London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Kurdish cinema has often been associated with the portrayal of the struggle of the people of Kurdistan. While this may be a common element, Kurdish cinema is far more than that. This year’s 7th annual Kurdish Film Festival in London dealt with a myriad of themes, such as exile, self-expression, attachment to one’s homeland, memories of war, and other ontological questions through the mediums of comedy, drama, documentary and allegory. With more than 103 films being screened over 10 days, there is no succinct way to sum up what was portrayed on screen. The Kurdish Film Festival itself however demonstrated the unity of the Kurdish people – of all different backgrounds – who attended and organized the event, and who nevertheless share a similar culture.
Opening with a grand gala affair in an east London ballroom, government representatives gave speeches honouring the Kurdish Film Festival and Kurdish cinema in general. Dignitaries included British Conservative Party MP of Kurdish origin, Nadhim Zahawi, who has encouraged the Kurdish Film Festival year after year. Speaking on the occasion, Kurdish Regional Government representative to the UK, Bayan Abdulraham, said “we whole heartedly support this film festival because cinema transcends politics and it transcends borders, and we know what it’s like to live with borders.”
Whilst British Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn stressed that “film and cultural expression relays what people go through in different ways. The best works come out of the societies that struggle. Kurdistan’s strength, determination of expression and use of autonomous language says that they are a people who will continue their struggle.”
The speeches were followed by a number of live musical performances, including from Kurdish musician Hajar Zahawi who played the daf, a frame drum with cymbals along the inside rim. Referring to the daf as the Kurdish national instrument, Hajar Zahawi asked the audience for complete silence; the crowd duly complied.
The Festival opened with “If You Die, I Will Kill You” the hotly- anticipated comedy-drama, which was sprinkled with elements of romance. Directed by Hiner Saleem, a Kurdish director based in France, it is a transnational exilic film portraying Kurds in Paris. Avdal, a Kurdish refugee in limbo in Paris is helped by Philippe, a Frenchman just out of prison. When Avdal unexpectedly suffers a heart attack, Philippe must deal with his death, and life, particularly after Avdal’s beautiful fiancé, Siba, comes to visit. This is a humorous adventure depicting the clashing cultures of a motley band of Kurds in Paris who try to win Siba’s favour, as does Philippe; all the while Siba’s highly religious would’ve been father-in-law, Cheto, attempts to keep her under control. This film is unique in its comedic look at the issue of refugees and diaspora and presents a modern portrayal of the well-established Kurdish community in Paris.
Other prominent features include “Son of Babylon” a multi-award winning tearjerker. Director Mohammad Al Daradji was determined to film this movie in his native Iraq, making it one of the few films to lay claim to this distinction. Al Daradji’s use of landscape and architecture are a tribute to Iraq, whilst also setting the tone for the film’s themes of destruction, loss and remote solitude. This film is a soulful eulogy to the 1.5 million-plus lost people of Iraq. Watching this film in the presence of an audience filled with Iraqi Kurds, it was clear just how they were affected by the images of various areas of Iraq, particularly Baghdad.
“Flowers of Kirkuk” is a popular melodrama that tells the tale of a star-crossed Kurdish – Arab romance, and combines a brave and intelligent heroine in the midst of a war-zone, covert military operations, and lots of drama. The film fails to tie up a few loose ends, but “Flowers of Kirkuk” is a hard-hitting drama, particularly in its portray of the brutal genocide committed against Kurds in Iraq and the torture of Kurdish freedom fighters during Saddam Hussein’s reign.
The film that was most typical of Kurdish cinema in its poetic visual and conceptual representation of the land of Kurdistan is “The Qandil Mountains”. Stunningly shot, it references the countless people who were killed or simply disappeared during the conflict between Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian powers and Kurdish “Peshmergas” in the mountain range that connects these three states. Families record video and audio messages to send to their loved ones, not knowing whether they are alive or dead, whilst all of this is set against the backdrop of a beautifully haunting soundtrack.
The three winners of the Yilmaz Guney Short Film Competition all dealt with the issue of children and childhood. Complex and well-crafted, the three films to win this competition were chosen by a five-member jury who commented, “we felt it was our duty to award the films which made us think, smile and believe that there is a way forward not only for Kurdistan but certainly also for Kurdish cinema.”
The first prize went to “Pomegranates are the Fruit of Paradise”, a warm and absolutely endearing story about the importance of education. A young boy devises a plan to help his friend learn to read when she is forbidden to go to school and must instead stay at home and work. “Five Stones” claimed the second prize, a haunting remembrance of children in the Turkish area of Kurdistan who were imprisoned for up to 30 years for taking part in protests. This silent film looks at empty schools, commenting on the transformation between education and imprisonment. The final mention went to “Land of Heroes”, the most complex of the three short films. Taking place during the Iraq – Iran war, it depicts the marginalized lives of children during wartime. Disillusioned by traditional images of strength and heroism, the children watch Saddam Hussein on TV, who is presented as a pinnacle of courage. As they wait to watch cartoons, they are continuously interrupted by more news of war and violence, affecting their outlook.
Cinema can play a strong role in demonstrating different cultures, and the 103 films that were shown during this year’s London Kurdish Film Festival aptly demonstrated this. The 7th London Kurdish Film Festival was held between two venues in east and west London; the Kurdish Film Festival is a vital event in sharing Kurdish culture and discussing the Kurdish struggle while also serving as a communal event for the Kurdish community itself.