North Africa, West Asia

Hunted, hooded and sold

Maziyar Moshtagh Gohari’s film Cechanok sweeps through the world of Middle Eastern falconry. At the Open City Documentary Festival on 18 June 2015.

Mariam Ali
12 June 2015
Maziyar Moshtagh Gohari, Cechanok, 2014. All rights reserved.

Maziyar Moshtagh Gohari, Cechanok, 2014. All rights reserved.Maziyar Moshtagh Gohari's Cechanok takes us on a fascinating journey into the world of falconry, as silent observers of the process of catching, training, and competing with a falcon. In a series of discrete steps, punctuated by simple chapter headings and lines of poetry, it takes us from the “sunny port” in Iran where the falcon is hunted, to the tournament in Abu Dhabi where it hunts to win its new owner a coveted prize – a golden effigy of itself.

There is no narration, and no subtitles for the infrequent dialogue in Farsi and Arabic. The soundscape is instead made up of occasional music, the screeches of falcons and other animals, and the wind. The emphasis is on what we see – fitting in a way, because the falcon itself does not understand what is being said about it, as it is hunted, measured, hooded, sold.

But the documentary is not really from the bird’s point of view, or from that of anyone involved. We are outsiders, seeing all of it, and not told what to think.

The long shots and simple cuts are minimalist but atmospheric: the sky, the road, the distinctly rugged, wrinkly mountains (a dead giveaway that the film begins in Iran), a young pet falcon perched on the dashboard of the hunter’s car like a very dignified bobbing-head toy.

The focus is otherwise on showing in detail the precise, elaborate and labour-intensive work that goes into each step. Catching a field mouse for bait, for example, involves trekking back and forth across the desert, fetching water to pour down countless burrows, tracking in the dark long into the night.

Another time-consuming venture is setting a trap to catch the falcon itself. We watch the hunter and his two helpers spend all day digging, weaving and building, camouflaging a spot to hide in when he is ready to pluck the bird from the sky, with hard work, patience, skill and luck.

Once the falcon is caught, its journey begins – painfully, as it is blinded and bound to remain still while it is haggled over at a leisurely pace. The hunter shows it off to a dealer to be discussed and disputed; the docility of his tame bird contrasting to this wild one’s panicked shrieking. It is inspected and re-inspected, measured and re-measured, changing hands again and again until it is shipped off to its new home in the Emirates.

Here, it provides a pleasing photo opportunity for visitors celebrating a national holiday, or sits in a museum alongside diagrams and replicas of itself, or competes against other falcons. Birds chase after live prey dropped from meteorological balloons, towed by model aeroplanes – it’s true the film tells us little about the history of this tradition, but it’s clear which things continue to be done as they might have been 100 years ago, and which have been updated.

The training for the competition is intense, and sometimes prize birds get injured. But they receive prize treatment: at a high-tech veterinary facility, a falcon is sedated and has “feather reconstruction” surgery, an intricate (and surely costly) procedure. It recuperates among other falcons to the music of Enya, broken up with pained screeching.

The tournament itself is a big deal, with a long list of important patrons and big sponsors. Group photos are taken, runners-up presented with medals, and the tournament winner given a golden, hooded falcon to match the one that won him the prize.

We’re left with some poignant shots of the falcons, straining at the tethers tying them to the perches where they have spent most of the film, and finally, of the sky in which they should be flying – and not just to compete. It’s a beautiful and sad ending to this thoughtful, evocative film.

Cechanok has its UK premiere at the Open City Documentary Festival on 18 June 2015. 

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