Celluloid Underground: a lyrical tribute to the material beauty of film

Two Iranian cinephiles share their commitment to film preservation and exploration in this poetic, palimpsestic documentary ode to celluloid.

Celluloid Underground (2023)

Splicing together fragments of memory amid the architectures of state violence, Celluloid Underground documents the intertwined stories of two cinephiles working across generational divides to preserve and share 35mm film prints in Iran. Speaking in voice over is filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht. His passion for cinema and attempts to screen movies while at university lead him to the door of Ahmad, a radical exhibitor and archivist who stored a 5,000-strong collection of banned films beneath the streets of Tehran to preserve them from destruction. The documentary explores what the loss of film culture meant to both men (the state closed theatres and banned possession of film after the 1979 Revolution) by way of interviews, found footage, archive clips, and an unshakable belief in the power of cinematic storytelling.

The two men’s relationships with moving images – and perhaps to a lesser extent, with one another – provide personal narratives from which political histories of resistance spin out. Even when recounting his imprisonment and torture for refusing to give up his film collection, Ahmad remains committed to the vitality of the filmic form; his precious reels “were more precious to me than my life,” he says. Ahmad’s dedication to the archive is matched only by that of Khoshbakht, who joins the underground endeavour to keep alive a collection that is always at risk of both discovery and the natural processes of decay.

Where Khoshbakht’s storytelling is strongest is in its lyrical engagement with film form. He expertly intercuts the imaginative spaces of movie magic (Hollywood studio backlots, Iranian streets) with the tangible detritus of motion pictures. There are nitrate and Technicolor prints and video footage shot through with green grain from light interference. Hands turn dials on a Steenbeck editing suite and lace loops of film through projectors. Handwritten notes lay discarded on stacks of rusting film cans; there are sheafs of posters, stills, and reems of celluloid escaping cans stored next to a bathroom sink. The beauty of film lies not only in its ephemeral capacity to conjure the not-there and already-passed into being, but also in its materiality.

Adding to the film’s charm is Khoshbakht’s voice over, which writes another layer of poetry over the palimpsestic images. He talks of “a chaos of memories” and of “vinegar syndrome and spliced passion” (referring here to the decomposition of acetate films and their editing process). In describing the smells of his childhood cinema – pickle and ham sandwiches and filter-less cigarettes – he evokes the multisensory experience that collective exhibition spaces afford us.

However, there are moments when Khoshbakht’s romanticism runs away with him. His suggestion that the celluloid is “composed partly of the remains of people before us,” is a fine one that speaks to cinema’s proximity to the human condition. However, it sits uncomfortably alongside the later use of documentary footage, which shows people picking cotton for celluloid production. While cinema can represent an escape from violence, its history is rooted in slavery and colonial exploitation, something that is not explicitly commented on in the film. 

There are also tensions between the personal and political, and between message and form, in Celluloid Underground’s cultural reference points. Although footage from Iranian movies appears throughout, the documentary namechecks a curiously white and male (think Hitchcock, Truffaut, Antonioni, and Bresson) canon of filmmakers. Like Ahmad’s basement archive, it’s a film history that is constrained by personal taste and contained by circumstance.

Khoshbakht’s personal insights, then, are what make Celluloid Underground really sing, whether he’s reflecting on his realisation that life must be lived beyond the archive, or commenting on the fragility of his own digital documentary’s existence in the world. For despite its melancholic ending, which evokes the pain of exile and loss, the film reassures us that the idea of cinema and its power to make us feel will remain. As Khoshbakht says of his earliest encounter with film, “I saw the light.”  Film conjures life, escapes death, and promises us everything in between. 

 ► Celluloid Underground screened in the Documentary Competition at the 2023 London Film Festival.