Cinema Regarding Nations: Re-imagining Armenian, Kurdish, and Palestinian national identity
KurdishCinema - November 5, 2009
By Tim Kennedy * Part 1
Chapter 5 in the thesis
The Kurds – A Divided People
It is Newroz, the spring equinox, when victory of the forces of Light and Good over those of
Darkness and Evil is celebrated by Kurds around the world. An old man begins to narrate the
fable of Mem, ‘a handsome young man’, and Zîn, ‘the beautiful sister of a great emir’. The
scene changes to a lively, colourful, market where Mem and his friend Tajdîn meet Zîn and her
sister Siti. The couples promptly fall in love – denoted by an exchange of rings – before the
women disappear into their palace. Later, in the court, Tajdîn uses his political influence to
marry Siti and hopes that Mem will then be able to marry Zîn. But Bakir, an advisor, intervenes,
accusing Tajdîn and Mem of wanting to overthrow the emir. As proof, he shows that they are
trying to arrange for Mem’s marriage to Zîn in secret. Mem is thrown in jail where he languishes,
becoming weak and sick for love. Zîn, confined to the palace, also suffers and begins to waste
away. Under pressure from Tajdîn and his allies, the emir relents. But, it is too late, the lovers
are dead, only to be symbolically liberated and re-united in death.
The film, Mem û Zîn (Elçi, 1991), is stylised and over-wrought – full of
longing and tender glances, passionate gestures, the strong colours of
traditional costumes, and ethnic Kurdish music. Though unexceptional
cinematically, its significance lies in the fact that it is based on the epic
poem of the 17th century Kurdish poet Ahmed-i Khani, which remains
crucial for present-day Kurdish nationalists (Koivunen, 2002:125).
Certainly Mem û Zîn asserts the valour and honour of the Kurdish
people through the performances of Mem and Tajdîn, and refers in the
narrative, gestures, and dances, to a “golden age” of chivalry. As in early
Armenian films, the nation is depicted as founded on a healthy, vigorous
folk-culture. And Zîn may be interpreted as another manifestation of the familiar trope of the
female form representing the nation. But more than this, the separation of Mem and Zîn is an
allegory for the division of the Kurds. A division that is caused, moreover, by the “enemy within” –
Bakir is also a Kurd. It implicates such rivalries and internal differences for the failure of the
nation to cohere and for its continued subjugation.
I have started with Mem û Zîn since it is frequently cited as being the first wholly Kurdish film.
Siyabend û Xecê (Gök, 1993), which appeared shortly afterwards, and is based on a folk-tale
(also centred on internal rivalries), is referred to as the first film to be shot in Kurdistan. Both
films have appeared at international film festivals and, despite many technical faults, have been
well received by audiences in the Kurdish diaspora. The remainder of this section examines
the beginnings of the enunciation of a separate Kurdish identity in the cinema, leading up to the
1980s and Mem û Zîn. The majority of the films concern the Kurdish community in Turkey since
that is principally where important cinematic activity occurred in this period. The next section
analyses films since the 1980s both within the states that host a Kurdish minority, as well as
those emerging from the diaspora in which the issue of a trans-state or unified identity is
questioned. But first, I want to reflect on the development of Kurdish national consciousness
within the modern system of states.
Kurdish national consciousness
Khani laments the condition of his people and appears to call for the formation of a Kurdish
kingdom, united under a single leader:
If we had a king …
These Turks would not defeat us …
We would not become doomed, homeless,
Defeated and subjugated …
In Khani’s time, while most Kurds certainly would have possessed an awareness of their
identity as separate from surrounding Turks, Persians, and Arabs, the concept of a Kurdish
national consciousness would not have been understood. Kurds were divided not only between
Empires, but also by the mountainous geography of their region, their language (in two major
variants, Kurmanji and Sorani), written scripts, religion, and social structures, all of which
naturally run counter to the formation of a unified identity. Thus, though some nationalists argue
that Khani was the first to advocate the principle of Kurdish self-determination, his work would
have circulated only among a few intellectuals and his influence would have been quite limited
(van Bruinessen, 2003:46-50). Religious affiliations and allegiances to tribal dynasties would
almost certainly have assumed much greater significance for the mass of the people.
Nonetheless, Mem û Zîn, in its printed and other forms, has played an important role as a
national symbol at critical periods in the modern history of the Kurds throughout the region
Kurdish claims to be a nation started in earnest with the decline of the Ottoman empire in the
late 19th century (Barkey and Fuller, 1998:8). Bearing out Benedict Anderson’s analysis, printed
media were crucial to the articulation of a Kurdish identity among the intelligentsia (Strohmeier,
2003:200). Various printings of Mem û Zîn over the first decades of the 20th century, turned it
into a symbol of historical significance for the Kurdish people (Gerdi, 1997). They also
contributed to the effort to demonstrate to the world that the Kurdish language was capable of
becoming a national language and that the Kurds were a distinct nation deserving of a state
(Klein, 2000:11). This process of awakening interest among an elite in an identity based on a
purported “common” language and culture, as opposed to religious and tribal allegiances,
corresponds with the first stage of Hroch’s model, discussed earlier, of the successful
development of a national movement.
However, if Khani was confident about Kurdish identity, the situation was not so encouraging at
the beginning of the 20th century.
The Kurdish “problem”
The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 dashed nationalist hopes and led to an even more fundamental
division of the Kurds that persists to this day (see map on page 1). The bulk of the population
was divided between Iran and the newly formed states of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, and smaller
populations were included in southern Republics of the USSR. The map also shows the
approximate distribution of the main Kurdish communities as at 1992, and illustrates the extent
of the “problem” that Kurdish minorities represents for the cultural homogeneity of each state.
A detailed description of the complex geo-political events of the region since the 1920s is
available from many sources, and will not be repeated here. It is sufficient to note that as each
state has accrued power to its centre, it has sought to resolve the issue of its Kurdish minority in
a largely similar way through denial of their existence and suppression of their culture. Other
policies, such as ‘compulsive general education [in the language of the state], general
conscription into the army … and state-controlled radio and press’ also have been employed in
the process of “nation-building” (van Bruinessen, 1998:40).
In the face of such extreme pressures, what has been the role of cultural products –particularly
the cinema – in conveying and sustaining Kurdish identity? I have divided this discussion into
three sections which broadly correspond with major stages in Kurdish political and cultural
development in the last century. The first period (1920s to the 1960s) may be categorised as
one of revolt followed by severe repression. The isolation of the majority of Kurds living in
mountainous areas enabled some cohesion to be maintained among the rural population, but
the continued existence of a distinct Kurdish literary culture came under serious threat. That it
managed to survive is due in part to the printing and publishing efforts of a number of
intellectuals in urban centres. Cinema, however, was almost non-existent in the Kurdish
regions over this time and had negligible influence on these urban nationalist movements.
The second period, from the 1960s, saw increased urbanisation and mobility among rural
Kurds. Kurdish cultural activity developed only fitfully in Iran and Iraq, and remained strictly
limited in Syria. However, in Turkey there were two crucial developments. With migration from
the country to the cities, it became more difficult for the state to ignore ethnic diversity. Rural life
intruded on the urban first in the shape of arabesk, a music and dance form that became
immensely popular in Turkish cities and whose foundation was in Arab and Kurdish culture.
Then, the poverty, illiteracy, and poor health of the migrants came sharply to the attention of
intellectuals and activists in the 1960s and 1970s. Influenced by Marxist ideology, many began
to see ‘the roots of the Kurdish problem in class conflict’ (Özoğlu, 2004:127). Among these
were film-makers Lütfi Akad, Metin Erksan, and, most importantly, Yilmaz Güney.
A turning-point occurred in Turkey in the 1980s as it became apparent that the Kurdish problem
was not just a manifestation of class conflict (ibid.:157 n10). This third period also signalled a
more fundamental change in worldwide perception of the Kurds. The news media carried more
stories of events affecting the Kurds in each state. There was a rapid development of Kurdish
language radio broadcasting and some television broadcasting. Turkish and Iranian film-
makers became more aware of the Kurds and dealt with Kurdish issues in their films. A
number of Kurdish film-makers in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey made films specifically on Kurdish
themes. Various international documentary film-makers addressed events such as attacks on
Kurdish communities in Iraq and Iran, forced migration, and refugee problems. And a strong
diasporan community of Kurds began to assert their identity, using film as an important weapon
in their cultural armoury.
In the next section I examine these wider developments in cinema; here I want to consider the
initial suppression and the subsequent resurgence of national consciousness among the
Kurds up to the 1980s.
Sporadic revolts by various Kurdish tribal leaders between the
two World Wars failed to cohere into a movement capable of
articulating the larger aims of the nation (van Bruinessen,
1998:39). In part, this was due to the effectiveness of the
assimilationist strategies of each state, and in part to
manipulation of Kurdish groups by those states (and the
Great Powers) as they wrestled for control in the region
(Barkey and Fuller, 1998; Olson, 1998). Other factors at work
were religious divisions which crucially weakened Kurdish
identity, and the continuing lack of political unity among Kurds
that Khani recognized centuries earlier when he wrote:
If only there were harmony among us,
If we were to obey a single one of us,
He would reduce to vassalage
Turks, Arabs and Persians, all of them …
Porous state boundaries failed to prevent intermingling among the Kurdish populations,
however they began to drift away from each other over the next few decades. Opportunities for
work, reading materials, education, and popular entertainment, mostly came from their
respective states, ensuring that a proportion more closely identified with their Turkish, Persian,
or Arab “hosts” (van Bruinessen, 1998:40).
Paradoxically, the policy of assimilation had a converse effect on some Kurds in that it
sharpened their sense of Kurdish identity. Though the suppression of language (at least in
urban areas) was almost completely successful in Turkey and Iran, a reasonably flourishing
Kurdish literature developed in Syria (up to the mid-1940s) and Iraq (Blau, 1996:22-24). For
example, a Sorani translation of Mem û Zîn had an ‘enormous impact’ on the development of
Kurdish nationalism in Iraq (van Bruinessen, 2003:53), while also spreading the influence of the
sentiments to the largely Sorani speaking Kurds of Iran (Ghassemlou, 1993:98).
However, for wide swathes of the Kurdish population there was little access to Kurdish-
language mass media. Even when the publication of newspapers and journals was possible,
their circulation was restricted mainly to urban areas; Kurdish radio broadcasting was forbidden
in Iran and Turkey, and only a very limited amount was allowed in Iraq and Syria (Chaliand and
Pallis, 1993:71-79); and Kurdish-language cinema was non-existent in this period
Russian and Armenian film-makers produced a few mainly
anthropological films including Zare (Bek-Nazarov, 1926),
Kurds-Yezidis (Martirossian, 1932), Kurds of Soviet Armenia
(Kocharyan, 1947), and Armenian Kurds (Zhamharyan, 1959)
about the way of life among the isolated Kurdish communities
of Soviet Caucasia. Though referred to by some nationalists
as further proof of the existence of a distinct Kurdish identity at
this time, I have found no evidence that they were ever
distributed outside the Soviet Union.
Overall, the development of political movements encompassing the mass of the Kurdish
population had to wait until the revolutionary decade of the 1960s.
In the early 20th century, in addition to the educated elite, there were already large numbers of
Kurds of peasant origin living in the more sizeable cities of the region. But the increased
mechanisation of agriculture after WWII and the destruction of traditional village life created
many more economic migrants (van Bruinessen, 1990:34). Neglect of rural areas led to greater
divisions between urban centres and the rural periphery, and around urban centres themselves
where the Kurds concentrated in squatter settlements.
For each state, then, the Kurds represented a challenge: forming an increasingly visible,
ethnically different underclass; a separate national group which the states were at pains to
deny. Again, this denial opened up a wider ‘discursive space’ in which a Kurdish identity could
be constructed (Houston, 2001:103). But how was this discourse communicated? In particular,
how did cultural products contribute to the increasing politicisation of the Kurds and the
beginning of their transition from a marginalised minority to gaining recognition as a nation?
While printing and publishing in Kurdish ‘virtually ceased’ in Syria from the early 1960s when the
Ba’ath party came to power (Hassanpour, 1996:70), and was very restricted in Iran, there were
greater freedoms in Iraq and Turkey. For example, the distribution of Kurdish literature,
including new editions of Mem û Zîn in Latinized Kurmanji and in a Turkish translation, were
significant for the re-emergence of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey (Kendal, 1993:40).
However, by the late 1960s there was a renewed and vicious clamp-down on the distribution of
Kurdish materials as the military re-asserted itself (Meiselas, 1997:234).
Broadcasting was also closely controlled. The Iranian government employed it ‘for the
promotion of Persian culture and national unity’ (Hassanpour, 1996:74). In Turkey, where the
state maintained a nearly total ‘hegemony over cultural forms’ (Aksoy, 1997:80), Kurdish culture
was excluded from broadcasts. The Iraqi government at first used radio Baghdad as a ‘powerful
instrument of [unifying] politics’ (ibid.:77), broadcasting several programs in Kurdish, but after
1961, these were radically scaled back. In essence, all the states continued their policy of using
Kurds against each other through the broadcast media – radio stations in Iran and Iraq, for
example, inciting Kurds to rebellion in each other’s state. However, after 1975, clandestine
Kurdish-language broadcasting, particularly important for autonomist movements, grew rapidly
in number, and broadcasts in Kurdish from Cairo were received in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Kurdish culture was largely absent from the cinema over this period in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. A
survey of the literature on these countries shows that in their limited film production there was
nothing of relevance to the Kurdish communities.
In Turkey, fissures began to appear in the homogenising myth of the nation. The drive to
become a modern, Western-oriented, secular state created fractures between the urban centre
and the rural periphery into which questions of Kurdish identity inserted themselves. Kurds
became associated with Islam, tradition (tribal resistance and banditry), the periphery (regional
backwardness, and smuggling), and resistance (to taxation and military service), and therefore
different – an Other in Turkish society (Houston, 2001:103).
Nothing exemplified this Otherness more than the migrant settlements, the gecekondu, which
appeared around most cities in Turkey. Though these were sometimes well organised and
provided with services, their image of disorder and chaos ‘remains deeply entrenched in the
language of political and cultural critique’ (Stokes, 1994:27-8). Rural issues and the “chaos” of
the settlements first made their appearance in arabesk music and films and then in the work of
On assuming power in Turkey in 1923, the Kemalist regime began its attempt to eradicate
Ottoman cultural influences in its drive to fashion a modern state. This suppression of what
Aksoy and Robins call the ‘real’ culture of the people was also intended to create a
homogenous Turkish nation (1997:76-7). Through various means, the government imposed an
“official” culture centred on Western forms. Music conservatories were tasked with producing a
new ‘pure Turkish musical culture’ (Stokes, 1994:25), and Egyptian musical films, which had
been very popular throughout the 1930s and 40s, were banned in 1948, ostensibly to allow the
Turkish cinema industry grow, but also to encourage it to absorb Western-influences (Stokes,
However, the repressed elements of Turkish cultural life did not disappear, rather they were
displaced to the margins, where they flourished. In particular, a new musical genre, the
arabesk, emerged in the 1950s. A lively synthesis of Turkish classical music, rural folk,
western pop, and Arab (primarily Egyptian) dance music, it was ‘pre-eminently the culture of the
margins and marginals’ (Aksoy and Robins, 1997:85). Many of the composers and performers
were associated with the southern and south-eastern border regions of Turkey and, though not
specifically Kurdish, the music contained strong Kurdish influences. Arabesk was claimed by
nationalists and, later, had a ‘[prominent] role to play in the resistance movement often referred
to as the Kurdish intifada’ (Stokes, 1994:35). Thus, from the outset, arabesk was interpreted as
an attack on Turkish identity and excluded from being broadcast on state-run radio. However,
the music was readily available on radio stations broadcasting from Egypt and Syria and its
popularity steadily increased through the 1950s and 1960s.
At the same time, several film production companies, known collectively as Yeşilçam, emerged
in Istanbul. These were able to by-pass some government controls because of their ability to
produce a stream of popular melodramas, comedies, and musicals, all at relatively low-cost.
Often featuring arabesk music, the combination of film and music was instrumental in the rapid
growth in popularity of both. The confluence of a popular musical form with the technology for its
widespread distribution – first the cinema and later the audio and video cassette – ensured that
arabesk quickly became a mass phenomenon in Turkey’s rapidly expanding metropolitan areas
(Aksoy and Robins, 1997:96).
Many arabesk films, despite their musical base,
are “realist” in their depiction of village life in the
rural south-east, and have affinities with the early
Armenian films (as discussed elsewhere). Kanun
Namina (Akad, 1952), for example, with its narrative
of tribal disputes and honour killings (echoing
Namous), was a model for the arabesk cinema of
the next three decades (Stokes, 1992a:95). Also
concerned with internal migration to the cities, they
evoke strong feelings of transience and liminality.
Typical settings include the gecekondu, bus stations
where migrants arrive from the south-eastern region
of Anatolia, or aboard communal buses (dolmuş)
that ferry them to work. Central characters are, as
Stokes remarks, ‘representatives of a society in the
grip of cultural and economic transformation’
(1992b:213-4). The gecekondu, itself, is a
transitional, unstable place, situated ‘between rural and urban, tradition and modernity […] the
periphery and the centre’ (Stokes, 1994:28), and represents a highly visible cultural boundary
The popularity of arabesk had the effect of exposing the uncomfortable truth that Turkish society
was far from homogenous, that it had significant elements excluded from the state’s vision of
itself. The presence of large Kurdish populations in and around the major cities, especially
Istanbul, could no longer be ignored and it appeared that the “Kurdish reality” would sometime
have to be acknowledged. But, if arabesk is about “outsiders” or the Other in Turkish society, it
is also about power relations – not only those between the state and its minorities, but also
those between men and women – and unstable boundaries, which are often expressed through
gender ambiguities. Male protagonists in arabesk film frequently occupy an overdetermined
“macho” position – a violent and cruel masculinity – but their lives are destroyed by poverty,
moral weakness, or their inability to abandon an obsolete honour code. And females are, in
some way, broken or deprived of their ‘femininity’ (Stokes, 1994:29). Themes of emasculation
and damaged women are visible in the work of successive, politically committed, film-makers.
Unlike the emasculation displayed in Armenian film, which is associated with the genocide,
here it is an expression of economic and political powerlessness, as we will see in the films of
Yilmaz Güney and those discussed in the next section.
Arabesk music and film tells of rural migration to the city, hardship, exploitation, and its
associated sense of alienation and helplessness. Allied with its realist mode, it provoked
feelings of social unease in Turkish society. At the same time, the spread of Marxist ideas
among the left in Turkey, following the 1960 military coup, led to a debate on the role of film-
makers in responding to social issues resulting from rapid economic development and the
inequalities it created (Dorsay, 1986:119). On one side were film-makers who argued that
Turkish cinema was neither obliged to represent a class analysis of the problems of society nor
to be overly political (Giles, 1982:2-3). This conviction was opposed by those who strongly
believed it had to engage actively in the battle for social change – to become a militant cinema
(Erdoğan, 1998:261-3). The latter view surfaced initially in the work of Metin Erksan with, for
example, Susuz Yaz (1963) and Kuyu (1968), and Lütfi Akad with his trilogy Gelin (1973), Düğün
(1973), and Diyet (1974), which deal with feudalism in rural Anatolia and the experience of
peasants who migrate to the city.
However, state control could not be entirely by-passed; it was still ‘a decisive factor in Turkish
cinema’ (Ilal, 1987:122; Loretan, 2001). As a consequence, references to minority peoples and
the use of minority languages were forbidden, for fear of inciting secessionist claims. This
censorship (or self-censorship) still extends to the literature on Turkish cinema where neither
the ethnic identity of film-makers nor their subjects is revealed. For example, Dorsay never uses
the word Kurd, instead he dismisses films about ‘peasants in eastern Turkey’ with the criticism:
‘decidedly a subject and a milieu quite favoured by young Turkish film-makers’ (1986:125).
Similarly, Ilal (1987), and Özgüç (2001) write only of ‘nomads’ and ‘Anatolian peasants’ when
they invariably mean Kurds. Kurdish issues thus permeate only gradually into the cinematic
discourse in Turkey, gaining most recognition in the works of Yilmaz Güney which are the focus
of the remainder of this section.
1- Commentary on the poem and the later extracts are derived principally from Shakely (1992),
van Bruinessen (2003), Stroheimer (2003), and Özoğlu (2004).
2- It was shot in Iraqi Kurdistan whereas Mem û Zîn was shot in Turkey.
3- Personal communication with Mustafa Gundogdu, curator of the Kurdish Film Festival in
London, February 2006.
4- For a discussion on language and scripts see Hassanpour (1989), for religious divisions
see Barkey and Fuller (1998:69), and for social structures see O’Shea (2004).
5- Population statistics on the Kurds are notoriously difficult to obtain and are disputed by the
major states. McDowall’s figures for 1996 (2004:3-4) correspond quite closely with Izady’s on
6- The most comprehensive general source is McDowall (2004). On Iran, see Houston (2001),
Olson (1998) and Vali (1995); on Iraq, Olson (2004); and on Syria, Lowe (2005) and Montgomery
7-For reflections on the development of Kurdish literature over these periods see (Blau, 1984)
and (Hassanpour, 1996), and for a wider discussion of cultural development see (van
8- A few foreign films were shown in Iraq with Kurdish sub-titles (Hassanpour, 1996:79).
9- For Iraq, see Nouri (1986) and Chébli (1964); on Iran, Issari (1989), Haghighat (1999), Issa
and Whitaker (1999), Key (1999), Dabashi (2001), and Tapper (2002); and on Syria, Salti
(2006). For discussion of the region in general histories of world cinema see Nowell-Smith
(1997) and Chapman (2003).
10- Many elements of identity were reformed at the same time – the language, written script,
dress, music, and architecture – to remove Arab influences and to promote a Western-
orientation (Robins, 2000:206-7).
11- For detailed discussion on the development of the arabesk, see Özbek (1997), Stokes
(1992a; 1994), and Aksoy and Robins (1997).
12- See Erdoğan and Göktürk (2001:535-7) and Ilal (1987:122-3) for summaries of Yeşilçam
history and productions.
13- Note that many of the most popular arabesk singers, such as Bülent Ersoy, are
transvestites or transsexuals. Examples of his work may be seen in Bitter Bread (Duru, 1984),
and on the internet at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dNjyW0SkRM (viewed February 2007)
14- For details of these and other film-makers whose work focuses on social issues see Ilal
(1987) and Dorsay (1986:119-20).
* This is the first part of Chapter 5 in Tim Kennedy's thesis. Kennedy, Tim. 2007. “Cinema
Regarding Nations: Re-imagining Armenian, Kurdish, and Palestinian national identity in film”.
PhD Thesis, Department of Film, Theatre, and Television at the University of Reading, U.K.
read second part
Kurdish director, stuck
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Reading a screenplay
Bahman Ghobadi: The
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Waiting for the rain, a
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Silence tells much
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The first film about
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Kurdish Identity and
Culture in the Films of
Yol: A monument to
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David & Layla:
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Interview with Yilmaz
David & Layla
Pain of Giving Birth
Crossing the Border
The New Kurdish
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Breaking the Silence