‘Rhino Season is in exile, just like me’ An interview with Bahman Ghobadi

By Suncem Koçer

(Kadir Has University)

In the last few years the Kurdish people have become an item of curiosity in Turkish popular culture. Previously, films by and about Kurds were presented as entry points into this historically inscrutable subject. But now the increased visibility of Kurdish films and filmmakers has stimulated discourse about the possibility of a distinct ‘Kurdish cinema’. By and large, Kurdish films and filmmakers have come to occupy an increasingly larger space in national film festivals and in consequence have been attracting significant attention within liberal Turkish cinema circles. Yet even before this amplified national presence of Kurdish films, there were increasing numbers of Kurds making films focusing on identity politics, particularly in the last decade. This has resulted in international circulation and higher visibility of Kurdish films.

Before ‘Kurdish cinema’ gained currency in Turkish cinema circles, it had in fact already received attention from various transnational media. Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurd, has had an important role in globalizing the category of ‘Kurdish’ on the international cinema stage. Having won the prestigious Camera d’Or award for his 2000 film A Time for Drunken Horses (Zamani Barayé Masti Asbha) at the Cannes Film Festival, Ghobadi eschewed the advantageous international prestige of Iranian cinema by instead presenting himself as a Kurdish filmmaker from Iran. Thus, his cinema career illustrates two critical characteristics of the Kurdish cinema genre. First, as a national cinema, Kurdish cinema has emerged internationally as a distinct national form. Second, Kurdish films are being nationalized within Turkish discourse. In 2009, Bahman Ghobadi directed his third feature length film No One Knows About Persian Cats (Kasi Az Gorbehaye İrani Khabar Nadareh) in which he documented the struggles of young underground Iranian musicians trying to evade government censorship.

Since the release of this film Bahman Ghobadi has been living outside Iran, where he has continued working on films highly critical of the Iranian government. He made Rhino Season in Turkey through a production partnership with the Beşiktaş Culture Center (BKM) in Istanbul. Rhino Season poetically cultivates the late life of the Kurdish-Iranian poet Sahel (Behrouz Vossoughi), who has just been released from a 30-year prison sentence in Iran. He travels to Istanbul to find his wife (Monicca Belucci), who has thought him dead for over 20 years. Ghobadi has lived in Istanbul on and off for the last three years. On the second week of Rhino Season’s release in Turkey, he provided me with this interview about his motivation behind the film, his take on the current status of Kurdish cinema, and the difficulties of making films in exile.

Making a film without a country

Koçer: How did Rhino Season come into being?

Ghobadi: Having left Iran about four years ago, I started living in Berlin and New York. In these cities, I have always felt in foreign lands. Then I ended up in Istanbul, a place closer to Iran and Kurdistan and where I have some friends. Soon, I felt such a strong urge to make a film, as if I was going to die if I did not make one. An artist should perform his art because otherwise he would die. I called a couple of friends to ask for their help and told them that I wanted to make a small-budget, modest film. I had this idea in mind: let me make a film which would cure me and make me better. I made Rhino Season so that I would not die, not in foreign lands.

With its deep silence, Rhino Season is different from my other movies. That silence that has dominated my life here [in Istanbul] is due to deep homesickness. My life here is quite differently than my life in Kurdistan or Iran. I have lived here with such a silence that turned into a deep sickness in me. Then came a moment for me to remove the silence and place it in a movie that is much closer to my emotional state than my other films were. Rhino Season has been my cure, my medicine, during a time in which I felt so lost deep in myself. I decided to make a film of a poet’s biography which was itself poetic. Based also on my own experience, this film is not a classical movie, but has a form which I call cine-poetry. I was broken into pieces after leaving Iran and this state was eventually reflected in this film. Simply, Rhino Season is a replica of my being torn between time and space.

The life of Sahel, the main character in Rhino Season, is just like mine. In fact, all of us, Sahel, Behrouz [Vossoughi] who acted as Sahel, and myself have all lived in exile. This is something, a state of mind that we share.

Koçer: If Behruz, Sahel and yourself are in exile, can we say that Rhino Season is also in exile? Where does this film belong?

Ghobadi: Rhino Season is a film without a country, just like us, men without a country. This film does not have a Turkish soul or Persian soul. It does not even look like a Kurdish film. In it is a feeling of foreignness and alienage. I do not really know how that foreignness was transferred from my feelings to the film. All I know is that this film is so close to my being that it is almost like my soul and body were transposed onto it. 

Let me give you an example for what I mean. We had put the names of Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey as the financing countries in the credits. Yet unfortunately the phrase ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’ got deleted from the credits on the copies that circulated in Turkey. This was very disturbing to me, because there exists not only a place called Iraqi Kurdistan, but Turkey also maintains commercial relationships with Iraqi Kurdistan. Looking at the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan got deleted from the credits, I understand that there is no freedom here. I speak to you in Kurdish right now. I feel relatively comfortable in Istanbul. I have Turkish and Kurdish friends here. Yet I want the government, the state, also to accept me as who I am with my identity. Iraqi Kurdistan needed to be in the credits because it is one of the bodies that financially supported the film. Now I do not know to which country I should consider this film as belonging to. I feel like I belong to no country. I always have a feeling of alienage and exile. Today I am in Istanbul but tomorrow I might have to be in New York or Paris. I might start my new film in Van or New York or elsewhere. I am always in exile.

Kurdish cinema in exile…

Koçer: In an interview you gave years ago, you had said that Kurds are a people, who are always on the move. That makes cinema, the art of movement, perhaps the most suitable medium for documenting Kurdish stories. You are an artist whose name gets mentioned in almost every conversation on Kurdish cinema. How do you see the state of Kurdish cinema today? Since you received the Palm D’or award at Cannes and inspired so many people, what has changed in Kurdish cinema?

Ghobadi: Kurdish cinema is oppressed even more deeply now, so much that I, a Kurdish man, am in exile. Why do I have to be in exile? How come a filthy government expels me, an artist who makes films that get awarded in Cannes? If we look at it this way, I am a mirror of Kurdish cinema. My experience itself is a sample of Kurdish cinema. In our lives, we live injustice, pain and longing, so does Kurdish cinema.

There are forty-five million people speaking Kurdish on earth. These people should make films in which they tell people their stories in their own language. Of course, I have respect for Turkish and Persian languages. Yet I demand the same respect from others. I am a refugee right now. I am here as a Kurdish man who is forced to shoot his film in Persian and Turkish. Turkish cinema has too many directors, so does Persian cinema. Why would I have to make films in Turkish then? I ask you how many Kurdish directors are out there and why they should not make films in their own language. I wanted to have the dialogues in this film in Kurdish. Yet they scared me and stopped me doing so by saying ‘don’t.’ But my next project will be about the Van earthquake and I will have eighty per cent of the dialogues in Kurdish then. I sure wonder what the reaction of the government will be to that. 

Koçer: The audience leaving the movie theatre after seeing Rhino Season seems to feel a bit overwhelmed by the intense emotions, ranging from hope, anger, love, passion and more. What kind of feeling sticks with you when you look back at Rhino Season?

Ghobadi: Those intense emotions in the film originally belong to that Kurdish poet in exile. For example, in some scenes you see turtles pouring or rhinos running with a surrealist effect. The visual expressions are mine, they are in a way my translation of that poet’s emotions into the language of cinema. These may have evoked different things in poetry but because my life feels so segmented, I interpreted them in such ways.

Right now I am buried in silence, a state circumscribed by my feelings of loneliness, senility, hope and everything else. These feelings have penetrated into Rhino Season. Rhino Season contains all of my feelings, including the hope at the end. Because when hope expires, life expires with it. And the end of the film feels like the end of my life. I am looking and seeing a small white spot, although it is so distant. It would have been meaningless to tell the viewer that ‘ok, this is what I want to tell you about my life’; but I show them Sahel’s feelings and they are also my feelings. In the last scene of the film, Sahel is out smoking and looking into the distance. He gazes at the same small white spot there. I know that in all the darkness of this life exists a white spot.

It is very difficult to struggle with such feelings in exile, especially if you are a filmmaker. If you are a musician, for instance, you have your music. Or a poet has his poems. But in cinema, you need a crew; you can’t do anything alone. Art and business are intertwined with each other in filmmaking. Thinking about this leads me into darkness, and I wore black coming here today. Because I want to communicate how dark my life right now is, and I am searching for ways to turn my life into white.

Koçer: Rhino Season lacks the humour and music which overarched your other films. Why is that?

Ghobadi: I am known as an active filmmaker who never gets tired of anything in Tehran. For instance, I had a friend who used to stop by at my office every day and say ‘Bahman talk to me, I need to be energized’. Now I look at myself here in exile to see I own nothing. I don’t know how I can express this, but imagine a Turkish filmmaker who goes to Iran or Iraqi Kurdistan and imagine his ability to produce art there. Back in time I used to be very active. I completed a movie in only seventeen days once. I knew every street and lots of people where I lived. When I came here, on the other hand, I did not know anybody; I didn’t know Yılmaz (Erdoğan), Beren (Saat) or Mümtaz (Taylan). I still don’t have a common language with my friends here. I hang out with them for hours and hours, but I cannot find a common subject to talk about. I feel like a Persian cat here. Every once in a while Yılmaz invites me to his home. But I remain silent for, say, the two hours of the total three hours we spend together. Because they speak in Turkish and I just sit there... That’s why. 

Living on borders; making a home from borders…

Koçer: Sahel’s poetry in the film sticks with the viewers. Mina was reciting a few lines in one scene: ‘Only people living on borders make their own homeland…’ Isn’t this a hopeful line?

Ghobadi: Those lines were written by an Iranian woman. Her poetry speaks exactly to the state of my soul. My life exists on borders. Even now as I speak to you, I don’t know where I will be tomorrow. I don’t know if I live here in Istanbul or in the USA. Imagine your home is on a border. My homeland is on borders. All I have seen since my childhood are wars, the Iranian revolution, and the cruelty towards Kurdish people by the governments. All I have is on borders. I have lived on borders for forty-three years. Just like the poet, I dream of making a home out of borders, a homeland in myself, one day. A homeland is a powerful thing, something from which you cannot be separated on the grounds of anti government attitudes. That’s not my problem anyway. My problem is that I want people accept and respect me as a Kurd. I want that just like a Turk, a Persian.

Think about it this way. If Iran is my country, why did I get kicked out? This, in fact, sounds like a script for a film: I am a Kurdish man making films and I get kicked out of Iran, which apparently is not my country! On the other hand, I need to get a visa when I travel to Iraqi Kurdistan. I need to apply for residency there. I cannot go to Syria either because Besar Esad keeps killing us. So which one is my country? This is a tragedy. How many times are you born into this life? Where am I supposed to live? You tell me where I should live.

Koçer: By whom does this state of mind need to be heard, do you think? Which audience do you want your films to reach?

Ghobadi: I did not make this film so that viewers see it. I made this film so that I would not die. I did not know what I was going to do. I did not tell even Yılmaz (Erdoğan) or Monica (Belucci) what I was going to do in this film. They understood me and showed respect. If I was making a film for viewers, this would have been a much different film. Then it would have included love or comedy. I would have made a different film. But I wanted to make a film out of a humanitarian idea.

Yılmaz (Erdoğan) is not the same Yılmaz after this film. Beren (Saat) is not the same person, not the same soap-opera star anyway. Bahman is not the same either. All these people have new and different aspects to themselves after Rhino Season. We all worked for one humanitarian ideal together. I wanted to share that ideal with other people. I wanted people to see the subject. And I thought that if actors like Beren, Monica and Yılmaz are in the film, people would want to come to the cinemas. I thought that this way I can reach out to more people, say, in France or in Italy.

Koçer: At the end of the film, Mina and her children end up leaving Istanbul. Where are they going?

Ghobadi: At one point, Mina’s daughter cries and tells Behruz that she needs money to flee to Europe. Although she says that only once in the film, the viewer is supposed to remember that. I did not want her to state it over and over again. In fact, it does not matter where they go. What matters is that they go. That ship, that atmosphere, tells us that they are going somewhere which might be in Europe or elsewhere. We see that their life is in ruins after leaving Iran. They do not have a homeland anywhere anymore. Just like me. I do not know where I am going to sleep next week. All I wanted was to indicate that they want to go. If it was up to me I would not have noted that place as Europe. They just want to go…

Suncem Koçer Kadir

Has University

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