by Sam Adams
Philladelphia City Paper

Scattered Seeds of Hanareh: The New Kurdish Cinema (through Sun, Feb. 22, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215-895-6542) Freelance telejournalist Kevin McKiernan spent years documenting the situation of the Kurds in northern Iraq and southern Turkey, but as he relates in his documentary, Good Kurds, Bad Kurds, when he took his footage to American networks, they told him "the story was not on their radar." Though they constitute the world's largest stateless ethnic group (anywhere from 20 to 40 million), and their existence continues to be a major factor in the United States' Iraq policy, the Kurds' situation has only recently burst into the public consciousness in this country, due not only to the Kurds' central role in the future of Iraq, but to the emergence of a new group of films addressing the situation of Kurds in the modern world. As Jamsheed Akrami, the programmer of International House's Kurdish series, puts it, the films "give the Kurds a voice."

Now a teacher at William Paterson University, Akrami was born in Iran, and has directed several documentaries on Iranian cinema, but despite his extensive knowledge of Iranian cinema, Akrami had never heard Kurdish spoken onscreen until he saw Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). "I had been watching all these movies, so you'd think that not too many scenes are going to move me that easily," recalls Akrami, whose heritage is Kurdish. "But just hearing those few lines [spoken] by these minor characters, it gave me this uncanny feeling, as if the characters were speaking to me. Because I was hearing a language that I had only heard within the confines of my own family."

The history of Kurdish filmmakers goes back many years -- Akrami points to the Turkish-born Yilmaz Güney, whose Yol shared the Palme d'Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival -- but the history of explicitly Kurdish films is a far more recent one. While Güney was one of Turkey's most popular stars, few knew of his Kurdish heritage; his IMDb biographer refers to him as "a Turkish director for the Turkish people." But with the 2000 release of Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses (Sat., 8 p.m.), a new, explicitly Kurdish cinema was born. (Hiner Saleem's 1997 romantic comedy, Vive la mariéeÉ et la libération de Kurdistan, predates it, but it received little distribution outside of France.) A former assistant director to Kiarostami, Ghobadi created a searing portrait of Kurds scraping out a living on the border between Iran and Iraq. (Borders figure heavily in Ghobadi's second feature, Marooned in Iraq -- not surprising when you consider that a map of Kurdistan stretches over present-day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.) Showered with awards (including the Caméra d'Or and FIPRESCI prize at Cannes), A Time for Drunken Horses immediately established Ghobadi as an international spokesman for the Kurds, and a unique voice in the cinema. "Part of his success as a filmmaker is that he's a filmmaker with a cause, a Kurdish cause," says Akrami. "He's made movies that have brought the Kurdish culture and reality to an outside world which was largely unfamiliar with it. That's also combined with his strong passion in the job he's doing. He's determined to make the Kurdish voice heard."

Emboldened by the existence of a largely autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, other filmmakers took up the cause -- and, no doubt encouraged by the international success of Ghobadi's films, festivals and distributors began to take greater notice, though no Kurdish filmmaker has gone on to anything like Ghobadi's acclaim. That sin of omission is most keenly felt with regard to Kazim Oz's Fotograf (Thu., 8 p.m.), a haunting depiction of the situation in present-day Turkey, where government battles with Kurdish guerrillas are a frequent occurrence. As shown in Good Kurds, Bad Kurds, which screens as part of the same program, the Turkish government's repression of its Kurdish population (some 12 to 15 million) encompasses not only the banning of the Kurdish language and dress, but the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages (according to the Turks, as retaliation for the villagers' refusal to be drafted into the Turkish army, where they would be forced to fight their own people).

McKiernan's documentary is necessary preparation for Fotograf, which deals with the conflict mainly in shorthand. Opening with images of Turkish militarism, the film picks up the story of two young men who strike up a friendship on a bus trip. Though Turkish viewers would recognize one as a Turk and one as a Kurd, the film resists attempts to characterize them further. At a rest area, the two watch a TV bulletin of a battle between the Turkish army and Kurdish guerrillas, but rather than illustrating the divide between the two men, their silent, stunned reactions seem almost identical. It's up to the audience to decide what's going through each man's mind. With transcendent humanism, Oz responds to a period of great turmoil with sublime stillness; when one man tells the other, "There's no justice in this world," the camera pans out the window and all sound drops away, as the countryside moves by in silence. Fotograf's chances for distribution may have been hurt by its unusual length (just over an hour), but the fact that this astonishing debut film has received so little attention outside of Turkish film festivals is nothing short of a scandal. Recalling the poetic naturalism of the films in I-House's Silk Road series (particularly Darezhan Omirbaev's Kairat), Fotograf meditates on fate and the circularity of experience as well as lodging a quiet but powerful protest.

Treading similar ground, Handan Ipekçi's Hejar (Fri., 8 p.m.) is comparatively lead-footed. The story of a retired Turkish judge who shelters a Kurdish girl after her guardians are killed by the police, Hejar is a sentimental allegory, where the judge's softening toward his tiny ward (whose name means "crushed") is a plea for a nation's understanding. Reprised from the 2002 Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, Jano Rosebiani's Jiyan (Sun., 7 p.m.) takes a similarly allegorical tack with its story of a Kurdish American who returns to his native town of Halabja, where chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein's troops left 5,000 dead and thousands more deformed. Shot in Halabja, with many survivors of the attacks among its cast, Jiyan is eloquently simple where Hejar feels reductive. The building of a new orphanage signifies a rebirth for "martyred Halabja," a chance to begin anew.

Though Akrami allows there are few stylistic links between the films in the series, he points out that, like Jiyan, many feature orphans as central characters. "It's indicative of the genocide going on in Kurdistan for years, and a metaphor for the whole Kurdish nation, which is a nation without a country, an orphan nation." Ironically, considering that Saddam Hussein's brutal treatment of the Kurds was central to the Bush administration's rationale for war, the Kurds stand a good chance of losing their hard-won autonomy in northern Iraq, since any attempt to make that status permanent would likely alienate Turkey, one of the most critical U.S. allies in the region. As Akrami points out (and Good Kurds, Bad Kurds reiterates), the U.S. has a history of supporting Kurdish revolt and then abandoning it, not just after the first Gulf War, but during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1970s as well. Caught between Turkey's anti-Kurdish policy and the election-driven need for a hasty democracy in Iraq, the U.S. is on the verge of betraying the Kurds for a third time, recalling the old Kurdish saying, "The Kurds have no friends." "Right now they seem to be forced to share the destiny of the whole country," Akrami says. "They would rather have the status quo."

Chi-hwa-seon ($29.95 DVD) The Raging Bull of artistic biographies, Im Kwon-Taek's Chi-hwa-seon (Painted Fire) returns to turbulent 19th-century Korea to tell the equally turbulent life story of the legendary Ohwon (Choi Min-Sik). Though the movie indulges the inevitable biopic cliches -- "paint the thoughts behind the shape," a teacher advises him -- Choi's red-blooded performance and the exquisite simplicity of the movie's images bring life to the form. An inveterate boozer and womanizer, Choi's Ohwon lives a raucous life that contrasts markedly with the stillness of his images (which often adorn fans or screens, and so are more part of life than Girl with a Pearl Earring's isolated tableaux). Im's movie is similarly polarized, which can make for a disjunctive experience, but such contradictions are exactly what the movie embraces.


Jiyan DVD