5th Kurdish Film Festival in London

KurdishCinema.com - December 28,  2007

By Bestun Baban

More than one hundred films, nearly one hundred
directors, and three to four hundred people in the
audience: these were the elements of the film
festival. Once again, cross-border smugglers,
bombs going off during wedding-parties, mass
graves and Anfal, Saddam and peshmergas,
chemical attacks and children’s swings were the
main subjects of the films. Crying, lamentation, and folkloric caterwauling provided the
main musical themes for most of the films.

Most of the films were not very good. From an artistic point of view, they could not have
been said to be art for art’s sake; most were aimed at influencing people in a nationalist
direction. Either the subjects were peace, guerrillas, struggle, etc, especially in the films
from the north; or crying about something that happened in the past, such as chemical
attacks or the Anfal ;and some of them were seeking to promote nationalism by using
Kurdish costumes, religion and festivals and Kurdish culture generally. Some of the films
really consisted of TV reportage, and were not documentary films at all.

While most of the films were about the suffering of the Kurds at the hands of Arabs, Turks
and Persians, not a single one was about the suffering of Kurdish people under the
Kurdish Regional Government, although for many years the level of corruption and robbing
the country by officials has been very high, and the people have been suffering from
shortages of gas, water, electricity and health services – which should be a good subject
for films.

From my point of view, repeatedly showing the disasters of the Anfal, chemical attacks etc,
no longer serves anybody else except the new rulers of Kurdistan, who want people to
keep living in the past and to keep fearing what happened in the past, so they will stay
frightened and not do any thing to challenge their autocratic almost royal rule. If in the past
the Baathists destroyed the villages and forcibly removed the inhabitants, now the same
villagers leave their villages voluntarily because their products can’t be sold at a price from
which they can live off, and they get more money when they become police. If in the past
Kurdish women were forcibly raped by the Baathists, today the same things happen
through the use of money and misuse of government positions.

    I don’t know why we should continually have to
    put the death and destruction and
    bombardments of the past into the heads of
    the new generation via TV or cinema, or why
    instead of music they should continually have
    to listen to moaning and lamentation. Why do
    we make them always live in the past instead
    of allowing them to move forward? In my
    opinion this is a crime, and it means we are
    bringing up generation after generation in the
wrong way. I think this is a part of why most Kurdish people have psychological problems. I
personally am not going to thank anyone who brings a woman in front of the camera and
makes her cry for her dead relatives, as a result of which he becomes a film director.

Another point about the festival was that most of the films shown were set in villages, and
they spoke about the lives and problems of villagers, and seldom spoke about city life and
its problems. In most of the short films the directors of the film wrote the scripts too, and
also did the lighting and sound – another reason why the films were poor quality.

Nevertheless the photography in some of the films was very good, especially in “Border”,
(Sattar Chamani Gol), “Oven”, “Father”, “The People of the Peacock”, “Snowy Day’s Night”,
“Rain”, and “The Unseen Seen”, though carelessness over choice of music could be seen
in the fact that many of the soundtracks contained poor music; and in some cases the
sound quality itself was poor. Instead of instrumental music, villagers’ laments were often
used. Where instrumental music was used, it tended to be unsuitable music that had not
been made specially for the film.

If you looked at some of the films carefully, you could see that some elements of the plot
were very similar to the plot of “A Time For Drunken Horses” by Bahman Ghobadi, for
example “My Beautiful Son will be the King”, “Border” and “Miss Unfortunate”.

The best short film was “The Father”, but because it was not entered for the competition, it
did not get any award. Instead, the Festival Special Prize was given to “My Beautiful Son
will be the King” by Salem Salavati, (9m); “Water”, director Mahdi Hasan, (10m) won the
Bronze Prize; “Pain” by Hana Namdari, (3m) won the Silver Prize; and “Border” by Sattar
Chamani Gol, (10m) won the Gold.

The prize competition was restricted to those films that were between 1 and 30 minutes
long, so not all the films in the festival were eligible for prizes.

The best of the documentary films was “Traces: the People of the Peacock” by Binevsa
Berivan in which she carefully showed all aspects of the lives of the Yezidi Kurds in
Armenia. Also “Lanzo’s Box” by Sami Mermer, which was about homeless people in
America, was very successful, though if it had been a little bit shorter, and if the theme of
homelessness had not been artificially linked to the question of Kurdishness, it would
have been even better. Also this film and “Chair”, which was about the hard life of the
disabled Argentinian singer Ruben Rodriguez, by Kia Aziz, were the only ones that were
not about the Kurds.

Amongst the long films, “A Vehicle Ticket” was good, but the name didn’t match the
contents, and the ending was inappropriate. From the beginning the director treated all
aspects of the film very carefully, till the conflict came to crisis point, but then when the
audience was waiting for the expected clashes between the two sides, the film ended
abruptly. In my opinion the ending ruined the film, and the film should have a sequel made
to balance what happened in the first part. If a mullah were as fundamentalist as he is
shown in the film, he would never give up his position so easily to a teenager, as
happened in the film. If a sequel were made, it would be more realistic to see the mullah
go and get assistance and support from somewhere to strengthen his position in the
village.

“Winterland” by Hisham Zaman was well-received. The difference between this film and
others was that it was not a political film, but a film that dealt with social situations in a
comic way. By the standards of Kurdish cinema you could say it was successful.

Another film which was good was “Crossing the Dust” by Shawkat Amin Korki, in which the
director successfully put you into the atmosphere of that day when Saddam was removed
from power, and in the whole film tragedy and comedy were mixed together. You could see
the sense of humanity in the film. What spoiled it somewhat was the names of several
Barzanis appearing in the credits as supporting the film. I don’t know why the nation’s
money should be given as a favour, as Saddam used to do, by Barzani’s family to a
director to make a film, and with the condition that their name appear at the end of the film,
rather than a director being entitled to get funding to make a film for the Kurdish people.

In the absence of a film by Bahman Ghobadi, the audience was waiting for a good film by
Hiner Saleem, but unfortunately that is not what they got.

The first film by Saleem was a French film called “Beneath the Rooftops of Paris”, which
was too long. If the film had been only 30 or 40 minutes long, it would have been
successful. But what the audience saw was very annoying, because there was a lot of
repetition, and by the time the main character had died, the audience was dying of
boredom.

Saleem’s second film “Dol: The Valley of Tambourines” was very bad and there were a lot
of mistakes and technical faults in it:

•        Saleem read the map of Kurdistan upside down: the film showed people in Turkish
Kurdistan wearing Kurdish clothes and speaking Kurdish, but men in the villages in Iraqi
Kurdistan wearing suits and caps. Worse, it showed Iranian KDP peshmerga wearing
trousers and running shoes, when in fact they would wear Kurdish clothes. Also they
spoke Kurmanci. And when they had a wedding in the film, they were wearing suits and
ties, even though they were supposed to be peshmerga enduring difficult conditions in the
mountains. I had a foreign friend with me, and he asked me “Why do they say in Turkish
Kurdistan that they are not allowed to speak Kurdish or wear Kurdish clothes?”

•        If you showed anybody the scene where the father is wearing a black hat and long
black coat and leaning on a stick, and his sons are dressed in sharp black suits and ties,
and each of them stand facing in different directions, they would think they were watching a
film about the Italian mafia, not a Kurdish film.

•        During the journey of the main character (a Kurd from Turkey) through Iraqi Kurdistan,
the phrase “Now is the time of rebuilding” was repeated many times. This meant that the
Kurdistan Regional Government was very busy rebuilding the country; but in his film you
could not see any sign of rebuilding at all. In fact the places which he filmed were exactly
like Afghanistan or like a landscape in a Western - you could only see bare red mountains
and occasional groups of horses.

•        There are two wedding parties in the film, one of which ends with a skirmish and the
other of which ends with a bombardment. If a non-Kurdish audience saw this, they might
think that every Kurdish wedding party ends with severed arms and legs flying – which is
just not the case. Who would believe that?

•        In the scene where the bodies are being searched for in a mass grave, the man
wears gloves and is using a brush to remove dust from the bones as though he were
working on an archaeological site. The same scene in “Crossing the Dust” is much more
realistic when you see the movement of the bulldozer and the people moving round in the
dust looking for the bodies of their relatives. In the mass grave scene in Saleem’s film
there is a man standing on an elevated piece of ground, and beside the man there are four
or five white bags. There are some women queueing, and when they go forward, the man
gives each of them a bag and they go back without any crying or any expression of
sadness, just as though they have won a prize and they are collecting it, not taking back
the bodies of their relatives.

•        When the main character in the film has repaired the KDP Iran’s radio transmitter, the
equipment is shown playing music as though it were a normal radio, not a broadcasting
station.

•        Huner makes the peshmergas out to be idiots, because in his film the camp of the
KDP Iran consists of four or five white tents each pitched on the top of a bare hill, without
any cover and easy for the enemy to locate. This is during the time when the peshmerga
always chose a very well-hidden place for a camp, especially if they were operating a radio
station.

•        The ending of the film was like the ending of a Bollywood film. The main actor came
into the village during the day with a pistol in his hand, which is not realistic, since if you
were illegal and the enemy were looking for you, you would only enter the village at night,
and your gun would be hidden. He came in during the day, and after he was fatally shot
with his bride, they staggered around in circles for several minutes, while someone
appeared with a tambourine and started playing it, which was completely
incomprehensible.

•        The film started with a scene of a bull looking at the Turkish slogan on a hillside
“How happy is he who is a Turk!”. In my opinion this was a very good beginning, but then
suddenly the bull died and the farmers sat sadly round it in a circle. I think this was a big
mistake, because the film should have ended with the same motif. What should have
happened, after all the injustice and fighting in the film, was for the bull to be seen again,
still looking at the chauvinist slogan on the hillside, seeing it as the source of all this
trouble; or indeed for the bull to have been shown looking at the slogan after every terrible
event in the film. But I think the director’s idea was for the bull to die of sadness when it
saw the slogan. In my opinion the bull dying at the beginning changed the balance of the
film unfavourably.

•        After all this struggle for his Kurdishness by the main character, there is no hope in
the film, as he dies right at the end. It would have been much better if the film had ended
with him escaping from the village with his bride, among all these dangers, leaving it open
as to whether they would survive or not, and leaving some room for hope in the film. To
make a comparison with “Crossing the Dust”, towards the end of that film, the child sees
the dead body of the peshmerga as alive again, which implies that he has hope for the
future and that good things can happen again.

At the end of the film Saleem was asked by a member of the audience if it would have not
been better for a Sorani woman to play the role of the female KDPI peshmerga, rather than
a Kurdmanci woman speaking in Kurmanci. Saleem said “We Iraqi Kurds are a much
more backward society than any other part of Kurdistan. I tried to do that, but I didn’t find
anyone. In the beginning I found a Sorani speaking woman who wanted the role, but the
first day she came with her mother-in-law, the second day she brought her father-in-law,
and on the third day she brought all her tribe, so at this point I escaped”. I was unable to
restrain myself and called out to Saleem that what he said was not true, because just in a
city like Sulaimaniyah you have dozens of girls and women working in theatre and acting,
and at this point when Saleem saw that I was right and he did not have any excuse, he
said “Oh I am not talking about Sulaimaniyah, that is a quite different place.” So I said “OK
why didn’t you look for actors there?” and he didn’t have any answer.

After this argument a well-known Kurdish historian Dr Kemal Mazher said that he bowed
down before for Saleem’s talent. “I could not show the pain of my nationality in  five
hundred pages of writing as well as he did in this film”. If this is true, I said to myself, it
would be better if everyone left their writing jobs and bought cameras and started shooting
films. Saleem’s  reply was that he too bowed down to his great teacher of history, and the
conversation became an exchange of compliments, although there was a lot of material in
the film which warranted discussion.

Anyway to conclude, I would say that overall the festival was not bad, but there were too
many weak films in the festival which the organisers should have weeded out more
carefully. On the other hand, the attendance at the festival was generally low. In some films
there was an audience of no more than thirty or forty people, and in many showings the
first floor of the cinema was closed because of the small audience. The reason for this as
I understand it was that the organising committee was late in putting out publicity for the
festival.

Note: the festival ran from 30 November to 6 December 2007.