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A Brief History of a Young Kurdish Cinema

We are so lucky to have teamed up with the International Peace Festival in Erbil Kurdistan to bring some of the best films they have to offer here to our program this year. The Director, Jano Rosebiani has written a thorough survey for your better understanding into “Young Kurdish Cinema”

Kurdish cinema was practically nonexistent in the past century save for a few films, among them “The Herd” Written by Yilmaz Guney and directed by Zeki Okten in 1979, and Yilmaz Guney’s masterpiece, “The Road”, directed from his prison cell by proxy Serif Goren in 1982. “The Road” is most significant of the two for its courageous subject matter at a time when any mention of Kurds or Kurdishness was, and still is a to an extent, considered a crime in the Kurdophobic state of Turkey. “The Road”, despite its Turkified title “Yol”, literary marks the birth of the Kurdish cinema, introducing the world, not only to the suffering endured by an occupied nation, but also to what we now call “Kurdish cinema”. “The Road” garnered Cannes’ Fibresci and Palme d’Ore awards, followed by a nomination to Hollywood’s Golden Globe. As a result, Mr. Guney and his film became an inspiration for many young Kurds, this writer among them, who eventually began lensing their own stories: I first saw the film in the heart of Washington DC along with a group of college friends in 1985 and as a consequence, I made my first experimental TV movie a year later – “Come Back”, which received a Washington Post award.

The films that followed “The Road” in the 1990s were few and far apart, hence, it is safe to say that Kurdish cinema began to flourish from year 2000 onward, especially after the liberation from Saddam’s grip and the solidification of the Kurdistan region’s autonomy. A wave of Kurdish filmmakers from all parts of greater Kurdistan and from the diaspora turned out a ray of films, gaining international recognition and receiving awards at prestigious film festivals. Over 20 films were made in the first decade of the 21st century; most prominent among them are (in order of production date) “A Time For Drunken Horses” (dir. Bahman Ghobadi, 2000); “Jiyan” (dir. Jano Rosebiani, 2001); “Vodka Lemon” (dir. Hiner Saleem, 2003); “Crossing the Dust” (dir. Shawkat Amin Korki, 2006); and “Before Your Eyes” (Min Dît) (dir. Miraz Bezar, 2009).

The premise of the majority of Kurdish films is the suffering of their subjects, the Kurds, under successive occupiers, and their resilience in the face of destruction and massacres of genocidal proportion. Hence, Kurdish cinema is best categorized as political and will remain so until the day liberty is realized. Even then, there will remain many stories to be told for the decades to come.

Most of these films take place within Kurdistan and some within the territories of the occupying states where the Kurdish characters encounter, interact with, challenge, defy, and/or help their none-Kurd (Turk, Arab, Persian) antagonists. For instance, Kazim Oz’s “Bahoz” deals with a group of Kurdish university students/activists in Istanbul, and his “Fotograf” depicts a Kurdish revolutionary youth sharing a bus ride with his archenemy, a gendarme Turk; Saleem’s “Kilometer Zero” likewise takes the viewer across the barren Iraqi desert along with a Kurdish soldier stuck with his Arab archenemy driver as they deliver the body of a Kurdish soldier to Kurdistan. While “Fotograf” masterfully handles the internal struggles of the Kurd vs Turk bus ride where they have periods of small talk and even share cigarettes, in contrast, the characters in “Kilometer Zero” collide face-to-face as Kurd vs. Arab journey crosses Saddam era’s Iraq. Both films are unique and powerful in their own rights. However, yet another layer of Kurd vs. enemy comes forth in Korki’s “Crossing the Dust” where two Good Samaritan Kurdish Peshmergas help out a lost Arab boy ironically named ‘Saddam’ in an Arab village during the second Gulf war.

Direct enemy encounters are a natural part of Kurdish life and often unavoidable. Many folk tales depicting invaders, be it the Romans, the Greeks, the Seljuk Turks, Islamist Arabs of the old caliphates, or Persians, have been preserved through oral story telling and song. Kurdish films follow a similar path only through a new medium. Had film did not exist; their stories would have been likely recorded via song as in the olden days. Stories that deal directly with the authorities of the invader/occupier constitute a large portion of the Kurdish cinema. Among these films are Guney’s “The Herd”, “The Road”, and “The Wall”.

As for the social front, most Kurdish films tackle this issue one way or another. The shortcomings in treatment of women are depicted as a consequence of a combination of political oppression and religious imposition as in “The Road”, and of cultural mores and traditions as in my film “One Candle, Two Candles” that depicts forced marriage and other primitive phenomena imported from or imposed by Islam. Such implanted mores have also paused an obstacle to some extent on the filmmakers in the beginning, especially in South Kurdistan where women actresses were scarce, though in the past few years this has become less of an issue as more women are coming to the scene. “Memories on Stone”, a Fellini-sque art film within a film depicts a filmmaker’s trysts in casting a female part – a story most Kurd filmmakers can relate to.

While the women in “The Road” are helpless and voiceless, “Candles…” depicts strong outspoken women who stand up for their rights. These new women are closer to the reality of present-day Kurdistan as they are making headlong progress in their social status, especially in the past few years. The Kurdish female fighter (Shervan) has made not only her people but also every woman on Earth proud. She is the new Amazon woman. I predict Hollywood and Madison Avenue soon to bank on this new heroine in movies and interactive video games pitting the Kurdish female heroine against evil terrorists and other demons. I foresee a variety of mainstream arcade, tablet, and mobile games starring the Kurdish female fighter for and defender of the civilized world against terrorists.

Speaking of the Kurdish presence in the world scene, a handful of filmmakers have also seen success in making their films in diaspora with Kurdish subject matters and in cross-cultural settings. Among these films are Hisham Zaman’s “Winterland” (2007) and Saleem’s “Viva la Mariée” (1998). Inversely my latest, “Chaplin of the Mountains” (2013) brings foreign subjects to home where Kurdish, American, and French characters tour the Kurdistan countryside. Lastly, a few filmmakers have also delved into making non-Kurdish films. Among them, my first feature “Dance of the Pendulum” (1995), a Hollywood story set in a remote mountain cabin in California; Saleem’s “Beneath the Rooftops of Paris” a heat wave that perturbed many of the elders of that city.

The filmmakers, some with formal education in cinema, others self-taught, have stories to tell the world with a burning desire to be heard and a passion that exceeds the artistry of the medium. As a result, one can hardly watch a Kurdish film and not shed tears. The Kurdish filmmaker in essence is the ambassador of his/her people, opening a window to the world through which one can get a glimpse of the daily life, history, culture, and the suffering of the Kurds. As one film critic, David Rooney, in a Hollywood Variety magazine review of “Jiyan” states, “Jiyan gives a human face to the massacre [of Halabja].”1 Thus being the face and the voice of a nation are the driving force behind the passion for the cinematic art in Kurdistan.

As for aesthetics, Kurdistan is blessed with natural beauty – snow-capped mountains and lush valleys, stunning waterfalls from the melting snow into a surfeit of rivers and tributaries, and rolling hills and plains emblazon with spring blossom of every color imaginable. Added to this is the uniquely golden light of the sun. “The daylight of Kurdistan’s sun is a cinematographer’s treasured find.” Stated Russian film director Sergie Bodrov (“Mongol”, 2007) during his visit to South Kurdistan along with a Hollywood delegation. During the filming of “Jiyan” in 2001, we solely relied on sunlight, as there was no lighting equipment in the region at the time, thus the film has a natural golden tint that fills the frame with warmth. Here, it is timely to mention that Kurds, who come from the ancient sun-worshiping Mithraic background, continue to revere the sun. Such reverence is evident in their national flag and in the shape of their Yazidi temples.

Besides the physical beauty of the land, Kurdistan is home to one of the oldest civilizations and is incubator of great many archeological sites including the discovery of Neanderthal remains. Additionally, the richness of the culture and folklore that has been handed down the generations since time immemorial is yet another feature to explore in film.

All this makes Kurdistan a fertile ground for the lens. Wherever the camera is directed, the captured image is as fresh and as captivating as a morning breeze. While Kurd filmmakers have been capturing the tragedies and sufferings that had befallen their people, the time is ripe they turn their cameras to focus on the aforementioned imagery and complement it with romantic folktales of past and present.

On the downside, unlike Hollywood, Kurdish filmmaker’s greatest challenge is not scarcity of stories, but rather finding support. Local financing is scares for a number of reasons. One, being a member of an oppressed nation divided amongst hostile neighbors. Kurds have barely had the freedom to develop their cinema, or to have venues to showcase their films. For a long time, the Kurdish language and self-expression were prohibited in the largest slice of the nation under the rule of Kurdophobic Turks; similarly, ethnic identity was suppressed in Western Kurdistan by the Syrian regime; not much of self-expression was allowed by the Baathist regime of Iraq; and Iran continues to execute Kurdish artists and intellectuals while the world community keeps a blind eye. As a result, an explosion of Kurdish literature and all forms of art took place at the turn of the present century, all thirsty to express their people’s grievances through their literary and artistic endowment.

Despite these obstacles, Kurdish producers and directors have taken up the challenge and are making films, however not at a study rate – given the present circumstances; there should have been dozens of films made about Shingal, Kobané, Afrin, the Peshmerga, and the shervans who have given much sacrifice in defense of their nation and of the civilized world.

Jano Rosebiani
Kurdish/American Filmmaker

Stichting Manifesto Film Festival

Jacques Veltmanstraat 15

1065 EG Amsterdam The Netherlands