Movie looks at life in Halabja after chemical attack

Kurdish film-maker illustrates human capacity for cruelty and destruction

Ali Jaafar
The Daily Star, London
June 21, 2003

LONDON: There are certain names which are forever etched in our conscience, bearing testament to our capacity for evil and destruction. Auchwitz, Hiroshima, Sabra and Chatila - all names that instantly prompt images of death, loss and suffering to surface. Joining this tragic list is the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq.

Ever since now-deposed dictator Saddam Hussein authorized the use of chemical weapons in 1988, Halabja has served as yet another reminder of mankind’s ability to inflict unimaginable cruelty on his fellow man. In a matter of minutes an estimated 5,000 Kurds were killed and countless thousands maimed or deformed following the gas attacks.

Jiyan, a new film by Kurdish director Jano Rosebiani, looks at the aftermath of the attacks and its consequences on the Kurdish inhabitants of Halabja. It is showing in New York as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival from June 13-26.

Filmed on location in Irbil in 2001, Jiyan, which means life in Kurdish, tells the story of Diyari, a Kurdish American who returns to Halabja five years after the infamous gas attacks to build an orphanage. While there, he meets Jiyan, 10, an orphan and survivor of the chemical attack. As the film progresses, the two grow closer, Diyari acting as surrogate friend, brother and father figure to the girl. During the course of his stay, he comes across a disparate group of survivors. They include a former cleric who, having lost his wife and eight children, spends his time perched on a rooftop playing his flute, as well as an elderly woman, blinded by the chemicals, spending her sleepless nights feeling the photos of her dead family.

The film itself uses a variety of cinematic styles, shifting from still images of corpses, to black and white cinema-verite style flashbacks of the attack, to vividly etched frescos of Halabja’s bleakly beautiful landscape.

When asked which film-makers had most influenced him, Rosebiani replied that his biggest inspiration came from the Italian New Realist cinema, Iranian cinema of the 90s and Chinese cinema of the late 80s-90s.

Given the grim subject matter, the film certainly has its share of harrowing moments. As one of the characters remarks, “Those who died were lucky. Those who survived were between life and death.”

This sense of a waking death pervades throughout the film. The aftershock of the attacks are constantly at the fore, as we encounter more crippled, maimed and disfigured casualties.

At one point a sandstorm sends everyone running indoors. Clouds of desert dust swirl menacingly, each contaminated grain posing the threat of spreading tuberculosis and cancer. The characters are haunted, attacked even by the wind and the nature of their land.
Yet, for all the inevitable despair , there are many moments of hope and tenderness in the film. Jiyan herself, though forever scarred on the right side of her face, is a luminous presence, her smile momentarily camouflaging her injury. We first encounter her on a swing, the director framing her as a solitary, silent figure in the midst of the sweeping landscape. However, as the film progresses, and her friendship with Diyari blossoms, she too grows as a character.

Her imagination allows the director to step back from reality and set the viewer adrift in a sea of fantasy. One highlight comes after Jiyan sees a picture of some roses in one of Diyari’s roses. She recounts how her aunt would tell her stories about the rose garden they used to have with the same fascination one would expect of fairytales filled with unicorns and fire-breathing dragons, before the director cuts to her dream of being smothered in rose petals, the sudden shock of red filling the screen with a vital, fertile colour, no longer the dull crimson of blood.

It is in these every day depictions of how these people’s lives have been inalterably affected that the film is at is most poignant. At a later point Jiyan gives the picture of the roses to the blind old lady to feel, replacing the portraits of her dead family with an image of growth.

While working on the screenplay, Rosebiani met with survivors of the attacks, using their tales to structure the film. It proved an exhausting time for the director. “It was very emotional. Many of the people in the film actually come from Halabja and it shows in their performance. After we finished shooting the scenes, a lot of the time people behind the camera would be crying. I think this feeling travels into the audience.”

The director does not shy away from the politics of the area, either. A constant pattern in the film is character after character wishing death upon Saddam Hussein.

The Americans are not spared either. Asked when his family decided to immigrate to America, Diyari’s reply is typically direct: “In 1975, when Kissinger screwed up our revolution.”

Rosebiani, himself just back from a post-Saddam Iraq for the first time, expresses great hope for the future. “Even though it won’t be easy and people are getting impatient for normal life to resume, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because the people love each other. Whether from Basra, Baghdad or the north, I traveled through Iraq and I saw that the people really do love each other.”

As the winds of change sweep through Iraq, Jiyan offers hope that they can blow away the contaminated, blood stained grains of sand and replace them with soil ready to bloom bountiful rose gardens as would befit the smile of a new country.

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