At this time of the year, locals of Nepal’s culturally Tibetan, eastern village Olangchung Gola will be racing against time to get in supplies from Kathmandu before the monsoon. They will be bartering essentials for mule-loads of hand-woven carpets. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Nepali film about these people or the women that make these rugs. Instead, we will have to console ourselves by watching one that features an entire clan of nomadic people from eastern Iran who are known for a similar seasonal trade.
Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh opens with an elderly couple arguing with each other about who gets to wash their precious possession when a young woman magically appears out of it. She says her name is Gabbeh (like the carpet) and she wants to run off with her lover on horseback (again, like the woven design). But her father will not get her married unless they find a bride for her 57-year-old uncle, a wandering teacher whose intuition tells him a woman singing like a canary near a well in spring-time will be the one.
As Gabbeh and her family move through the valleys looking for such a match, her suitor follows secretly on horseback. She is kept busy at home because she has to finish a carpet before the wedding and her lover howls from close-by at midnight to show his impatience. But father says mother is pregnant and, as the eldest of seven siblings, Gabbeh has to be at home to help.
Summer ends, autumn passes in an instant, and mother gives birth. But Gabbeh is still under surveillance of her rifle-wielding father as they travel on foot from one town to another. From close, the horseman finally sends word – it’s now or never and Gabbeh must choose.
Despite the lean simplicity of the story, Gabbeh is anything but skin and bones. Each frame oozes with a rich personal touch and feeling for the dramatic Iranian landscape and its inhabitants. It is as if Makhmalbaf only needed this everyday story about a young girl pursued by her lover and kept in check by her father, so that he could skip between the rituals of rural life and their charmingly quaint banalities to make visual poetry.
Life is colour, a character declares matter-of-factly, and Gabbeh is truly like a pristine garden seen through a kaleidoscope. If his characters need yellow dye for their rug, Makhmalbaf mixes wheat flour and a sparrow, and there appears a canary as well as a woman who sings like one, as if common sense demanded such a fantastic leap. Right from the first frame on, the carpet – now no longer a household item but a metaphor – unravels the story behind its making.
Before he made films Mohsen Makhmalbaf spent time in jail for stabbing a policeman in the days before Iran’s revolution. After he got out, he decided his country needed cultural artefacts, not coercive politics. In making Gabbeh, Makhmalbaf weaves the most pertinent strands of his country’s heritage into a truly singular masterpiece.