Kurdish director, stuck between Iraq and Iran

KurdishCinema - November 1, 2009


BAHMAN GHOBADI first came to the movie world’s
attention in 2000, when his “Time for Drunken
Horses” won the prize for best first feature at the
Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps because the film —
a harrowing depiction of five orphans struggling to
eke out a hardscrabble existence as smugglers in
the mountainous border region between Iran and
Iraq — was billed as Iranian, few took notice that the
movie was not in Persian but in Kurdish. “Drunken
Horses” became the first feature film in that language, a tongue banned in Iranian schools since
the 1940s, to achieve an international release.

Since then, with films like “Marooned in Iraq” (2002) and “Turtles Can Fly,” (2004), Mr. Ghobadi, 38,
has become the international face of Kurdish cinema, nurturing a filmmaking movement in the
Kurdish regions of Iran and Iraq that never existed before. Along with Kurdish directors like Hiner
Saleem (“Vodka Lemon”) and Jano Rosebiani (“Jiyan”), Mr. Ghobadi has “finally given a strong and
clear voice to a long-neglected population that is the largest ethnic minority in the Middle East,” said
Jamsheed Akrami, a professor of film at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.

Mr. Ghobadi’s latest work, “Half Moon,” one of six films commissioned from a diverse group of
directors by the city of Vienna, under the supervision of the director Peter Sellars, is the only one to
meet with political opposition on its home turf. Iranian authorities ultimately banned the film,
doubtless upset by the depiction of an aging impresario’s struggle to mount a concert in Iraq that
would include female singing, an activity illegal in public in Iran since its Islamic revolution. “Half
Moon” opened Friday at the ImaginAsian theater in New York City, to be followed by a limited
national release.

In late May, Mr. Ghobadi spoke in Erbil, Iraq, with Peter Scarlet, artistic director of the Tribeca Film
Festival, where “Half Moon” had its United States premiere last spring. Babak Rassi translated Mr.
Ghobadi’s comments from Persian. These are excerpts from their conversation.

Q. You’ve shot films both here in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Iran. Is it harder here in Iraq?

A. This place has its own difficulties, but far fewer than in Iran. I feel I have more freedom here.
There is no such thing as censorship. You can make whatever you want in this land. The difficulty is
with putting together a production crew. In Kurdistan, both here and in Iran, they don’t have film
professionals to fine-tune the script, or good assistants or location managers. You have to do
everything yourself. You’re performing the functions of 15 people. I had to roam around in the back
alleys of villages to find actors, and it’s difficult to convince them, even to tell them what cinema is.

Q. All your feature films are set near a border, near a
frontier, either between Iraq and Iran or Iraq and
Turkey. Why is the border such an important
concept for you?

A. I was born in Baneh, Iran’s closest border town to
Iraq. It was the most dangerous area. It had the
highest Iranian casualties both in internal conflicts
as well as during the war with Iraq. The village
where I then took refuge for three months was where
I later shot “A Time for Drunken Horses.”

I learned the meaning of “border” from childhood. I’m familiar with the smell of “border.” There are
40 million Kurds dispersed through four or five countries, and there are even some in Russia and
Europe, and they all have borders between them. Many of my family members live in Iraqi
Kurdistan, and I have to wait months or a year before I’m allowed to go and visit them.

Q. Music plays a very important part in your films, and in fact in two of your films the main character
is a musician. Why is music so important to you?

A. If I hadn’t turned out to be a filmmaker, I would have been a musician. I love music, I make films
with music, I eat with music, I sleep with music, I think with music. Music makes me dream, it
strengthens my creativity. I can travel with music. I close my eyes and I can travel all over the world
with music. And one after another, stories come to me and I just record them.

Q. Your films appear on the world market as being from Iran, but they’re in Kurdish. Why is that, and
does that cause you problems at home in Iran?

A. Nobody ever gave me permission to make a film in Kurdish. Slowly, and with many smiles, I was
able to make the first Kurdish-language movie in the history of world cinema. But even though I’d
made three “normal” films, with the fourth one, “Half Moon,” right before filming, they called me and
told me not to make it in Kurdish and to keep it to only 20 percent of the dialogue. “I am a Kurd,” I
said, “I am an Iranian Kurd, and I have rights in this land.”

Kurdistan is “part” of Iran, and they have the right to have their own language. So I made “Half
Moon,” but it’s banned until now, and it’s interesting that they are not giving me a permit to work on
my next film.

Q. How did you connect with Mozart to make a film in Kurdistan?

A. Mozart is not a person, he is a spirit that is part of millions of artists in today’s world. I wanted to
talk about the artists’ predicament now, so I am showing you Mamo, the musician who is the film’s
protagonist, in 2007.

Two hundred and fifty years ago Mozart had women sing in his work, and I’m showing you a
Kurdish character living in a part of the world where now, in 2007, women cannot sing. You see,
there are many sad stories in this part of the world, and I think the worst part of the world is the
Middle East. It is our bad luck to have this thing called oil. Because of oil, no attention is giving to
anything else, not to culture, not to art, not to creativity, nothing — just oil, business, stealing, selling
of military equipment.

Q. You’ve always worked with nonprofessionals, except in “Half Moon.” Do you want to work now
with bigger stars?

A. I have used professional actors, and they’re very good. But I’m much more comfortable, and it’s
less complicated, with amateurs than with professionals.

But definitely in the future I will look for professional actors again, and I’m looking for an American
star for my future projects, an actress to come work with me. I do have a project in a mixture of
English and Kurdish, an idea that will help my films be seen more widely in other countries, and
get more exposure, because independent film is so poor and such a victim that it cannot easily
make its way.

What can we do to escape this predicament? Using stars, in my opinion, if you can bring them into
your own stylistic fold, is one of the ideas that I would like to try. Angelina Jolie would be great.

* New York Times Published: December 16, 2007

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