Land and freedom

More than a decade after the Gulf war brought the Iraqi Kurds a degree of intellectual liberty, Kurdish cinema is beginning to develop.

Wendy Ide
Friday January 31, 2003
The Guardian

Think of Kurdish cinema and you tend to think of the bullet-strafed mountain country of Iranian Kurdistan captured in Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards.
Or Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses, with its desperate orphans braving sub-zero temperatures and mines on the Iran-Iraq border. You might anticipate the anger of Jano Rosebiani's Jiyan, which inspects the town of Halabja, subjected to a chemical and biological attack by Saddam Hussein's air force in March 1988. But you would certainly not expect the polite suburban setting of the Turkish film Hejar.

Hejar, a slow-burning drama, examines the unfolding relationship between a crusty old man and a headstrong five-year-old girl. There's little here to cause offence; still less to suggest that Hejar might be a threat to Turkish national security. Yet last year, at the request of the police, the film was banned from being shown in Turkey, which gives some indication of just how politically sensitive the Kurdish question was there at that time.

Turks and Kurds, director Handan Ipekci (herself Turkish) says, have lived peacefully side by side for centuries in Anatolia. And they largely continue to do so in the country's cities. "It's such a mixed community," she says, "that you can't really say 'the Turkish people' and 'the Kurdish people'." But, until a recent ceasefire, there was an ongoing armed struggle between government forces and the Kurdish guerrillas in the south-east of the country, which resulted from what Ipekci describes as "a political mistake" during the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1917. She means neglecting to implement land reform in the region, leaving Kurdish peasants locked in a financially crippling feudal system. Another significant factorwas a national ban on the Kurdish language in Turkey. An intense woman in her mid-40s, Ipekci says with absolute finality, "It was not possible for me not to make a film about the Kurdish people."

The idea for Hejar came during a period of nationalist fervour in 1998 surrounding the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Turkish republic. This, together with the threat of tensions in the south-east spilling over into the urban communities, convinced her to make a film about the relationship between the Turkish and Kurdish communities. "It was," she says, "a terrible time."

The script tells a simple story hooked on less-than-subtle symbolism. Five-year-old Hejar (the name means "oppressed") is left by her grandfather at the Istanbul flat of a distant relative. But the apartment is also sheltering a pair of dissident Kurdish guerrillas. Across the hallway, retired Turkish judge Rifat instinctively sides with the police when they raid the flat, but can't bring himself to turn a child over to the officers in charge.

The question of language is central to the film. The old judge, Ipekci explains, is the authoritarian figure who symbolises the official line that the Kurdish language doesn't exist. His beleaguered Kurdish servant represents cultural repression.

It's a gently optimistic message which might have gone unchecked but for one contentious scene in which the police raid raid the flat and an officer apparently shoots an unarmed woman at point-blank range. It's a moment that Ipekci defends - "We have had cases where the police did go in shooting to kill in a totally unlawful way" - but it was enough, given the unstable political situation at the time of the picture's release in October 2001, to get Hejar withdrawn from cinemas, even through it had already won numerous film festival prizes and had been chosen as Turkey's entry to the Academy awards. Ipekci went to court and eventually the decision was reversed, but it was too late to get the film reinstated in the Istanbul festival's national competition, where she was tipped to win several prizes.
Ipekci is philosophical about this disappointment. Hejar is not the first film she's had to fight to get shown. No Turkish distributor would support her first picture, Dad Is in the Army, which looked at the impact of the 1980 military coup through the eyes of a child. Consequently, Ipekci took on the responsibility herself, driving around the country and brow-beating exhibitors into showing the film. It was, she says, a tragicomic situation.

Jano Rosebiani, the director of Jiyan, has more fundamental problems with the authorities. Taking film equipment into Iraqi Kurdistan is, in his words, "a no-no", so he was forced to seek the help of smugglers to transport his digital camera equipment into Kurdistan from Turkey. His film is closer in content and style to Iranian cinema. As in Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, which Jiyan somewhat resembles, an urbane city man visits a small town in the furthest reaches of Kurdistan. Rosebiani's protagonist is a Kurd returning to the area for the first time after fleeing to America in the wake of the collapse of the Kurdish uprising in 1975. His aim is to build an orphanage for the children of Halabja, the decimated Kurdish town that lost around 5,000 of its population in the 1988 attack. A Kurdish-American, Rosebiani makes no secret of the personal relevance of the story. "I wanted to be a window through which to introduce the Kurdish way of life, their culture; the Kurdish people and their dilemma," he says. "As a Kurd and a film-maker, I felt it was my duty to expose that information. Basically, me making the film Jiyan is the same as the character building the orphanage."

Rosebiani was prevented from spending a long time in Halabja as, 12 years on, the town's water supply and vegetation were still contaminated. Instead he scouted for locations in other Kurdish villages and peopled his cast with survivors of Halabja. It's perhaps no wonder, given the human cost of the attacks, that Rosebiani finds it a struggle to keep his films apolitical. And, he says, it is this unavoidable emotional involvement that sets his work, and that of fellow Kurd Bahman Ghobadi, apart from that of Kiarostami and Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf. "The [Iranian] films are more poetic and symbolic. A Kurdish film-maker is trying to make art, but at the same time we have this urgency to tell the world about this group of people and their plight."

Rosebiani says that, as yet, "there is no Kurdish cinema". But while he is dismissive about the chances of a truly Kurdish cinematic voice emerging from Turkey, he is optimistic about the prospects in the liberated Iraqi region of Kurdistan. "They hadn't had the freedom even to publish their books, or to write their poetry for so many decades. Now for 10 years they have had that opportunity and suddenly hundreds of books have been published, and television and radio stations opened."

Film-making in Iraqi Kurdistan is mainly restricted to video, the only medium available. But there are plans to open a film academy as part of the national university. "Everybody is in favour, and we'll see what the situation is after the dust has settled within the next couple of months," says Rosebiani, touching on one issue that may serve to increase international coverage of the plight of the Kurds. War on Iraq can't fail to impact on Kurdistan, perched between two major players in "the axis of evil".

"Now that the west is prepared to remove Saddam," says Rosebiani, "once again the Kurdish issue is being used - not for the love of the Kurds, but to convince their public that Saddam must be removed. Kurds have always been victims of their own circumstances and at times they benefit from the exposure. That's really the Kurdish dilemma."

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