Bahman Ghobadi discusses his new feature, "Half Moon"

A comic but mortal journey to the border of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian Kurdish filmmaker
Bahman Ghobadi discusses his new feature, "Half Moon," which for the most part does
not feature women singing.

KurdishCinema - 9 October 2007

By Jim Quilty-Beirut *

It starts with a cockfight.
Armed with an ancient
megaphone, a woolly
haired, mustachioed
man named Kako (Allah
Morad Rashtiani) begins
the proceedings with a
quote from Kierkegaard. He nods to a pair of kids holding an accordion and a derbakeh,
and the musical accompaniment commences.

The faintly folkloric quality is shattered when Kako mobile phone rings. "Mamo?" he gasps,
a finger stuck in one ear so he can hear. "Quiet!"

The room - musicians, gamblers, cockerels and all - falls silent. When Mamo speaks, he
demands your full attention.

The opening sequence of Bahman Ghobadi "Niwemang" ("Half Moon") is representative of
the whole. The fourth feature from the Kurdish-Iranian writer and director has all the
elements those familiar with his work have come to expect.

The famous Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi

"Half Moon" is replete with the stark landscapes and end-of-the-world incongruities of his
earlier films. Ghobadi remains attached to simple stories of people in movement colliding
with obstacles, their encounters accentuated by magical motifs. It is an aesthetic
mysticism, one that never softens Kurdish realities.

It unfolds that Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari), a renowned but ageing musician from Iranian
Kurdistan, has finally got permission to hold a concert in Iraqi Kurdistan to celebrate the
toppling of Saddam Hussein. He dispatches Kako to gather a busload of his musician
sons for the concert.

The old man intends to do more than stage a concert. He wants Iraqi Kurds to hear again
the "celestial voice" of his protege, Hesho (Hedye Tehrani). She has not sung for years,
having been exiled to a village where 1,334 female singers have been exiled.

"What is that sound?" asks a son as they
approach the village.

"That," Mamo smiles grimly, "is the sound
of 1,334 female voices. Singing."

The celestial voice is skeptical. Not only
has she not sung in years, she has picked
up smoking. Mamo mission is haunted by
his own mortality, as well. One of his sons
tells him a wise man in his village has
foretold tragedy on the day the concert is scheduled to begin.

Mamo himself is given to moments of mystical abstraction. We first find him in a graveyard,
lying in a freshly dug grave, his eyes open, staring at the half moon sitting in the daytime
sky - one of many anomalies that litter the Kurdish landscape.

It sounds forbidding but, for those who wept through the grim poetry of 2004 "Turtles Can
Fly," Ghobadi new film offers some relief.

"People say that I want [them] to cry with my films," Ghobadi says. "In this film I want to
make you laugh."

"Half Moon" is no comedy but it does sometimes smile. The picaresque story affords as
much opportunity for comedy as visual poetry.

When they start their journey, somebody asks Kako about the scruffy cockerel that sits
beside him on the dashboard. "He is an orphan," he explains. "Both his parents were
killed in the ring. I am waiting for him to grow up so he can take revenge."

When Mamo joins the dozen or so of his sons Kako has assembled on the bus, he tells
one of them to write an email to another son who has supposed to come visit him from
Germany. "Ask him again what time his plane leaves," he instructs.

"Where should he send it?" asks the son pulling out his laptop. "mamoinkurdistan @"

"Exactly," Mamo smiles.

Mamo and his retinue overcome many obstacles and arrive at the Iraqi border, only to find
the air scoured with automatic rifle fire and no one to greet them. They decide to take
another route, only to be intercepted by Iranian border police. They ransack the bus, break
all the instruments and take Hesho prisoner.

Undaunted, Mamo and his remaining sons continue the trip by another route, through
western Azerbaijan. He does find a celestial voice to replace Hesho - the miraculous
Niwemang (Golshifteh Farahani) - and she does accompany him to the end of the road.
The barriers between him and his goal are more tenacious than the magic, though, and
the film ends firmly ensconced in this world.

Ghobadi was commissioned to make "Half Moon" for the New Crowned Hope festival,
launched in Vienna last year to honor the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

There is not a trace of European classical music here, but Ghobadi insists Mozart is in the
film. "The film was inspired by his Requiem Mass," he says. "Elements like the magic of
music, death and life, all Mozart sentiments, are here."

Given the film motif of obstacles coming between artists and their audience, it is
appropriate that the version of "Half Moon" screened on the festival circuit this year is not
the one Ghobadi would have chosen.

"This film is about women singing," Ghobadi sighs. "Yet I am forbidden to show women
singing. It is about musicians going to a concert that never happens.

"Basically what has been removed is seven minutes of women dancing. The Iranian
version has 10 minutes less again. The seven minutes were removed because I hoped
the film could be released in Iran. Then government people attacked me as a separatist in
Tehran newspapers. I denied it. Cut as much as you want from this film, I said, but please
let Iranians see it.

"It would have cost me 40,000 euros to reincorporate the footage I cut for the Iranian
censor. There is no way any independent filmmaker could afford this."

In critical circles Ghobadi enjoys a dual reputation - in the second generation of Iranian
filmmakers (following Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf) and the first generation
of Kurdish filmmakers.

"I do not have much contact with Kurds outside Iran," he says. "I have two or three friends
in Turkey. In Iraq I have a few more. There is a nascent Kurdish cinema, yet it is not a real

"Around five or six years ago there were estimated to be 40 million Kurds - three million in
Syria, 13 million in Turkey, five to six million in Iraq, eight to nine million in Iran, another
million scattered through Russia and Armenia and two to three million in the diasporas.

"You can not have cinema for a nation spread across four countries with two [50-year-old]
cinemas. Screenings, if they happen at all, are very brief ... This is why we released this
film illegally on DVD ... actually on VHS tape, because DVD players are not so common in
Kurdistan. I just gave it to my friends at Kurdish television because they have no money to
pay for rights.

"They tell me many houses in Kurdistan, maybe 90 percent, have a pirated copy of A Time
for Drunken Horses and when they want to entertain they take it out and play it," he grins. "I
am delighted.

"Two or three months ago we went to northern Iraq and a very old lady comes up to me
and says: I have heard a lot about you. I have never seen your work but I have heard your
name. You are a national treasure." He holds up his hand and beams at a strip of green
cloth around his wrist. "She put this on me."

Ghobadi smiles at the public relations people drawing artistic lines between himself and
Kiarostami - with whom he worked only once. He says he became a filmmaker because of
all he lived through - the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and so forth. Yet in his films,
aesthetic and existential elements always trump political rhetoric, not the case for other
Kurdish filmmakers.

"I try to forget politics," he says. "But even if I do, it comes back immediately through the film
language - when you see a mine or a mine warning or a person is walking with crutches
or handicapped children. Politics imposes itself on our work."

* Source : Daily.Star.Lebanon / February 22, 2007