Secret Cinema: Ehsan Khoshbakht unearths hidden treasure with his new documentary Celluloid Underground

Film preservationist Ahmad Jorghanian in his basement archive, a subject of Celluloid Underground.
Film preservationist Ahmad Jorghanian in his basement archive, a subject of Celluloid Underground.

Iranian filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht tells John Forde about his new documentary Celluloid Underground, the influence of Orson Welles and cinema as a revolutionary act.

I’m interested in how cinema captures time, and how the history of cinema is inevitably tied to the question of decay… That said, I take great comfort in knowing that this film will vanish. By giving up on the treasure, I have come to accept that nothing is fixed and the endings could be as beautiful as the beginnings of things.

—⁠Ehsan Khoshbakht

Imagine a world in which cinemas are banned and where owning or even watching a film could land you in prison. Such was life in Iran following the 1979 Revolution, where the Islamist regime closed cinemas, destroyed celluloid prints and made it illegal to own or rent films.

Iranian filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht grew up in this repressive environment, developing a love of cinema from his father, who told him the plots of banned movies as bedtime stories. At university, he joined an underground network of cinephiles, determined to preserve Iran’s motion-picture culture by screening and discussing illicit films.

Khoshbakht’s new documentary Celluloid Underground is his tribute to the cineastes of post-revolutionary Iran, for which cinema was an act of political resistance. We see grainy video footage of a teenaged Khoshbakht being shouted down by fundamentalists during a discussion of Dariush Mehrjui’s 1969 film The Cow, while secret police observe silently from the audience. (The following day, Khoshbakht explains, his film society was closed down).

The project is also a moving portrait of his friend and mentor Ahmad Jorghanian, a legendary figure who rescued film prints and memorabilia, hiding them in the basements of office buildings and circulating them to these secret networks of like minds. Repeatedly arrested and tortured by police to reveal the places of his collections, Jorghanian outsmarted them by revealing only one of his locations. A generation of Iranians learned their cinema history thanks to Jorghanian’s efforts, leading to comparisons with Henri Langlois, the Turkish-born archivist who helped save films from destruction during the Nazi occupation of France.

In some of the most extraordinary home movies you’ll ever see, Khoshbakht shares personal recordings of Jorghanian in his underground archives, surrounded by thousands of 35mm film prints, vintage movie posters and magazines. To his credit, Khoshbakht resists the impulse to valorize Jorghanian, presenting a nuanced depiction of a complicated and lonely man in the grip of an obsession.

Audiences in Tehran queuing outside a cinema before the 1979 Revolution.
Audiences in Tehran queuing outside a cinema before the 1979 Revolution.

As Khoshbakht explains, it was Jorghanian who inspired him, indirectly, to get out of the basement and embrace real life rather than observe it on a screen. Khoshbakht eventually undertook compulsory military service, which enabled him to get a passport and buy a one-way ticket to London, leaving behind Jorghanian and his old life forever.

Now a resident in Leytonstone, a suburb of North London that was once home to Alfred Hitchcock, Khoshbakht is a true film polymath. Currently co-director of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, a festival dedicated to preserving and screening celluloid film prints, he also contributes to the Criterion Collection’s magazine Current and co-edited a book of interviews with Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi. His first feature-length documentary, 2019’s Filmfarsi, surveyed low-budget Iranian thrillers and melodramas banned after the Revolution.

The news of Jorghanian’s sudden death in 2014—and the ongoing mystery about the whereabouts of his hidden archive—inspired Khoshbakht to make Celluloid Underground. After premiering at the 2023 London Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grierson Documentary Award, it’s since screened at festivals in Venice, Mumbai, Chicago and San Diego.

To date, the film is a little bit too underground: it’s been logged fewer than 300 times by Letterboxd members, but the reviews are stellar. “A touching and elegiac meditation on obsession, bravery and the importance of cinema,” Markrenney2 writes, while Ihjaz calls it “[a] booster shot reminding me why I love [cinema].” Simon praises Khoshbakht for “weav[ing] in personal, political and scientific digressions in low-key magic, even making an argument that the substance of film itself evolves and grows just like our bodies do.”

I caught up with Khoshbakht after a screening of Celluloid Underground at London’s Garden Cinema, where he introduced the film. Articulate and funny, he seems worlds away from the shy, bespectacled young man seen in his home movies, drinking Coca-Cola in the basement with Jorghanian as they leaf through old movie posters.

Khoshbakht in one of Jorghanian’s underground archives.
Khoshbakht in one of Jorghanian’s underground archives.

Congratulations on the film. It's a remarkable piece of work that crosses a number of themes and genres. It’s social history, a memoir, the story of a friendship and a reflection on your life in exile. Any of those on their own could have been a compelling subject for a documentary, but you’ve chosen to combine them into a single piece. How did you develop the narrative?
Ehsan Khoshbakht: When Ahmad passed away in 2014, I began cutting the footage from the basements with my editor Niyaz Saghari, to see if we could make a film about Ahmad. The result was underwhelming—there wasn’t enough material for a feature film, so we abandoned it. A few years later, I realized the only way we could approach the story is to tell it from my point of view, with some parallel lines of history to fill in the gaps. So the film became Ahmad’s story, my story, my take on him and the history of film culture [in Iran] both before and after the Revolution.

Were there any documentarians you were inspired by or referenced?
I’m very influenced in the way I make and edit documentaries by Orson Welles’ F for Fake, which ironically was an Iranian co-production. I’m inspired by Welles’ way of making documentaries. F for Fake has a rapid pace, fast cuts, many parallel narratives and a dramatic use of music, like you would have in a fiction film, but also moments of pause and contemplation.

There’s some alarming footage of you hosting a film society in Tehran, where someone in the audience yells at you and accuses you of heresy. What was it like for you to include these very intimate moments in the film?
As a documentary filmmaker, I don’t believe in objectivity. I like incorporating personal elements that break the flow of the narrative and remind the audience not to take everything at face value. Ahmad’s life could have been told in many different ways. This was how I saw him, but perhaps for other people he was more heroic, or a bit of a charlatan. So it felt important to retain my presence in the film. It was very hard for me to get as confessional as I got; I’m a very private person, and I’ve never told these stories to anyone. Maybe in a way I wanted to practice the art of openness. It was not an easy decision. I hated the editing process and still find it very hard to look at the film.

Was there anything about your own story that you were tempted to leave out?
There are so many tiny details that you may not even notice. There’s a scene where I’m smoking and I make a joke that if my mother watches the film, she will realize that I’m a smoker. So even including that scene in the film, I knew that my parents wouldn’t like it and that things were going to be awkward. But we decided to be open about it. It was a sort of psychotherapy, I guess—to set the record straight about my past so I could move on.

Let’s not forget that obsession benefits others. It’s a form of creative order. The history of religion is based on obsession, which becomes a ritual. Many of the jazz musicians I love were obsessive characters.

—⁠Ehsan Khoshbakht

What has surprised you about audience responses to the film?
I’ve been overwhelmed by the reviews of the film. It’s very interesting that reviewers see Ahmad and I as superheroes. I see the two of us as dreamers and even cowards. Ahmad in his basement reminded me of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel I admire very much. The main character has created a totally [interior] life in a basement surrounded by lights, smoking joints and listening to Louis Armstrong. There’s nothing heroic about that.

Another reference for me was Satyajit Ray’s film The Chess Players. There’s a beautiful scene where two friends are playing chess, while in the background you see the British army passing by. Their country [India] is going through massive change, but they are obsessed with chess and what matters to them is their friendship.

Your portrait of Ahmad is very nuanced. It’s interesting that we see him mostly in the basement rather than outside.
It was very difficult to be with Ahmad outside the basement. He could be rude, loud, messy, even sloppy. I think I was more connected to the realities outside because I was a student. I had lots of interactions with other people. I had a social life; I had relationships with women. And Ahmad never ever did. But the moment I got into the basement, the door was locked, and then there was only the reality of the basement. When I made the film, I was thinking about The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan, and how peculiar a basement is in redefining reality for a person.

The first time I watched Celluloid Underground, I also thought of you both as superheroes. The second time, I felt sorry for Ahmad, this man who’d sacrificed everything for his obsession—relationships, family, a home.
He was obsessive, but let’s not forget that obsession benefits others. It’s a form of creative order. The history of religion is based on obsession, which becomes a ritual. Many of the jazz musicians I love were obsessive characters.

Jorghanian shows off some vintage film posters.
Jorghanian shows off some vintage film posters.

As a white man who grew up in New Zealand, I have an outsider’s fascination with your life as a student dissident. What was it like to do something you loved, which was also a criminal activity that could have put you in prison?
My dedication to film was total. I had no doubt that watching and sharing films was exactly what I wanted to do. There was an element of excitement and danger in it that was thrilling. My earliest memory of watching a film was my father taking me to see [the 1961 Biblical epic] Barabbas. The scene of Anthony Quinn coming out of the dungeon into the light and seeing Jesus was very liberating for me.

I created a parallel religion of cinema, which was the alternative to a state-based religious ideology of the most extreme and destructive kind. It also gave me a sense of power, because I was the one who had access to show these films. Perhaps I wanted to be a bit of a legend in my own time by doing this, either consciously or subconsciously.

In the film, you comment on the fragility of celluloid, which becomes a metaphor for the brevity of human life.
I’m interested in how cinema captures time, and how the history of cinema is inevitably tied to the question of decay. The first line I recorded for the film was, “This film is going to vanish in the next few decades.” My producers were scandalized, and asked me to say, “This film could vanish!” That said, I take great comfort in knowing that this film will vanish. By giving up on the treasure, I have come to accept that nothing is fixed and the endings could be as beautiful as the beginnings of things.

The film is also a testament to human resilience and this need we have as humans to understand ourselves through art, which can’t be repressed even by a government. Is that too romantic an interpretation?
No, I agree with you. The whole idea of interpretation within a totalitarian state is an act of rebellion. Actually, what the [Iranian] censors didn’t realize was that it’s not the film itself that does the “damage” to this rigid system—it’s the dialogue and the conversation about the film, and people seeing other realities during your conversation.

Khoshbakht’s documentary demonstrates the ephemeral nature of film.
Khoshbakht’s documentary demonstrates the ephemeral nature of film.

In the film, you express a lot of ambivalence about leaving Tehran. Do you have any regrets about leaving behind that life and your friendship with Ahmad?
It’s not that easy to leave everything behind and go and start from scratch. My idea of freedom was exercised in Ahmad’s basement through cinema. Eventually, I realized I wanted to exercise that freedom in the open with freedom of movement and expression, everything that could make life more enjoyable for me. I wanted the real experience of all the glamor and excitement I saw in those films.

I have no regrets, because I’m doing exactly the same thing, in a freer and more enjoyable way, with an international audience. [Last year], I curated a retrospective of pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with nearly 70 titles. I found that extremely rewarding—it’s like paying my debt to the old country by restoring these films and subtitling them.

Is there any restoration project that you’re especially proud of?
Two years ago, I took a copy of Bahram Beyzai’s film Stranger and the Fog out of Iran in an operation as complex as Argo—though unlike that film, this was real. It was restored in Bologna with the support of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and George Lucas. It’s funny—I was in the basement, and now these films are being restored by these people who are gods of cinema. These are people who, like Ahmad, have channeled their obsession in very constructive and meaningful ways. We’re a happy community of obsessives.

Celluloid Underground’ is screening in select cinemas in the UK now, and will appear at festivals in Europe and the US later this year.

Further Reading


Share This Article