In competition at the London Film Festival in the Documentary category, the London-based, Iranian-born filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht explores and explains the increasingly tumultuous position held by cinema in Iran.
Using a mix of reconstruction, recorded interviews and film collage, Iranian filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht – inspired by the unexpected death of his friend Ahmad Jorghanian – begins Celluloid Underground with reminiscences of his own discovery of cinema as a young child in Iran. His descriptions of seeing stars like Charlie Chaplin on a big screen for the first time set the scene for a constant presence of love and curiosity for film.
As the governing regime in Iran becomes increasingly oppressive in its censuring of film, Khoshbakht goes on to describe his university days tracking down and selecting items for screening at student film clubs, with some of his choices eventually landing him in scrapes with the authorities and their secret observers.
Khoshbakht’s search for suitable material eventually brings him into contact with Ahmad Jorghanian, another Iranian cinephile, who would become his lifelong friend. Jorghanian was a man who devoted his life to saving film reels from being destroyed, often at risk to his own safety and liberty. His collection of partial and full films from around the entire world, including Hollywood classics, was hidden in locations across Tehran to keep them from the police and shared only with people whom he absolutely trusted. Together with a remarkably well-preserved collection of original posters, this vast – yet uncatalogued – library is an astounding cache and testament to the bravery of the man who collected it.
Celluloid Underground is a beautiful eulogy of Ahmad Jorghanian’s life, a tribute to a friend and mentor, and a love letter to cinema. It is also testimony to those who continue the struggle to create, curate, and preserve film and its associated culture in the face of oppression. In this context, their work is not only born from a love of cinema, but is an act of resistance.