On Friday 1 March, the Castlemaine Documentary Festival (CDoc) presents a one-night-only screening and performance at the Astor Theatre in St Kilda: the extraordinary silent 1925 documentary GRASS, complemented by a live performance of the score by its composers, ZÖJ.

GRASS follows nearly 50,000 Iranian nomads, the Bakhtiari tribe, as they move 500,000 livestock over raging rivers and snow-capped mountains in an annual search for winter pasture. Its deeply moving narrative is rendered with sensitivity, stunning cinematography and more than a few heart-stopping moments as the Bakhtiari and their herds traverse extremely harsh, frequently life-threatening terrain. Far more than adventurist travelogue, it’s a respectful portrait of a people and their culture, made by three filmmakers who shared a worldview as well as a lifelong wanderlust. Add an exquisite score, and it’s the sum of three remarkable parts.

Having acquired GRASS for its 2023 program, CDoc commissioned Ballarat-based duo ZÖJ (“couple” in Farsi) – Iranian-born musician, vocalist and composer Gelareh (Gela) Pour and percussionist Brian O’Dwyer – to compose a score that would both mirror and interpret the Bakhtiari’s journey. The festival screening saw closing night sold out. Festival Director Claire Jager says, “because the experience was so popular, we were eager to bring it to metro Melbourne”.

ZÖJ describe their music as “contemporary Australian”, meshing classical Persian and broad contemporary influences in dialogues that are delicately structured yet somewhat anarchic, and which rely consistently on improvisation.

Because of her heritage, Pour has a strong personal connection to GRASS; in responding to it, she and O’Dwyer drew on that heritage as well as the film’s subject matter and visual rhythms. Pour comments that it was fundamental to the score “to hold an instrument from Iran, the Kamancheh – an instrument that was also played in the Bakhtiari tribe and still is – using Persian poetry and textures of percussion that illustrates the movement of immigration.”

Pour speaks often about the dynamic that comes from three elements of live performance – music, location and audience. In this instance, she identifies the film as a fourth element – “another form of art that has a huge impact on our music-making”. She adds, “We studied this artwork as a source of inspiration but still gave ourselves a lot of room for improvisation, although we were driven by its duration and a very strong story close to our hearts”.

The story of the peripatetic filmmakers behind GRASS – Marguerite Harrison, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack – is as striking as the film itself.

Harrison was a rebellious wealthy American who became a journalist on the Baltimore Sun, then enlisted to spy for the US Army throughout WW1 and later in Russia, where she was imprisoned twice. She first met Cooper at a Red Cross dance while they were both stationed in Poland.

Cooper was a journalist and WW1 fighter pilot shot down three times in Germany and Russia, and imprisoned in both countries. He met cinematographer Schoedsack in Vienna during the war. Schoedsack had filmed many of WW1’s momentous battles; and a creative partnership emerged from their shared fascinations with cinema and diverse cultures. Cooper went on to run RKO’s Hollywood studio, and had a hand in establishing Pan American Airways. Along the way, he produced one of Hollywood’s most iconic films, King Kong, aided and abetted by Schoedsack (whose wife Ruth Rose wrote the screenplay). In 1924, the two formed a trio with Harrison specifically to make GRASS.

Castlemaine Documentary Festival