Pain of giving birth to Kurdish Cinema
Although always smiling or laughing, Bahman Ghobadi
is not a happy man. The reason he is not happy is
because as a film director in a country where his industry
is still stuttering, he must take responsability for the entire
process of every aspect of film making. He must find
funding and take responsability for casting, while also
working as producer. But before any of these tasks are
undertaken, he must first write the screenplay and obtain
permission from the Iranian authorities to shoot the film.
He directs the actors -- almost all of them amateurs. And
he organises and orchestrates distribution of the film. "All this takes 95 per cent of my time. It is a
big headache. I have only 5 per cent left for creation", complains Bahman Ghobadi during a
discussion at a Kurdish Film Festival, held in Douarnenez, in Brittany, in western France. "Every
time I start a new film, I have so many problems that I re-write my last will and testament after
shooting the first scene", he says, half seriously.
However, Bahman Ghobadi has another reason not to be happy. He is a Kurd. "The Kurds do not
have an instant of happiness", he says, "they have a knot in their throat. They want to scream, but
they cannot. Their history is a history of exodus. It is a history of people always on the move. In this
they have something in common with the cinema, which is the art of movement".
Bahman Ghobadi was born in 1968 at Baneh, a small town in Iranian Kurdistan. His father, a
policeman, was the epitome of what is popularly known these days as a "control freak".. He was
constantly asking his son to account for his movements, demanding to know where he had been
and what he had been doing.
Baneh was severely bombed during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), so in 1983, the family moved to
Sanandaj, the provincial capital. Encouraged by his father, who hoped it would prevent him from
becoming a drug addict like so many young people in Sanandaj, the 15 year old Bahman became
a champion wrestler. Around this time he became friendly with a photographer who had a studio
near the wrestling hall. "Every time I went to the wrestling hall, I would leave home half an hour
earlier in order to visit my photographer friend. One day we decided to go and take photos of
landscapes together. When our pictures were processed, he told me he believed I had done
marvels. Flushed with success, I became interested in books of photos. This is how I started, the
basis of cinema, is either photography or painting".
The young Bahman was already interested in watching films,
frequently renting videos, which he watched with the loving
complicity of his mother who sometimes told her husband
that their son was sleeping, when he was actually out
watching films. A repressive father, a loving mother, and
loving sisters, this is the story of Bahman’s youth -- a story he
plans to tell in his next film, a film that is always being
postponed by the more pressing events of his professional
After joining a club for cinema amateurs in Sanandaj, Bahman Ghobadi decided to study cinema,
and left for Tehran, where he worked his way through the faculty of cinema over eight difficult years.
His big break came when he convinced the famous film director Abbas Kiarostami to hire him. He
learned that Kiarostami wanted to shoot a film about a mysterious village and was looking for a
suitable location. Bahman Ghobadi called Abbas Kiarostami and told him that he could help. They
subsequently travelled together to Iranian Kurdistan, where Bahman Ghonadi became Kiarostami’
s assistant for the film "The Wind". For Bahman it was the experience of a lifetime. He was to learn
at the right hand of a master film maker how to direct a movie.
Later, he met Mohsen Makhmalbaf, father of personal friend and rising star of Iranian cinema ,
Samira Makhmalbaf. Bahman was hired as a technical adviser by Samira and went on to become
one of the two main actors, one of the teachers, in Samira Makhmalbaf’s "The Black Board".
Bahman Ghobadi was pleased with himself. He had succeeded in bringing two famous Iranian
film directors to Kurdistan: "Kurdistan has become the land for the art film directors. We Kurds are
ready to be mere extras", says a laughing Bahman Ghobadi.
His own debut film "A Time for Drunken Horses", is regarded as a masterpiece. The film was
awarded the Gold Camera Prize at the prestigious Cannes festival in 2000. It tells the story of the
young Kurds who make a living smuggling goods at the border between Iran and Iraq, at the risk of
their lives. At the end of the film, the smugglers, preparing to cross the mountains during a freezing
snow storm, pour whisky in the water their mules are drinking, an unusual scene for a film shot in
Iran. Bahman Ghobadi explains that when he went to meet the Iranian official responsible for
screening films and allowing their distribution, the official blamed him for showing drunk mules. "I
told him jokingly, it is the mules that are drunk, not the men, and he gave me the permission"...
His second film, "The Songs of my Mother’s Country"
was also well received by the critics. It tells the story
of an old singer and his two sons in search of the old
man’s first wife, a search which leads them through
an Iraqi Kurdistan devastated by war and the exodus.
"It is not a linear story like the first film. It is more
artistic", explains Bahman Ghobadi. "It is a travel film
in a country where there is drunkenness, joy, war,
murder... I wanted to show that not one Kurd is stable;
the Kurds are always on the move". The film’s three
main protagonists are amateur actors but professional
musicians. In this film, the music and the songs are
very important, and the spectator who does not understand the Kurdish language obviously
misses an important part of the film.
Again, as in "A Time for Drunken Horses", the characters cross borders -- an ever present theme
in Bahman Ghobadi’s films. "Ionesco wrote that time is man’s worst ennemy. For me, man’s worst
ennemies are borders. They were imposed on the Kurds by the Great Powers. I hate borders.In
Kurdistan there is not one day goes by without somebody blown up by a landmine, trying to cross
somebody or other’s border".
In "The Songs of my Mother’s Country", Bahman Ghobadi lets his main actors play like Kusturica’s
actors in a somewhat exaggerated way argue some critics. But most of the audience at
Douarnenez loved the film.
Bahman Ghobadi explains that he faced huge technical problems. "I wanted to shoot in a
particular climate: I wanted at the same time snow and mist. We got snow, but not as much as in
previous years, and it melted very quickly, before we finished shooting. We went with our extras,
some 600 people, in 30 buses, to another place. There we got the snow, but not the clouds. Finally
we finished shooting the film in two hours in the district of Hawraman".
Bahman Ghobadi faces other problems, due to the fact that he is living in Iran but he prefers not to
dwell on them. He does not like politicians. His dream, he reveals, is to create a "really Kurdish
"The Kurdish cinema is like a pregnant woman", he concludes, "one must help her to give birth...
One cannot let her die. You cannot imagine how I feel. There are only four or five cinemas for ten
million people in Iranian Kurdistan. And I want to be on equal footing with the best in the world.
* (The Middle East Magazine, November 2003)
* Chris Kutschera's other articles:
1- Interview with Yilmaz Guney
of Kurds in ‘A taste of
cherry’ and ‘The wind
will carry us’
Kurdish Identity and
Culture in the Films of
Yol: A monument to
An interview with the
director Lauand Omar
David & Layla: Criticism
of cultural biases and
celebration of love!
Interview with Yilmaz
David & Layla
Pain of Giving Birth
Crossing the Border
The New Kurdish
Yol - Jalal Jonroy
Breaking the Silence