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Underappreciated At Home, Kurdish Filmmakers Struggle For Identity

Iraqi Kurdish director Hiner Saleem (right) and actor Yvan Franek promoting their film "Vodka Lemon"
Iraqi Kurdish director Hiner Saleem (right) and actor Yvan Franek promoting their film "Vodka Lemon"
NEW YORK -- The first New York Kurdish Film Festival took place on October 21-25, presenting a wide range of feature films, shorts, and documentaries under the slogan “A Cinema Across Borders.”

The festival comes on the heels of the larger London Kurdish Film Festival, which has been run annually since 2001.

Nine full-length films by as many directors and a smorgasbord of documentaries and shorts were screened in New York.

Spread over a volatile region encompassing parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, the Kurdish people for centuries have struggled for identity and statehood. Turbulent history and political realities often force Kurdish filmmakers to express themselves through allegory, symbolism, and allusion.

Despite the unfavorable conditions for cultural development at home, Kurdish cinematographers have achieved considerable success abroad, including the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1982 for "Yol," a film by the Turkish-Kurdish director Yilmaz Guney. "Yol" was filmed by an assistant based on detailed instructions from Guney, who was in prison at the time.

Bahman Ghobadi from Iran, whose film "No One Knows About Persian Cats" premiered at the New York festival, is among the better-known contemporary Kurdish filmmakers.

Also offering a film in New York was Hiner Saleem, an Iraqi-Kurdish cinematographer based in France. Saleem’s latest comedy, "Vodka Lemon," is a gentle love story about an ex-army officer and a barmaid set in a Kurdish village in Armenia that dismisses the notion that there is a common underlying theme for all Kurdish filmmakers.

“We can live in the same city or the same village but think differently or have different sensibilities,” Saleem said. “Unfortunately today for Kurds in Turkey, in Syria, in Iran, it is very hard to make movies. It’s very difficult to work because there is an apartheid against Kurdish [people], there is no equality, there are no human rights, there is no freedom. But some very courageous, brave Kurdish girls and boys [are] making movies in very hard conditions.”

Bollywood Or Melodrama

Saleem says that as in many other parts of the world, Kurds are far less excited to see movies about their bleak living conditions than the latest action flick featuring Tom Cruise.

As an example of the extreme lengths Kurdish filmmakers have to go to bring their movies to local audiences he recalls his experience from one of his previous movies. He filmed the movie with the help of a 500,000 euro grant from a French cultural institution, but upon offering it for free to one of the Kurdish TV channels in Iraqi Kurdistan, his offer was declined.

Bollywood films and Egyptian and Turkish melodramas dominate the cultural landscape in Iraqi Kurdistan, Saleem notes, and few people show an inclination toward the politically or socially engaged movies that many Kurdish filmmakers produce.

Jano Rosebiani is an Iraqi-Kurdish filmmaker based in California whose film "Jiyan" -- a story of a 10-year orphan in the aftermath of the 1988 gas attack in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja -- was screened at the festival. Rosebiani says that terrorism concerns are another major obstacle keeping local audiences in Iraqi Kurdistan out of the movie theaters.

“You would not want to sit in a dark room full of people in that region, at least not yet. So, therefore the cinema has not really taken its ground yet in that region,” Rosebiani said.

In 2000, when Rosebiani felt safe enough to relocate to northern Iraq's Kurdistan region to start making movies locally, he had to smuggle all the equipment through Turkey because there was none available in Kurdistan. After the films were shot, the negatives had to be flown back to Belgium for development and editing.

Prohibition In Turkey

The situation is not much different today, says Rosebiani, who relocated from Kurdistan to California in 2008. “We don’t have a cinema industry in Kurdistan yet because for the majority of the Kurdish regions, you are not allowed to show Kurdish films,” Rosebiani said. Where 60 or 65-70 percent of the Kurdish area is in Turkey, you cannot show Kurdish films in Turkey, for example; likewise in Iran or Syria. The only part [where] you can show Kurdish film is Kurdistan in Iraq, that’s only 5-6 million people, half of which are not at...the age to see a film.”

Yuksel Yavuz, a Turkish-Kurdish filmmaker based in Germany, says that he was surprised when he received a call from a distribution company in Turkey in 2004 requesting the rights to his movie "A Little Bit Of Freedom." When he later visited Turkey and sought to see his film in Istanbul, he discovered that it was being shown only in a small screening room of a local porn-movie theater.

"Bawke," a 15-minute film by Iraqi Kurdish filmmaker Hisham Zaman, captures the tension and desperation of a Kurdish father and his young son as they make a perilous attempt to cross Europe and find a safe haven. "Bawke" has received numerous awards, and Zaman, who has been based in Norway for the last 17 years, says that though still underdeveloped, Kurdish cinema has its own distinctive features.

“Kurdish cinema for me, what makes Kurdish cinema different from other cinemas, maybe is the way they present human beings, the way they use amateur actors, the way they show their existence and their life and cultural traditions,” Zaman said.

The festival featured a special presentation called "Women in Kurdish Cinema," which included short films made by and about Kurdish women. The organizers were forced, however, to cancel a panel on the subject because the moderator, Müjde Arslan, a young Turkish-Kurdish filmmaker, was not issued a U.S. visa.

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