Bahman Ghobadi: The Poetics of Politics / 16 May 2007

By Felix Koch / February 2007

(Published by mono.kultur)

“By the age of seventeen, I had seen two wars, one revolution and a lot of my close friends
and relatives killed.”

Little known in the West, Kurdish director Bahman
Ghobadi has proven himself, with a few short and
feature films, to be one of the most impressive
filmmakers of our time. In a constant struggle with the
difficult circumstances in his home country, Iran,
Ghobadi is a restless man, driven to document and
portray the fate of the Kurds in Iran as well as in Iraq
and to lend his voice to those who do not have the
chance to be heard. While his films confront the
audience directly with the utter harshness and
hopelessness of Kurdish life, he has mastered the art
of protecting the viewer through the beauty and poetry
of his images. With his stories, Ghobadi asks painful
questions, wrapping the devastating answers in
overwhelmingly beautiful pictures that render his films
a disturbing and yet strangely enchanting experience
at the same time.

Bahman Ghobadi was born in 1969 in Baneh, a province of Kurdistan in Iran. After earning
his B.A. in film directing from the Iranian Broadcasting College, he worked briefly as an
industrial photographer before turning to film full-time. His first documentary
Life in Fog in
1995 tells the story of a 14-year-old orphan that is forced to quit school and start smuggling
goods across the Iran-Iraq border to feed his siblings. In 1999, Ghobadi told a similar story
in his international breakthrough as a director with
A Time for Drunken Horses, the first
Kurdish full feature film in the history of Iranian cinema. By working with lay actors – often
children – replaying their real role in life, Ghobadi creates films that oscillate between
documentaries and fiction films. He blurred the lines between the two genres even further
when he depicted with
Turtles Can Fly in 2004 the effects of the American invasion of Iraq
on the Kurdish minorities in the countryside by shooting the film within two weeks of the
actual fall of Baghdad, setting the story against real-life events.

    Ghobadi's unique blend of reality and fiction, of poverty and poetry, of
    hope and hopelessness, has gained him a quiet but considerable
    reputation. His films have been selected for an impressive range of
    international festivals and awards, including the Camera d'Or Award
    at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000 and the Peace Film Award at the
    Berlinale in 2005. His latest film Half Moon won the Golden Seashell
    at the 2006 San Sebastian International Film Festival. In Iran, it is
    banned under the allegation of promoting separatism.

In the West, you are generally seen as a political filmmaker. In Turtles Can Fly, which is
set in the war in Iraq, you also address the special role of foreign and American TV
channels. What kind of an image of the media as a global power do you have?

"My impression of the influence of the media is as I have shown in that film. I believe there
is a global system where all is interconnected. For example, as soon as/when a war is
created at a certain place, the media appear at the site quite quickly and convey the news,
drawing people to their TV screens. The system creates trouble in a corner of the world at
will. What I am saying is that the confluence of these media and that system and that war,
they are all interconnected. Everything is quite organized and controlled by a few hands. I
have often been critical of the currents that these TV channels pursue."

Do you consider your films as an opposition to the big media?

"I call my films ‘local media’, with local people far from and outside the system, not
controlled by the system. I can portray local events in a real and genuine manner, from a
completely personal viewpoint and with a tiny budget. There are no games played behind
my films, as opposed to what, I believe, exists behind the curtains of the major networks,
like the BBC and CNN, where there are powers controlling them. The media are at the
service of their policies. The powers start a war and know in advance that the networks
should be there to convey the news and how they should portray it. Nowhere in the world is
there as much censorship as in these TV channels, in my view. Censorship is most
powerful and most prevalent in these big networks."

In Turtles Can Fly, we have different media audiences such as, for example, the
character Satellite, who can understand the news on TV, and others that are unable to
decipher foreign television. What is your view of the audience?

"I do consider a diverse audience. My films are not directed towards one sector. The
comprehension or incomprehension of the media in the film is part of the scenario. In the
script, I tackle the topic of media literacy through the character Satellite that you just
mentioned, in a kind of situational comedy. I am playing with this character and use the
comedy that it provokes to poke fun at these channels."

In your films, there seems to be a conflict between powerlessness and helplessness on
the one side and the desire to make change on the other. You are a very active film director
and you don't seem to give up. How do you see the relationship between these two sides?

"I live in a part of the world that generally has a quite pessimistic view
of the future. However, the pessimism is not so overwhelming as to
kill all hope. I do see a spark of hope. This area of the world, the
Middle East, is, I believe, the best marketplace for weaponry, and as
long as weapons are produced as virtually the main product of
countries such as the US, the UK, France, and others, there is a need
for a market. I realize, despairingly, that there is a lot of capital in the
Middle East for the purchase of weapons. So if you look at things in
that way, I and generations before and after me are already
condemned in this part of the world. I am not expressing a political
viewpoint; this is just a daily reality and most people seem to know this around here.
Therefore, what I try to do is to portray the trials, past and present, of my people, my tribe,
and to cling on to the last ray of hope, so that I have the breath to carry on living and
something with which to make myself happy. I believe that in this part of the world,
happiness, the end of the war, is only part-time. It will only be short-lived. War will never
ever end in Iran. This game is being played out in our countries – Iran, Afghanistan, and
Iraq – every decade or so, at the hands of those that I said control the media."

Can you see any solution to this situation you just described? What would need to
happen for this cycle to be interrupted?

"The only solution that I know is for all raw materials and underground resources such as
petroleum, natural gas, and other minerals in the region to run out, and for the Middle East
to be transformed into a continent such as Africa. That might be the only situation in which
there would be no excuse for war."

No lamp burns till morning

---You started shooting Turtles Can Fly two weeks after the fall of Baghdad and immediately
started pre-production. How were the working conditions for you and how was your
relationship with the American authorities?

    "They were very, very, very difficult. I spent three months there,
    simultaneously writing the script, finding locations and trying to
    persuade the American and Kurdish authorities to grant permission
    for my film – I was trying to convince the Americans to feature in my
    film. These three months took three years out of my life. However, I
have lived under harsh conditions forever, during childhood and adolescence. So once we
had switched on the engine, so to speak, the difficulties became practically unnoticeable.
The ambiance in the group was so good and we were living such a reality, with cinema
and life becoming one, that I no longer recall any perception of the harshness and the

The fusion of cinema and life is very present in all of your films. In 1995, you shot the
Life in Fog. How important is this genre for your fiction films?

"I strongly believe in the documentary genre, it is very important. If you have noticed, in most
of my films, I take a story and I present it in a documentary-style frame. I want the acting to
be so good, and the environment and the set to be so realistic, that I almost touch
documentary cinema with every film that I make. This is where I come from, this is my view
of how I should do films."

Is that also related to the fact that you often use lay actors?

"Yes, it is one of the reasons. This is also why I only use them in one film and often not in
the following one. But I do refer them to other filmmakers who might want to use them in
one of their projects. And to not break their hearts, I tell my lay actors that cinema is
something that only happens once. So I prepare them not to get attached to cinema. Most
of them are unemployed. Making a film is very enjoyable for them. They are away from their
family and together we have a lot of fun making the film. But I always tell them that it is not
going to happen again, that cinema only knocks once, then goes away, never to be seen
again. But there is a place in filmmaking for them. Sometimes one or two of them take a
liking to the making of films, but the rest return to their lives."

How do you work with the children? Do you draw from their real lives for the stories of
your films?

"As a matter of fact, in Turtles Can Fly, I once again reconstructed life before the eye of the
camera. I asked my actors to live, not act, in front of the camera. Fifty to sixty percent of my
films are completed on location. It is while working and living with them that the screenplay
draws on their lives and becomes complete in the correct way."

How did they react when they saw the finished film?

"The first time they viewed the film was at the Isfahan International Film Festival for
Children and Young Adults. I brought them from Iraq to Iran so they could sit and watch the
film in which they had acted. They were constantly staring at my face, or each other’s,
maybe for more than half the film. Every few minutes they would also hide under their
seats, because they couldn’t believe they were looking at themselves on the big cinema

Are you still in touch with the children of your films? Do you know what they do now?

"Yes, regularly. I see them three or four times a year, they have
become part of my family. The actress who played the character Agrin
has moved from the countryside to the city of Suleymanieh, and with
the help of some Iraqi Kurds, we have bought her a house. She now
works for television and has signed a contract with the Kurdistan TV
network for a one hour a month program. The actor in the role of Riga,
the blind child, had an eye operation in a Baghdad hospital after the end of the shoot, and
he has regained fifty percent of his sight. A house was also bought for him in Kirkuk. With
the aid of Abbas Ghazali and Iraqi Kurds, we also bought a house for the boy with the
walking stick. Satellite wants to be a filmmaker, and I am helping him achieve his goal by
sending him films and books and following his education. And we are lobbying for the boy
with no arms who played Hanga to receive an operation and artificial limbs with the help of
international organizations."

The best memory is that which forgets nothing but injuries. Write kindness in marble
and write injuries in dust

---The kids in your films have to grow up quite quickly under very difficult circumstances.
How was your own childhood?

    "I also had to grow up quickly. By the age of seventeen, I had seen
    two wars, one revolution and a lot of my close friends and relatives
    killed. At seventeen, I became the head of the family because my
    father went away. Like the character in A Time for Drunken Horses,
    Ali, I stood on my own two feet and tried to overcome all of the
obstacles that existed in life. On my way, I became accustomed to adversity, so I have
almost become addicted to it. Even when I am drinking water, I try to make it hard for myself
(translator’s note: Drinking water is used in the Persian language when talking of the
simplest thing to do). This has become a habit, a way of life."

Ali tries to support his family by smuggling goods across the border. Did you have to do
similar things in order to survive?

"This is a daily fact of life in Kurdistan. The choices may vary from person to person, but in
the main, this is the way of life. My childhood still exists within me. I have lived the
characters that I create for children, and it is as if I have personally gone through what
happens to them. I might not have smuggled anything myself but I was responsible for my
family for many years and did a lot of excruciating, hard work to provide for them."

You would agree that your films are a reflection of your own life?

"Yes, a lot of the time. There are certain things that have taken
shape inside me and I want to display them, if only for myself to
see. I want cinema to be a mirror reflecting part of my essence.
As far as suffering is concerned, throughout life, some
complexes form within our characters, complexes that are
related to the childhood that you should have had and that you
didn't; the comforts that you should have experienced and that
you didn't; the normal life that any child should have and that
you didn't. All this turns me into someone who complains. I am angry. I am angry about the
pressures of life and I try to portray them in my films. The difficulties in my films are not
unrelated to what I have endured in life. These are my problems. Without problems you
can't make problematic films. Or you can make them, but no one can believe them. It is the
hard life that brings films closer to reality."

Cinema is not the obvious choice for someone growing up in your surroundings. Why did
you decide to become a director?

"I don't know why I became a filmmaker. Quite accidentally, I believe, cinema has chosen
me. I was brought up in an environment where there wasn't a film academy, there wasn't
an archive or any teachers of cinema. And now that I have learned and understood cinema,
I would like to use it the best I can, and to realize my opportunity to make films with more

Did your parents support your cinematic career?

"Only my mother. Since I was seventeen, my father has led another life. He wasn't with us.
During those few years that my dad was still with us, he had quite an influence on me: in
facing the obstacles that he put in front of me, I became quite stubborn. So, unintentionally,
he became a good trainer, a good teacher. I believe the first thing that a filmmaker needs is
a strong will, and lots of stubbornness and perseverance. That is how my father taught me:
through the obstacles that he didn't want me to overcome."

How did you manage the transition from a difficult childhood in the countryside to being a
filmmaker in Tehran?

"Well, people journey down some easy and some difficult paths in the course of life and
progress. What is important in all this is how we strengthen our will-power to help us get
through difficulties. I resisted, I stayed the course, and I moved forward step by step in
exhausting circumstances, so that I could achieve my goals. Were I not so goal-oriented, I
would probably still be on the margins, living in a small town, without much of a bright
horizon for realizing my ideals. But at the same time, don’t forget that ideals are always
relative. Today, I face countless difficulties and obstacles making a film, the kind of difficulty
compared to which my past problems are nothing."

You frequently point out the difficulties in getting funding for your projects.

"I have never had external monetary support. I make my films from my personal or family
wealth. Either they get screened and I get my money back, or I don't."

Whatever you sow, you reap

---You are now in the position where you have launched several films and won prizes at
important festivals. Do you feel happy with your success and your career?

"I don't see any success, and I am not just saying this, it is quite true. Cinema is huge and
there are so many ways to succeed. One feels one has not done anything in the time of life
that has passed. I am in search of a ‘better’ success, a more ‘proper’ success. I think I
have started, but I am always worried about when I am going to achieve real success, of
the kind that I can share with my people.

    The kind of success I look for is
    being able to make films under
    normal conditions with good
    facilities. That is the first
    measure. The second is that I
    can show them in several
    cinemas in my country. That is
    the kind of success that I want. I
    don't understand the success of
    which you speak. It becomes
    imperceptible because this
    other side bothers me so much.
    I think the fame and glory of
    filmmaking is passing and not
lasting and actually quite stupid. I also think that cinema is ruthless. It could wipe you out at
any time. Worst of all, I believe that art cinema – independent cinema – is in retreat, it is
sinking, and that the heavy shadow of commercial and Hollywood films are closing every
little road that is open to independent cinema. Therefore, I think this kind of success is
neither seen nor felt, nor does it last long.

The story of cinema is a bit like the story of the discovery of the atom. We could have had
hundreds of good uses for it. And it appears that it is just wiping out humanity. And cinema,
too, started well but turned into an industry and now it is just a device for gaining capital
and making money. You don't find many independent filmmakers who have distributors
and markets. Investors and the owners of capital own the art at the moment.

To come back to your original question about the media: I complain about the mean,
ruthless media such as the likes of the BBC and CNN. When they talk about cinema, they
don't even mention independent cinema in their programs. All day and night, they are
concerned with the pomp, the glitter of Hollywood films, the empty superstars. I would even
go as far as to say that film festivals, like Cannes, are entering this sphere. In a way, they
have already, they are almost lost. Even independent festivals are being influenced by
commercial Hollywood cinema and by the owners of capital."

However, speaking of Hollywood, you are planning to work with a famous American
actress yourself.

"I mentioned that in independent cinema, most roads are closed, there is nowhere to
breathe. So every now and then I try to look for ways to find new distribution channels for my
films. And one of them is to try to use superstars who already have a market. I want to see
if I can use their services without being diverted from my path. I want to continue in the way
of my beliefs, saying what I have been saying, but using these people and these conditions
to increase the visibility of my films."

When will this new film be screened? Can you say something about the story?

"I've been after making it for a couple of years, but still don't have funding for it. It is about an
American journalist who has been reporting about what is happening in Iraq and who is
lost in Baghdad. The film recounts the life of this person in Iraq. It will be the first Iraqi
comedy. Well, not really comedy, but the first Iraqi humorous film."

What is the other project you are currently working on?

"It will be an even more autobiographical film about my father and me, when I was young.
For that film we have to rebuild the locations from 35 years ago. This is why it will be quite a
big project with a relatively large budget. And there are other more practical problems: A
gathering of more than 20 people on the streets is illegal. I have to work around this so that
we are not arrested!

Besides, I am still waiting to be a bit more seasoned, to mature a little in my filmmaking,
and to find the means to do it. It will be difficult work. It will be done in my hometown, not in

In the hour of adversity be not without hope for crystal fain falls from black clouds

---You move from Tehran to the countryside several times a year. How important are these
two different worlds for you?

"Recently, my life has been divided into
three parts: a third outside Iran, a third in
Kurdistan where I shoot my films and a
third here in Tehran. Tehran is quite
unimportant to me. I've come here because
cinema happens here. Facilities like film
labs and studios can't be found in
Kurdistan. Also, with all the letter-writing to
the Guidance Ministry and its Cinema
Division, part of my work has to be here, the
system brings me here. Sadly, everything is
centralized in Tehran. I won't say I don't like
Tehran – I do like it – but it is polluted, and it
gives me headaches and makes me dizzy. When I go to Kurdistan, I feel baptized.
Everything is so clean and it is so free from noise and air pollution."

You described yourself as being very much in touch with your people, which you referred
to as being ‘your tribe’. How do you marry this with the very individualistic, personal and
creative work of a film director who often lives and works on his own?

"First, let me make a slight correction: The forty million Kurds are not so much a tribe as a
nation, a people. And for us, cinema is a new art of which we have been deprived for a long
time. For this reason, I prefer not to have a personalized or individualistic view of it. I believe
art is not for art's sake, art is for people's sake. That is why I want to be amongst people. I
want to bring the subjects of my films out of people’s hearts, so that I can make my films
for the people. Which necessitates being and living with people."

You have talked about the harshness of the life in Kurdistan. But you have also talked
about the strength and the power that you take from being Kurdish and from coming from
this part of the world. What does your heritage mean to you?

"The roughness and the difficulty are real. I believe I must make my films in the way
Kurdish people live and therefore I endure the problems and hardships. I put up with the
lack of facilities and support, be it spiritual, mental or just practical. I make films like my
people live. This roughness and difficulty does produce energy. Both the characters in my
films and I, in the world of filmmaking, are always fighting, always wrestling to transcend
problems and remove obstacles in life, so as to gain hope for a future that is not so
unknown. In my cinema, I have exactly the same view."

You described humour on the one hand and music on the other as important means for
the Kurds to deal with problems. Is the medium of film a similar means for you?

"Certainly. I am fighting for Kurdish rights with it and am using it to show the suffering of the
Kurdish people. Humour and music are indeed weapons that they use so that the suffering
doesn't kill them off. At the height of the pain, they make themselves dance to music and
smile with humour. This is very much part of our culture."

However, in Turtles Can Fly, you present death as the only possible option for Agrin, the
girl. For the others, there also seems to be no way out, just the option to carry on. Does this
represent your own view of life? Is death a relief from suffering?

"Yes, in reality it’s so. In a land were there is no guarantee for the future, where you don’t
know if even in the next five years you will be living well and in peace of mind – at least to
some degree, albeit minimal and relative – death is the best option. From one perspective,
the death of Agrin is symbolic of my land that is violated every so often. The killing of that
child is, in a way, the destruction of the seeds of rape."

You use strikingly beautiful and slow images whilst telling very shocking and sad stories.
Is that a means to enable the audience to cope with the harshness of your films?

    "Life is like that. The reality of life is like
    that. If you go to Kurdistan, there are
    poetic images and beautiful nature and
    in the heart of it there is deep tragedy.
    For example, I believe the most
    beautiful part of the world to be an area
    in Kurdistan that is almost entirely
    mined. And this is reality. The good life
    doesn’t flow through this pretty
    environment. People are under a lot of
    pressure, especially in Turkey and
    Syria – you know that better than me.
    So I take my camera there and I shoot
what I see. At the same time, I want to tell you that I am after a cinema that amazes, that
shocks a little."

Is the decision to use shock a strategy to gain the attention of the audience?

"We are living in an age when there are more than 3,000 films produced annually, and
where there are 2,000 to 3,000 satellite channels. People get bored with cinema and TV.
What can I do to attract audiences and pull in the crowds under these conditions? I try to
choose subjects, people, settings and views that are different so that I can draw audiences
that have been lost back to the cinemas. This is a bitter reality, the loss of audiences. I try
my best to put all my energy into the making of my films. In a way, to achieve this, the work
that I put in becomes a value in itself, so that some audiences might go and watch it out of
respect for the suffering that I have endured while making it. It is for them that I endure the

Whatever is in the heart will come up to the tongue

---Is it frustrating for you to be seen as an Iranian filmmaker from the outside while you
might rather consider yourself a Kurd?

"It makes no difference to me. I am Kurdish, I am an Iranian Kurd. The Kurds are so
scattered, but in my head, there is a country of the Kurds. There exists a virtual, a mental
country. Not a physical one. Therefore, I would like to think of myself as a Kurdish
filmmaker that makes his films for the Kurds. There are many first-class filmmakers in Iran
and I don't want to portray myself as separate from this construct, ‘Iranian Cinema’. But
within it, I would like to be a Kurdish filmmaker. I am in and from Iranian cinema. But I am a
Kurdish filmmaker making films for the Kurds."

Do you consider yourself a pioneer of Kurdish cinema?

"I don't see myself as a pioneer. I see myself as one of the people who are struggling in
this sphere. I might be one of the first, but I don't think of myself as a pioneer."

If you make your films predominantly for Iranians and Kurds, how relevant are western
audiences for you?

"Whom I address makes little difference. I prefer to make films for my land and my people
who have been deprived of cinema for years. There are about 40 million Kurds in Turkey,
Syria, Iran and Iraq and they have something in the region of 15 to 20 cinemas that are 70
to 80 years old. I am trying to revive and rebuild cinemas, as well as the art of cinema. I feel
quite lonely in doing that. It feels like one-man combat, or two at most. And it is for this
reason that it is important to me that my audience be Iranian and Kurdish."

So it is not only about making the films themselves but also a matter of providing the
necessary infrastructure in these regions to screen them?

"I am working on this at present, doing things like buying land,
building cinemas and having workshops in Kurdish areas.
But I have very little time and energy for this. I try to marry it
with my filmmaking. Whenever I can, I complain to rich Iranian
or Kurdish people who are ignorant of cultural matters. I have
also looked for foundations and organizations abroad to ask
them to invest in this country, but to no avail to date. It is quite
hard to juggle these issues with my filmmaking. There are a
dozen or so of us – friends, brothers and sisters – who have started a movement, a small
but high quality movement, I believe, in cinema. For example, I have set up the first Kurdish
film company. My aim is to produce one or two Kurdish-language films. But these projects
require specialized management skills which I lack. It takes a lot of energy but I can't really
let it go because it won't let me go: where will I show my films?"

Is the idea to create a Kurdish infrastructure that will screen yours and other Kurdish-
language films, even if it is not in Iran? In order to circumvent the censorship?

"I prefer to show them in Iran, but if I am not given that field in which to play, then my aim
will be to create infrastructures in other Kurdish areas."

In another interview, you said that you worked under the framework provided by the
Iranian government. Other filmmakers work differently and get censored after they finish
their films. Do you make sure in advance that there will be no censorship?

"I strictly and very strongly oppose censorship. But sometimes I am not strong enough to
stand up to government censorship. I try to focus my energy on the making of my films and
on making them well. If I fight for my films in advance, or during post-production, and if I
complain about my films being censored, I will have little energy left to carry on with the next
project. I could see myself getting so bogged down in these arguments, for a year or two,
that I would not be able to do anything else.

But today I am different from the position I just described. From this year on, since the
government did not screen
Turtles Can Fly properly in this country – they didn't let it run –
and since even our stupid TV will not screen films that are Kurdish, I am not prepared to
make films within the laws of this nation anymore. I no longer think of the system and of
censorship. If I did so heretofore, it was because more than anything else, I wished for my
films to be screened for Iranians and for Kurds. I want them to be screened in my land, by
my TV. But they have openly announced that my films are not screenable. I am opposed to
Therefore, I don't value this system anymore. I am now looking for a cinema that
conforms to my own rules, not to the laws that say that Kurdish language films are not to
be screened.
I will make things according to my own beliefs. I will portray what I believe to
be the truth, for as long as I am not exiled. I don't mind going to jail for it but I don't want to
be sent out of the country."