In 1954 Issa and Abdullah Omidvar were in their twenties and growing restless in the suburbs of Tehran. In that golden age before Iran de-selected itself from the high table of western nations it was still possible for youngsters to dream ‘large’. The Omidvar brothers had a dream of traveling to the world’s remote corners. Preferably on motorbikes while making a film about it! So the brothers ordered a couple of 500cc Matchless bikes and set off to see the world and document their trip in what is now known as one of the earliest travel documentary films!
A uninique Motorbike Travel Documentary
Throwing their film-making kit on their bikes and with just $90 each to spend, they set out to see the most remote people they could possibly find. En route they created a visual record that is now a milestone in film history. They shot incredibly sensitive, stand-alone anthropological documentaries about Eskimos, Amazonian cannibals, Polynesian islanders and much more. They edited them on the road and then held impromptu screenings in universities, village halls and arts centres, charging an entrance fee and thus financing the next leg of the trip! They really were the original Persian DIY Adventure Motorcycle Showmen!
It turned out to become a 10-year long journey around the world
Heading east they first passed through Pakistan, India, south-east Asia and Australia, eventually crossing the Pacific and heading up through Alaska and Canada into the Arctic. A vast sweep all across and down the Americas culminated in them joining the second Chilean expedition to Antactica in 1966.. It made them the first Asians to visit the frozen continent. Then, after a brief trip home, a new round of exploration in a 2CV which they drove through Africa, somehow managing to get the vehicle through the Congo and the formidable barrier of the Ituri forest.
The films they made along the way are full of the wonder and excitement of exploration. They also bring an interesting counterpoint to a visual media that was, at the time, dominated by America and Europe. While the rest of the world was racing to modernity and feeling smugly superior to so-called primitive peoples, Abdullah and Issa Omidvar had an easy affinity and respect for those they met, something that gave them unique access to sights and sounds that were soon to be lost. What we also see is a world in a far better condition than might be imagined: forests seem endless, remote people seem happier and more secure in their lives; it is a world before globalisation, and a place cleaner and far less hectic.
When their journeys ended, Abdullah settled in Chile, founding a successful film company and cinema, while Issa returned to Iran as something of a celebrity. There in Tehran, in an 18th-century Pahlavi palace, he built a museum to house all the artefacts that he and his brother had collected. It’s a place very much worth a visit (Omidvar Brothers Museum).
It is the films, however, that are the most significant artefacts of their incredible journey.
(Re)discovery of the Omidvar Footage
For a long time this footage was forgotten, especially in the Western world. It is only thanks to some extensive digging by Lois Pryce, co-founder of the Adventure Travel Film Festival – that these films were (re)discovered.
Lois about her search:
I came across the Omidvar Brothers by accident while writing an article for a US travel magazine about historic overland expeditions. After wading through vast amounts of research, I found myself on an obscure German website. My eye was caught by a black-and-white photo of two dashing young men on classic British motorcycles. Some further digging revealed their identities as Iranian brothers Issa and Abdullah Omidvar. Getting hold of this film became an obsession and after many favours from Farsi-speaking friends in London, contact was made with Issa and a DVD eventually arrived in the post from Tehran.
In keeping with the down-home, have-a-go ethos of the Adventure Travel Film Festival, the Omidvars were not seasoned travellers, professional film-makers or members of the elite. They were two men in their early 20s who wanted to learn more about the world. But, most significantly, they were not European. By the mid-1950s the writing was on the wall for heavy-handed European colonialism and the Omidvars’ open, gentle approach – summed up in their motto attached to their bikes “All different, all relative” – was clearly a great asset to their explorations. Although the brothers refer to themselves as “white-skinned” in their narration, it was only in South Africa that they encountered any discrimination. “We were rejected by the white population of South Africa because of our Asian origins,” says Issa, “and the black population avoided us because of our white skin.” But from the point of view of a curator who ploughs through films made almost exclusively by westerners, their Iranian outlook is a refreshing and welcome variation.
These days, the Omidvars have slipped off the radar, even in their homeland, although there are some Iranians who remember their adventures being broadcast as a weekly TV show in the late 1960s. Anoosh Nabijou, a lecturer at London Metropolitan University grew up in Tehran and recalls watching the series as a nine-year old with his father. He hopes that one day the Omidvars will be recognised as the great Iranian explorers that they were: “Iran does not preserve its heritage and history in the same way as in Europe,” says Nabijou, “but that is changing and Iranians are becoming aware of their own icons.” Hopefully this UK premiere of their film will help the Omidvar Brothers finally achieve the recognition they deserve.
If you are a traveler happening to be in Teheran go have a look at the Omidvar brothers ‘world ethnology museum’ to get your travel inspiration fix. To get you on the way here is the address:
Sa’d abad Cultural department – Vali Asr St – Shahid Fallahi St – zaferanie – Shahid Tahery St