Gabbeh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996) was the 16th cinematic production by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the most acclaimed, yet controversial filmmakers of the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. Gabbeh is a non-narrative, slow-paced, poetic film that celebrates the beauty of nature, love, life and the end of life. The film was screened and praised in multiple international film festivals when it was released in 1996. Gabbeh remains one Makhmalbaf’s best films and is now considered a classical work of Iranian poetic cinema. The collaboration of a superb cinematographer (Mahmoud Kelari), an outstanding musician (Hossein Alizadeh) and a filmmaker who eventually found his niche in the poetic realist tradition of Iranian cinema made Gabbeh an impressive art-house film to be viewed, remembered, and re-examined for many generations to come. It has the typical transcendental elements of the mystical poeticism of Persian literature and culture that informed Iranian cinema at least since the 1960s. The film is a meditative and peaceful treat that delves into a narrative of life. It invites the viewer to savour moments of everyday activities among the nomads, and to relish the picturesque nature in unravelled mini stories rather than leading the filmgoer to a sensational ending of a mega-narrative.    

Gabbeh is the name of three significant entities in the story: the young woman in love (Shaghayeh Djodat), an old woman who seems to be the future version of the young woman (Rogheih Moharami), and the rug that constantly accompanies the two women. In a surreal manner, the young Gabbeh and the old Gabbeh (representing the same person) are shown in the same compositions rather than being shown in classical flashback and flash forward sequences. The young version and the old version are in constant dialogue with one another. But the lover is only underlined as an old man (Hossein Moharami). The younger version of the lover is only shown in extreme long shots, and as a human he is muted. His voice is the howling of a wolf, alluding to his crude masculine desire for the woman. The old lover recalls the archetypal “Pir”/ ‘Old Lover’ pictured in Iranian miniature paintings that is also recreated as the “Ravi/Narrator” in Sadeq Hedayt’s modernist novel The Blind Owl (1937). The old man prefers the company of the young Gabbeh rather than the old woman. The image of the young woman from his point of view could be an allegory of his imagination and his idea of love as an undying eternal beauty. The young Gabbeh as seen from the lover’s point of view is romanticised like the portrayals of the ‘Beloved’ in Rumi’s and Hafez’s poetry and the ‘Ethereal Woman’ (“Zan-e Asiri”) in The Blind Owl. The youthful Gabbeh and the old lover are the archetypal romantic couple of Persian literature. 

Gabbeh as an artefact is a type of coarse hand-woven carpet which is made by Qashqai women and some other nomadic tribes in southwest Iran. Before this film was made, Gabbeh carpets were merely known to the nomads and sold in local bazaars in Shiraz and the Fars province, and had a limited local consumption. After the film was internationally recognized, the demand for the carpet increased exponentially in the national and international markets and Gabbeh became a sought-after piece in chic interior design among high society. 

In the film, Gabbeh symbolises the essence of Persian culture, its complexity and sturdiness in the form of “taar o poud” (wrap and weft), its beauty, and resilience in the eye of hardships and limitations. Gabbeh has a multi-layered story that explores stages of life: birth, nurturance and education, falling in love, adversities and struggles, and death in the backdrop of nomadic life, which is in tune with nature and the elements. The film alternately reimagines the yearning of the young Gabbeh, who desires to be unified with her lover on the other side of the mountains. The romance unfolds during the migration of the Qashqai nomads. The travelling nomads in the southwestern Iran across the Zagros mountains is portrayed with an often slow-moving camera, by employing long takes and extreme long shots of the landscape, the mountains, and the migrating nomads. The panoramic view of the mountainous scenery and people on foot or on horseback pictures the poetry of life, its simplicity and serenity. The closeups are reserved to show Gabbeh’s rough beauty, as well as wildflowers, birds, nomadic carpets and the hands of the teacher who educates the children in his makeshift tent/classroom on the go. Maestro Hossein Alizadeh, the composer of the film score, added another semantic layer by weaving the folkloric orchestral music into the story. The music highlights the sound of daf (Persian frame drum), natural sounds of animals and the wind, and the voice of a female singer, representing the voice of the woman in love. Gabbeh is mentioned to be the first postrevolutionary film that featured the voice of a female singer (unknown). 

There is an aesthetic match between the sonic and visual elements of the film. Just the way female singing is the predominant voice of the film, the female point of view (of the young Gabbeh) is the predominant point of view of the film; we see the story unfolding through Gabbeh’s perspective. The prevalence of female point of view becomes a point of departure from most productions of the Iranian film industry made before the 1990s. It used to be customary for Iranian cinema (and many other national cinemas including Hollywood) to show a romantic story from a male point of view. Woman in mainstream cinema was (and, to a greater extend, still is) the scopophilic object of desire, to be desired, and to be looked at. The camera in such films represents the male point of view: caressing, objectifying, and fetishising the female body. Gabbeh does not follow the phallocentric tradition of mainstream cinema. The women’s point of view does not underline the young male lover. Instead, his contour is merely shown in extreme long shots and he is only underlined as an old nagging man, an undesirable man. Hence, Gabbeh could be viewed as a genuine feminist film. It is a feminist film with a novel topic, the nomadic life. Most productions of the Iranian film industry were focused on depicting urban and rural life. Nomads and nomadic life were barely fictionalised in a poetic realist manner.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf started his filmmaking career as a “committed Islamist” director, with fundamentalist views of religion. He was known as a fanatic Muslim who disdained secular poetic films made by Iranian New Wave filmmakers such as Daryush Merjui. His early films reflected his absolutist, black and white viewpoint. His ideological-oriented camera had no place for even shades of grey, let alone picturing colours. In Gabbeh, Makhmalbaf literally and loudly changed the lens of his camera, to celebrate life with all its colours, ups and downs, “rang o ranj” (colour and suffering). In the film, the choral voice of characters announces: “life is colour, love is colour, life is suffering, love is suffering”. The choral voice retroflexes the story we have seen. Gabbeh loudly and clearly announced Makhmalbaf’s departure from his absolutist point of view to embrace the secular poetic view of Persian literature and Iranian poetic cinema.  

Gabbeh (1996 Iran 79 min)
Prod: Khalil Daroudchi, Khalil Mahmoudi Dir, Scr, Ed: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Phot: Mahmoud Kalari Mus: Hossein Alizadeh
Cast: Shaghayeh Djodat, Rogheih Moharami, Hossein Moharami, Abbas Sayah, Parvaneh Ghalandari

About The Author

Khatereh Sheibani is a scholar, author and curator of Middle Eastern and Iranian cinemas and cultures. She has designed and taught multiple courses on Middle Eastern and Iranian media and culture at York University, Toronto, Canada. Khatereh has a doctorate degree in Comparative Literature and Film Studies from the University of Alberta, Canada. Her book titled The Poetics of Iranian Cinema: Aesthetics, Modernity, and Film after the Revolution was published in November 2011 by I.B.Tauris, UK.

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