Over the past two weeks or so, it has been a huge honour and a great pleasure to act as a member of the jury for the 2020 London Kurdish Film Festival (as well as to do a workshop/’masterclass’ on no-budget filmmaking with them).
I was lucky enough to catch 30 short films during the festival, including the 26 that were in competition for the festival’s main prize and special mentions. Many of these are available online here. (And you can, if you so wish, see my ‘masterclass’ here.) However, rather than repeat anything from that masterclass, and rather than try to place into a hierarchy of better and worse the 30 films that I saw, I’d like to offer up some general observations about the films.
That is, rather than analyse any one film especially, I’d like to consider the 30 films as a single body in order to say what the LKFF was telling us this year about Kurdish cinema, Kurdish culture more generally, and Kurdistan itself, be that in the sense of a geographic place or as a ‘national’ concept (and I place national in scare quotes to signify/acknowledge the contested status of Kurdistan as a recognised, autonomous country/region, or, if you will, collection of countries – in that Kurdistan spans at least what today are recognised as parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey).
By making some observations and suggestions about what the LKFF films are telling us, we can potentially, if warily, make some extrapolations about what Kurdish cinema is today telling us – in that the concerns and techniques that repeat themselves across numerous of the LKFF films clearly do therefore repeat across Kurdish cinema, even if the films selected for the festival cannot represent the totality of Kurdish cinema.
Naturally, perhaps, I should start by saying that of course the films that I saw demonstrate a diverse and complex set of concerns, with films set in not only Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but also films about the Kurdish diaspora in, for example, Norway (see Brwa Vahapour’s The Shepherd and Christopher Wollebekk’s My Brother Amal). Various languages are spoken across the films, including several sequences where characters cannot understand each other (especially Return, by Selman Deniz). What is more, the films received funding from a mixture of sources stretching beyond the five countries mentioned above, and into places like Germany and the UK (although not seemingly beyond the Middle East and Europe).
Finally, the films involved various different styles and genres, ranging of course from fiction and documentary to animation and more. But beyond these perhaps expected provisos about the vibrant diversity of contemporary Kurdish cinema, I’d like to focus in particular on repeated patterns and tropes across the films.
First of all, I would say that the majority of the films were set in the countryside, meaning that while there may not at present be an internationally recognised country called Kurdistan, the latter does exist as a land, as its very name suggests, in that Kurdistan means ‘land of the Kurds.’ If Kurdistan emerges as precisely a land thanks to the repeated use of landscapes and rural settings, this does stand in some sort of contrast to urban spaces, which do appear in a few of the films from the festival, but in a minority to say the least.
Indeed, those films that do feature cities tend to feature urban spaces as spaces of diaspora, ruin and/or lost memories. For example, Two Ends of a Bridge (Muhammed Seyyid Yıldız) features a man selling Turkish flags on a bridge as a protest seems to erupt in Istanbul, and who walks past a beggar – with the implication being in some respects that the two are Kurds, which is why the flag salesman gives some money to the silent beggar (although not as much money as he might).
Meanwhile, in The Worn Beak of the Crow (Ferhat Özmen), the city is a space that prevents an old woman from (if I am not mistaken) carrying out the traditional practice of burying cheese in the ground in order for it to mature.
Finally, in Last September (Gülsün Odabaş), an old Greek man wanders through the streets and finds his old home, where he hopes to meet his sweetheart from adolescence, and from whom he was separated by the so-called Istanbul Pogrom that took place in September 1955 following the bombing of the house of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In all three films, then, the city, especially in its contemporary iteration, in some senses gives shape to the isolation of the Kurdish (and in Last September, Greek) characters; that is, unlike the land/countryside, the city does not really function as a home, and even when it does, as in Last September, this ‘home’ is impossible to maintain owing to political events.
Meanwhile, in films like the State we’re in (Savaş Boyraz & Mahkum Abi), There Was a Country (Hebun Polat) and The Heart of Raqqa (Rita Duarte), urban spaces (especially in Syria) have been reduced to rubble, further suggesting that the city is a threatening space for Kurds. This dichotomy of the city/countryside is worth exploring in a bit more detail, but before we get to that, I’d like to point out that the ‘traditional’ is at times contrasted with the ‘modern’ in ways not just suggested by the rural versus the urban.
In a fashion similar to The Worn Beak…, for example, Trouser (Tahsin Özmen) sees traditional rural clothing being praised for its durability, while modern clothes, including a pair of trousers that various characters share for journeys to the city (where they are not allowed to wear their traditional clothes) wear away after few uses – this despite the fact that the main character, Dilo, is desperate to get to the city.
Furthermore, we see various other Kurdish traditions, customs and practices being threatened by the limitations of the contemporary world in a range of the films, from dancing in A Dance for Death (Zanyar Azizi), weaving in The Pattern (Azad Jannati), making pottery in The Heritage (Baran Reihani), and perhaps even hanging clothes in Are You Listening Mother? (Tuna Kaptan).
The latter, like The Worn Beak… and Last September, features an old woman who basically refuses to follow orders and who as a result creates some chaos in the place where she now lives. Indeed, the trope of the unruly older woman can also be found in Life Gone With the Wind (Siavash Saedpanah) – with each of these examples perhaps signalling that the borders imposed upon and dividing the Kurdish land are arbitrary, especially to a certain generation and gender that does not feel the need to respect the patriarchal practice of creating and fixing national boundaries and privatising space, and even if Kurdistan is a country that has no national boundary since it is not internationally recognised as a nation at all.
Are You Listening… is about a mother who keeps getting into trouble with the law when she sets off her police tag for wandering too far from home – something that she cannot help but do every time she tries to hang up her clothes (in a similar clothing trope to the one explored in Trouser, the mother here seems to be wearing the police tag for having been arrested for knitting an inappropriate sweater for her prisoner nephew). In other words, the film also tells a story where borders are reaffirmed by the official state (here Turkey), while being disruptive and alien for the actual inhabitant.
The arbitrary nature of the border is also highlighted in a film like The Heavy Burden (Yılmaz Özdil), in which we see an old man’s livelihood being decommissioned when his carrier-donkey is deemed too old for service. A young man, Salih, has a replacement donkey – the only catch being that it is back over the border, seemingly in Syria. He goes to collect it, only for the donkey to step on a mine on the way back. The border itself is represented by a wall – with walls being things that proliferate in urban areas (indeed, the more ‘urban’ a space is, the more walls it has). The border might be represented only by one wall, then, but it nonetheless signifies how borders themselves are part of an ‘urban’ and modern mindset, which can be contrasted with the land, which is open and boundary-less.
What is more, the border is not just represented by a wall, but it is also something that is constructed through media. There are television screens present in a good number of the films (Are You Listening Mother?, The Heavy Burden and For Camera, by Mustafa Shahrokhi, to name but three), but the State we’re in starts in particular with a bravura shot of a distant city that recedes from view as the camera pans (and perhaps tracks) backwards, eventually passing through the screen of a broken television, which then functions itself as a ‘border’ between the city in the distance and the countryside that surrounds it and the camera itself (and by extension us as viewers).
In other words, the films collectively suggest that modern technologies like walls and media alike shape our reality, indeed determining what is ‘real’ (a country like Syria, for example) and what is ‘not real’ (a country like Kurdistan). However, it is not simply that the countryside and the land alike are a bucolic paradise, even if the status of Kurdistan as, precisely, a land (and not an urban space) would seem to suggest as much.
For while there are beautiful vistas and ethereal lighting in a number of the Kurdish films on offer at the LKFF, the outside is also depicted repeatedly as a dangerous space. This is represented not just by the landmine in The Heavy Burden, but also by a landmine that kills a young toy-maker called Picasso in Showan (Bijan Zarin). Picasso is, like the lead character Sirvan, reduced to doing illegal smuggling work as a result of the lack of opportunities in the countryside. And while climbing through the mountains with their own ‘heavy burden,’ not only does he succumb to the landmine, but he also is shot at repeatedly by unseen forces monitoring the border space that the smugglers are crossing.
A couple of notes. The first, which hopefully is not too tasteless or wistful: the ‘landmine’ in its very name comes to suggest the way in which common space (the land, or what we might by way of contrast call ‘landours’) is rendered a possession (‘landmine‘) – and the violence that is involved in grabbing land in this way. The second is that the outside is thus not a happy, peaceful space, but a space that is dangerous, and where numerous characters die – as per The Heavy Burden, Heritage, Return and Akam (Hossein Mirza). And/or it is a space where fights take place, as in Slaughter (Saman Hosseinpuor).
Indeed, as much as there are beautiful landscapes in brilliant light, so do we see exterior spaces that are snowy and unwelcoming. But the impression that one gets is that they have become more unwelcoming as a result of the imposition of borders and the imposition of a modern logic whereby it is increasingly difficult to survive in rural spaces via traditional means.
This seems especially to be the case if one is not to be left behind technologically; people either face suffering and death by staying behind, or they are forced increasingly to shift towards urban spaces, where they are disenfranchised and unhappy. But not only do they go to the urban spaces, be that for better or for worse (in that a character like Dilo in Trouser really wants to go to the city), but the ‘urban’ and ‘modern’ logic of walls and the ‘city’ comes to them in the form of borders and, indeed, weapons like landmines.
This modern logic can also be seen at work in flags, with the main character in Two Ends of a Bridge selling Turkish flags to passersby, while lead character Sami in My Brother Amal is tasked at one point with raising the Norwegian flag, something that he summarily fails to do. That is, the modern concept of nationalism and, by implication, the nation itself (as defined by the flag) is denied to Kurds and thus comes across as alien to them.
I shall return later to My Brother Amal, but I would like presently to discuss how in contrast to the media being tools for reaffirming national boundaries (and we can think of the flag as exactly a medium for nationalism), this stands in some contrast with art as it features in the films.
For while traditional art forms like dance, as per A Dance for Death, and traditional instruments like the erbane in hush! (Çaxe Nursel Doğan), might well help to define Kurdish culture, the films collectively also suggest that art in fact goes against the modern and ‘urban’ logic of the nation/the national. This can be seen in a few examples, including via a couple of references to Pablo Picasso. The first is in the afore-mentioned Showan, where the artist-sculptor-toymaker character nicknamed Picasso would seem to represent a creative spirit unnecessarily destroyed by the modern world of media and borders.
The second reference to Picasso is, meanwhile, in the State we’re in, whereby after its opening shot, Picasso’s famous painting Guernica (1937) is used to give expression to the execution of Kurdish activists in the Turkish town of Cizre. It is not that art somehow ‘saves lives’ or some such; however, art does stand as a means to critique state violence and the violence of states, since art itself is stateless and borderless.
A similar lesson might be learnt from I Am Raining Down into the City (Kasım Örderk), in which a poem by the superlative Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad functions to bring peace to the otherwise struggling family that ekes out an existence in a crumbling town.
Finally, The Mandarin Tree (Cengiz Akaygün) features a young girl who draws paintings for her father, who himself is in prison for being an ‘anarchist.’ Even though only a child, the girl’s images of fruit, birds and even of a tree are suspected as themselves being propaganda.
However, after a prison guard nastily destroys one of her images, the girl has the last laugh when she sneaks into the prison some sunflower seeds, that the father then uses to imagine enticing birds to come feed from his hand, and which nest in the tree that she has drawn for her father.
In other words, art here helps to break down prison walls and, by extension, the ‘urban,’ ‘modern’ and ‘nationalistic’ use of walls in general, at least in an imaginary fashion. In this way, art helps the imprisoned father to be out amidst nature’s flora and fauna once again.
And fauna, perhaps especially livestock, are themselves a constant presence in the films, including as major figures in the film’s stories, as per The Heavy Burden and Slaughter. What is more, birds perhaps inevitably signify a kind of desired freedom in the films – although the State we’re in suggests somewhat pessimistically towards its end that the ‘bird of peace’ is dead (a moment to which I shall return below).
While we might think that working relationships with animals signify a kind of ‘primitiveness,’ the constant presence of animals nonetheless bespeaks a borderless existence, in that animals have no knowledge nor care for national boundaries and human squabbles.
In some senses, then, humans would do better to learn from their animals rather than simply to exploit them; that is, to live symbiotically with animals rather than just using them would be part and parcel of a perspective/way of life that is not ‘modern’ or ‘urban,’ and thus detached, but which instead is entangled and respectful.
Indeed, My Cat (Imad Mahmadany) features a young man trying to commit suicide in his spartan bedsit, only for his efforts to be thwarted by a cat that cunningly keeps on making its way indoors and distracting him.
While My Cat presents a potential case of death taking place inside (as opposed to the many deaths that take place outside), the presence of the animal notably prevents it (meaning that even if Kurdistan cannot exist ‘outside,’ it cannot conversely be killed inside)…
This being said, the treatment of animals is not necessarily romantic, just as life in the countryside is not uniquely romanticised, with the outside being a dangerous place, as mentioned.
For, the interior can at times also be a dangerous place, especially for women, as is explored effectively in For Camera, a film that uses documentary techniques to give the viewer the impression that they are seeing a found footage/home movie of domestic abuse.
In this film, notably we see an authoritarian father figure, who is a captain in the police force, abusing his family, especially his wife. The film suggests that Kurdistan has problems ‘inside,’ beyond the problems that Kurdistan faces ‘outside’ (Kurdistan’s issues stem from the Turks, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Iraqis, and so on), and beyond the idea that ‘outside’ is a problem to/for Kurdistan (in that Kurdistan is not recognised internationally as a ‘legitimate’ nation) – as many of the other films in the festival suggest.
Indeed, the domestic spaces that characterise much of For Camera suggest that Kurdistan is not simply a country beset by a dangerous exterior, but that it also has a dangerous interior.
Something similar perhaps happens in hush!, where the girl who wants to play the erbane, Zere, is forbidden from doing so not by, say, an oppressive Turkish system in which traces of Kurdish culture are to be eradicated, but rather by her own grandmother, who feels that music is not an appropriate pastime for her (meaning that this grandmother stands in stark contrast to those unruly older women in the other films mentioned above).
What is more, the Kurdish films collectively suggest that we live a world not only where wars can leave people crippled, but where disability can affect anyone. From deafness in Akam, to memory loss in Last September, to lost limbs in Testament (Kamiran Betasi), to Down syndrome in Slaughter, to lameness in The Summer of the Swans (Maryam Samadi), there is a sense here that Kurdish existence is in some senses always dis-abled, in that it is barred from leading a ‘regular’ and ‘modern’ life…
As not all of the films depict problems only bombarding Kurds from the outside (see For Camera), so do not all of the films depict plucky Kurds overcoming dangerous odds. Not only are many of the films pessimistic (a point to which I shall also return below), but they can also critique Kurdish existence.
It is notable, however, that the main film that does this, namely For Camera, carries such a self-conscious title.
For, not only does this title complicate the ‘documentary’ ‘truth’ of what we are seeing, but it also suggests indeed that the nation as a concept is tied to images (all nations really exist for the camera). Furthermore, since Kurdistan is a land without a nation (or a nation without a state), so is it in some ways a nation without an image (something akin to what I have argued elsewhere in relation to Afghan cinema). Or rather, For Camera does not try to create a positive and propagandistic image of the nation (a national image that is posed for the camera, much as we check our hair and put on our best smiles when we are asked to say cheese), but rather it seeks to deconstruct the constructed nature of all images, including perhaps the ones that we see in this film itself.
I might briefly add that this deconstruction is achieved remarkably through the use of handheld digital cameras, with the cinematography and the editing of the film being far more ‘choppy’ than perhaps the majority of other movies, which are much more ‘slow’ and ‘cinematic’ in the perceived ‘richness’ and ‘beauty’ of their images.
In other words, For Camera in many ways is a kind of anti-image of Kurdistan, but in becoming as much, it also becomes anti-images in general (in the sense that it makes us wary not just of the images that we are seeing, but wary of the constructed nature of all images, and perhaps of all national images in particular). This in turn suggests perhaps that Kurdistan (the ‘real’ Kurdistan?) exists beyond images – and beyond the nation (again, Kurdistan really exists inside and not outside; it cannot, if you will, be seen, but can only be felt).
This critique of images we might compare to My Brother Amal, which notably is a film made by a Norwegian director. I am not sure of the filmmaker’s connection to or knowledge of Kurdistan; but in being a relatively generic, if well-made, tale of a boy haunted by the ghost of his dead brother, who seems in the young Sami’s paranoid fantasies to hate Sami for coming close to assimilating to Norwegian life, the film rang oddly false.
While many refugees may lament not being in and with the land of their home, for Sami to be safe would surely be of greater importance than his not being at home (he cannot ‘betray’ Kurdistan by leaving, since this is only the ‘outside’ of the nation, and thus simply an image; he could only betray Kurdistan inwardly, but his very memories of his brother mean that this cannot happen – in that he will always remember his brother).
Put differently, we might critique the film by asking from a pragmatic level who would not wish their own brother happiness, even if in a new land?
And yet, as mentioned, Amal’s criticism of Sami (Amal’s seeming desire for Sami not to be happy) is the latter’s paranoid fantasy; Amal is not really there and it is Sami who is worried that if he makes an effort to fit into Norwegian life then he is the one betraying his roots. But while this is comprehensible, it perhaps is not sufficiently signalled that this is not really Amal, and so it just seems as though the film is an exercise in using the tropes of horror to ‘spice up’ a film that would surely be interesting enough when dealing with a young refugee not on cinematic terms (using stylistic tropes from horror), but on a more, can I say?, realistic level.
That is, My Brother Amal posits the inner life of Sami as precisely cinematic/an image, as an exterior/an outside, when our inner lives are in fact ‘beyond’ images – something that makes the film differ sharply from the other movies made closer to the Kurdish region.
But this is perhaps a minor quibble, and across all of the films a love of cinema as much as for Kurdistan and Kurdish culture is what is apparent. Indeed, I enjoyed how there are heart graffiti painted on walls in various films – a minor detail and likely a coincidence, but something that semi-consistently seems to connote love as part of the ‘Kurdish’ mise-en-scène (furthermore, various films also feature toy soldiers, as if to suggest that there is an inherent childishness to contemporary violence?).
In the use of landscapes and in their pacing, many films reminded me of the work of Abbas Kiarostami, while in the handheld films, and in the landmine and mountain movies (especially involving smuggling), as well as in various films’ use of music, including the erbane/daf in hush!, the influence of perhaps the most famous Kurdish filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi, seemed also to be felt.
While Sami finds a bird that then dies in My Brother Amal, while the bird of peace is dead in the State we’re in, and while a deer dies that a man tries to rescue in The Shepherd (among many other downbeat endings – as mentioned above), films like The Mandarin Tree, hush!, Last September and Life Gone With the Wind all suggest that hope may yet be found for Kurdistan.
Certainly, based on the breadth, quality and intelligence of the films screened at this year’s London Kurdish Film Festival, which themselves reflect the vibrant nature of contemporary Kurdish culture, there is much about which to feel hopeful and positive.
Furthermore, while a film like The Heart of Raqqa not only gives to us another heart in its title, akin to those hearts featured on the wall graffiti of ruined houses, it also in its celebration of Mehmet Aksoy, a journalist who lost his life in the service of reporting on the work of Kurdish forces against ISIS, inspires viewers to think about the role that cinema can play in helping to change the world – and hopefully for the better.
With the example of Aksoy in mind, may many more Kurdish cinematic flowers bloom.
*** Many thanks to festival organiser Kaveh Abbasian both his invitation to take part in the LKFF 2020, and for his help in clarifying a couple of plot points around some of the above films.
William Brown is a film scholar and a no-budget filmmaker. He is the author of Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age (Berghahn, 2013), Non-Cinema: Global Digital Filmmaking and the Multitude (Bloomsbury, 2018), and, with David H. Fleming, The Squid Cinema from Hell: Kinoteuthis Infernalis and the Emergence of Chthulumedia (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). His films include En Attendant Godard (2009).