vibrancy and charm. In one of my favourite moments, in a scene near the start of the film, one of the characters points out colours in the landscape and they miraculously appear in his hands as flowers or as paint.
The saturation of colour in Makhmalbaf’s cinematography matches that of the rugs which give his film its title, lending the visuals an intensely exotic character. This almost certainly contributes to the criticism that it’s received for presenting a tourist-friendly image of Iran.
Makhmalbaf, M., (1996) Gabbeh, MK2 Productions
Makhmalbaf Film House, (2014) Gabbeh, Makhmalbaf Film House, Available from: http://www.makhmalbaf.com/?q=film/gabbeh [Accessed on 20 May 2016]
Rosenbaum, J., (1997) Packaged Parables (GABBEH & SHE’S SO LOVELY), Chicago Reader, Available from: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/packaged-parables/Content?oid=894234, [Accessed on 20 May 2016]