Adrian Bailey, Liverpool, UK
January 2002

Towards the end of the 1980s Iraq-Iran conflict, Saddam unleashed savage fury against the Kurdish civilian population living in the border region as retaliation against Kurdish fighters' supporting the Iranian offensive. Hundreds of villages were razed, children were tortured and executed, and chemical weapons were used from 1987. On 15 March 1988, Iranian and Kurdish forces captured the town of Halabja, a strategically important position. The next day Iraq retaliated with a massive chemical attack. In a matter of minutes, 5000 civilians were killed and a further 9000 left maimed and deformed.

Jiyan tells the story of how, five years later, a survivor of an elementary school attack in 1974 where 184 children were killed, Diyari, returns to the town from America to help the community construct a much needed orphanage. Jiyan (which means Life) is much more than a beautiful story. For a start, it is an allegory of the centuries of the horrifying victimisation of Kurds by neighbouring nation states against a backdrop of indifference from the west. But Jiyan is not an angry or depressing film: it is lyrical and poetic, enchanting and life-enhancing, a subtle interweaving of elements, a tapestry.

One of the many achievements of the film is its representation of the people in Halabja – children, men and women with dreams and aspirations, traditions and culture, friendships, love, a strong and deep rooted sense of community, resilience. People like us, people like those who perished in the Twin Towers, people like those countless thousands of Kurds who have been annihilated. And they are portrayed gently going about their lives – gossiping, romancing, sharing food, making music, and because this is Halabja, sheltering from a storm of contaminated dust stirred up by the wind, and suffering in the hospital.

When Diyari arrives, he meets up with Salar Hawari a respected resident. Early on, he tells Diyari, "The future is uncertain. Those who died in the chemical attacks were lucky. Those who survived are between life and death." This 'betweeness' of life and death is an important theme. Against the poisonous landscape is evoked the beauty of flowers, as Jiyan herself is beautiful with her scarred face; against death and destruction, fertility is imagined in a joyous wedding feast and dancing; against the dehumanisation of people is shown their kindness, care and good humour – and Jiyan is full of delightful humour.

Those in Halabja are between states, literally. Salar Hawari refers to the nations which imposed themselves on Kurdistan (Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria) as "the four monsters". He wishes they were as fortunate as those in Hiroshima or Nagasaki for at least they received the attention of the world. But there are two worlds: Diyari tells Jiyan that he comes "from the other side of the world". That other world is 'The West', the United States. He gives Jiyan a magazine on the cover of which is a picture of a rose garden; she shows the magazine to her aunt who caresses the image longingly, though she is blind. Such small moments are typical of the film's memorable imagery, its lyrical, painterly qualities.

Mela Rostem was a preacher. He lost his wife and eight children in the chemical attack. Now he sits night and day on a roof, playing a pipe, and wrapped into himself with something having died within him but something having been born. His sorrowful, plaintive melodies fall across the town, his music vibrating with Life.

Music is a potent expression of the human spirit. The one anti-life character in the film is a disapproving fundamentalist who condemns Mela Rostem, displays of dancing and all 'forbidden pleasures'. He is beaten (in an amusing sequence) by one of the town's matriarchs who complains, as she thrashes him, that they are not living in Afghanistan. Jiyan is concerned not only with brutality but also with all that would suppress life.

Life is most fulsome in Love, and there is plenty of it here. Jiyan is going to marry her 12 years old cousin, Shérco, when they are older; meanwhile they are inseparable childhood friends. A young man woos his intended on the other side of a wall by reciting poetry. One of a trio of vibrant, life-drenched sisters falls hopelessly and madly in love with Diyari. And it is a forlorn love, for he is married – and he comes from the other world.
There are happy celebrations upon completion of the orphanage, the children joyous and singing. For the future, Diyari tells Shérco, "Let your gun be the pen and your warplane be the computer". The orphanage is named Jiyan, and at the opening ceremony the Mayor tells the children and the rest, "We have preserved our identity for 5000 years and will continue to do so." There follows enthusiastic crying of "Long live Kurdistan!" But there are problems with the optimism. Diyari is a man of two worlds. Although the orphanage is much needed, it is a small thing in the wider context: "The future is uncertain… Those who survive are between life and death." And the Four Monsters have not gone away. Diyari returns to the other world, and the landscape he leaves remains poisonous.
The film begins and ends with the same image. Jiyan is sitting on a swing beneath a tree on the outskirts of the town, a forlorn and sad figure. We may wonder what will become of those people she represents, those millions who continue to suffer under the tyrannies of nationalist terrorism and western indifference. But something has been shown that is strong and enduring: it is Jiyan. It is Life.

-Adrian Bailey is a media analyst and freelance writer


Jiyan DVD