Film Review – 4th London Kurdish Film Festival

Film Review – 4th London Kurdish Film Festival

Published Date: 12/19/2006


By: Kameel Ahmady


The 4th London Kurdish film festival, which took place 8th-11th December, was a significant event for members of Kurdish diaspora community, their Kurdish homeland, and for the general film-going public in the UK. This review contains views and critiques from participants at the festival as well as the film makers and members of non-Kurdish community and the author whose opinions were asked to shape this report.

Kurdistan is a land that does not exist on any maps, but remains important in the lives of many nonetheless. As for the Kurdish cinema, it is still a nascent entity, which tries to represent a culture and a place which Kurds wish to call Kurdistan.

In this global world communication is considered an important means of cross-cultural exchange, and communicating ideas through the medium of film is a vital tool in cultural exchange. While film and visual representation has always been used as one of the driving vehicles to reflect our life and the world we live in, in the face of this Kurdish films and cinema have managed in many instances to maintain this very important goal.

Opening night of the 4th Kurdish Film Festival

In the last few years with the works of prominent and successful Kurdish directors, Kurdish traditions, beliefs and identity, a rich and diverse heritage in the region of Mesopotamia, has been shown to the wider world. The focus on artistic and cultural production is a much needed antidote to the singularly political representation of Kurdish issues which predominates. Democracy and human rights are not only about representational government, the right to vote and equality for all minorities; they are also about the freedom in which to develop a vibrant civil society and cultural infrastructure in which artists, educators, and regular citizens take part and dissent.

While politics often speaks a language of power struggles and exclusionary policies, cinema, theatre and the visual arts speaks in a language of human emotions. This is both more experimental and more inclusive. Politically elite versions of reality lack this dimension of participation, but artistic interpretations of reality are all equally valid and open to question.

Although Kurdish films and cinema are still very political, there have been successful steps towards breaking away from this politically influenced focus, turning more towards aesthetics, and contemporary social issues as well.

Some of the feature films on show at this year’s festival included works by prominent Kurdish directors, such as Half Moon by Bahman Ghobadi, and Kilometre Zero by Hinar Saleem. However, a fairly new director on the scene, Jay Jonroy, with his film David and Layla, proved to be the true the highlight of the festival.

Young filmmakers also were truly the stars of this festival. The festival opened with Half Moon, whose director Ghobadi was sadly absent from the festival because he refused to give finger prints to the British authorities to obtain visa to travel to the UK. His refusal and his reason to travel were well supported by the Kurdish community and for sure he should be praised if he in fact missed the festival for this reason only.

Ghobadi’s films are well known across the world, although his sale records and the market size of the his audience are still small, mostly among non-Kurdish people with a particular interest in the Middle East, and social justice issues such as poverty and children’s conditions. He is truly self-made film-maker, who comes from an ordinary background in Iranian Kurdistan.

Ghobadi’s work began with children through some short films he made before he moved on to shooting features.

Ghobadi’s past films normally try to portray the conditions of life for ordinary people mostly across border areas between Iran and Iraq. While his films do talk about underdevelopment of the area and questioning borders as artificial boundaries, he uses children or old people as his prime actors.

Previously he has been widely criticised by film critics and intellectuals for the way he works with children and the ethics of his approach have been on the firing line. Most are concerned about his work with children and the profound affect and changes his films may make on children’s mental states and their lives after films’ ends.

Many believe and speaking from experience that all the support and help which withdrawn after a film project ends makes it extremely difficult to the those children to re-enter their child’s world, which was invaded by such films for a few months, deforming their lives forever.

In Half Moon Mamo, an aging renowned musician has been granted permission to give a concert in Iraqi Kurdistan. His faithful friend Kako will drive a school bus and help collect Mamo’s ten musical sons from all over Iranian Kurdistan. The old Kurdish musician has waited 35 years for the chance to perform again in Iraqi Kurdistan and ignores his son’s premonition that something awful awaits him before the next full moon.

On the other hand, he also has to persuade Hesho, a female singer who lives in a mountain retreat with 1,334 other exiled female singers, to go with them. Given that women are forbidden to sing in front of men in public in Iran, Hesho must be carefully concealed in the bus. The journey of Mamo and his musical group is not without difficulties, but Mamo’s persistence guides everyone towards adventure, emotion and magic.

Half Moon by Bahman Ghobadi

This work, like most of his, has particular interest on the significance of borders and border crossing by Kurds on either side of the borders within Iran, Iraq and this time even further more in Turkey’s borders, where Mamo has friends which he hasn’t seem for years. Its clever approach to the conditions of women and the effects of religion on music and art in Iran came through nicely in jokes about modernity, including chats about world famous artists, the uses of laptops to connect to the internet via wireless on the highlands of Kurdistan.

What this beautiful film is lacking is understanding and details of the areas he trys to connect to one another. Although the movie is shot in the style of a typical road movie, with images of the bus driving across different regions of Kurdistan in Iran and tiny bits in Iraqi Kurdish villages in Hawraman, as well as his friend’s village inside of Turkey’s Kurdistan, it for example overlooks explanation of the significant of Hawraman in particular.

Pir-e Shalyar, which is regarded as one of most important and secret places in the heart of the Hawrami people. There are shots there of the ritual dance of the Sufis outside of the Pir-e Shalyar’s house and the camera travels inside the house where Mamo kisses the imaginary hand of the Pir.

What the film dose not introduce is the significant of this secret place and the importance of the ‘’Mythra’’ festival which takes place in the second month of the spring. While the time of the film seems not to match with the ceremony, this section of the movie looks like its been shot in such a way as to show only the exotic images of the Sufis dancing, singing religious songs in Hawrami dialects. Although these images are undoubtedly beautiful and give a rare glimpse into a forgotten world, to do so without contextualisation is a shortcoming.

Most of Hawraman and its unique historical and religious significance have yet to be examined and discovered and written about by anthropologists; such films as Ghobadi’s therefore should not give profound and rich visual aspects of the pir-e Shalyar which only contributes to the viewers misunderstanding such local and religious phenomena. If there was such intention to film this part it should have been handled with greater care and open interaction of the place, however limited.

It would have also benefited the film greatly and added to its depth and credibility if a historian or anthropologist were consulted. The other aspect of this movie and its short coming is lack of respect for regional cultures and dialects where the movie was shot, such as Hawaman and the borders between Turkey and Iran where dialects other than Sorani are spoken, but which failed to surface in the film. On the other hand, Hinar Saleem’s film Kilometre Zero, with its segments shot in Garmyan and Badinan, beautifully captured this diversity.

Kilometre Zero by Hinar Saleem

Kilometre Zero referred to Iraq, 1988, where a young husband and father Ako is forced to join Saddam Hussein’s army. The unwilling soldier dreams of fleeing the country, but his wife Selma refuses to leave while her old bedridden father is still alive. Ako is sent away to the frontline of the Iran-Iraq War, where he experiences not only the reality of war, but also abuse due to his Kurdish background. The desperate man considers drastic measures for a fast ticket home. Ako thinks it’s his lucky day when he receives orders to escort the return of a fellow soldier’s corpse to his family.

But his driver turns out to be an anti-Kurd Arab. With flag-wrapped coffin in tow, the mismatched duo prepares for an unexpected voyage across the majestic Iraqi landscape. Ako won’t miss his chance to trick the driver into heading north toward the Kurdistan region where he and his family were bombed by saddam but some how they will make to Europe and become refuges in France.

Hinar Saleem now resides in France, having made the very successful film Vodka Lemon , a beautifully done film which brought him a lot fame and publicity. It depicted the lives of Yezidi Kurds in a remote, snow covered village of former Soviet Republic, and the inhabitants social lives and ties to migrants in Europe. For sure Kilometre Zero was shot better in terms of technical aspects, however it seemed the film was rushed through to serve the situation of the region, with Iraq being a sexy topic at the time of release, and was adjusted to cash in on customers who were hungry for images from Iraq and the political situation of Iraq at war. It seemed somehow politically staged to attract the world’s attention about Iraq and the recent events which brought Iraq in the centre of world attention and media coverage. It can be said the film was trying to address the Kurdish suffering under rule of Saddam Hussein, and talking about the more secular Kurdish tradition as opposed to a more conservative and religious Arab south (Basra). However these regions also paid a heavy price at the same time as the Kurds, because there were opponents to the regime who were Shi’ite Muslims. While most films about Iraq deal with Saddam’s time and post Saddam is highly interesting to the world, viewers by what going on Iraq today, one can say such films may leave bad feelings among many Arabs and anti-war supporters across the world. It also undermines the Iraqi Arabs who continue to die in their hundreds per day after US led coalition intervened in Iraq. Such films do not serve the Kurdish political benefit if it’s only aim is to bring to light the pain and sorrow of the people who suffered under dictator Saddam’s Ba’ath party.

The film ends when his two main characters, after hearing of the fall of Saddam’s regime in their Paris flat, open the window and shout through the sky of Paris, “we are FREE”, a line that probably many will disagree with, seeing the daily carnage continue on their TV screen every day. Taking questions after the film, Saleem came across as dismissive and disinterested in most of the questions put to him by the Kurdish audience, constantly making jokes and putting the questions back to them. At one point Saleem expressed his disbelief of Kurdish people and lack their understanding about art and film, and criticising them as not capable of understanding his work. He said his films are designed to target the mainstream and not the Kurds, who would not want his film even for free.

While Saleem needs to work on his public image and be more open to criticism, it should not be forgotten that his current success may come down to him because of being a Kurd in the first place.

The festival also showcased a series of short movies, which were made by young Kurds mostly from Europe and in diaspora, which were truly the forefront and success of this year’s film festival.

There were a number of very good and well thought through documentaries and short films, some of them made by young women, which were the most successful films of the festival. Young men and women who were mostly brought up in diaspora told many beautifully chosen stories, which mostly related to daily life for individual viewers at the cinema. Such directors may very well be the future of modern Kurdish cinema in some years to come.

Another exciting addition was the viewing of the first ever Kurdish film, dating to 1926. Shot in Armenia, this silent film by Hamo Beknazaryan was truly the greatest importance of all films at the festival from the point of view of heritage preservation and ethnographic archives of Kurdish life in previous decades. It was beautifully directed silent film in three episodes which gave priceless features of typical Kurdish life which were amazingly similar to what you might still come across in some villages in Kurdistan. Weddings, women, food, dance, Aghas and the role of the state was very well played to the extent that most Kurdish tales and stories of this time are shaped from a run away bride whose honour was questioned by her husband’s family, followed by a dual over women between the poor boyfriend and rich Lord .

However the down side of the this film was not about the film itself, it was about the way it was screened and fed to the audience. The film easily could have been subtitled from Russian into Kurdish, so as to make it more accessible to the audience, as there was not much text or conversations in the movie although it was said they received the film late. At the same time a debate should have been held as part of the festival which might have included anthropologists or ethnographers and film experts or historians that could have contributed to analysis of the film; such as a panel of experts to discuses the film. As the film was in three parts, by mistake part three was projected before part two which added to the complication of misunderstanding such a rich and valuable historical Kurdish film.

It was a great shame that this very important part of the visual history of Kurdistan was handled with no care and very little attention was given to its importance to Kurds and to the Kurdish people numbering many millions, whose history is truly lacking due to the non-representation of their culture and history as written or documented throughout centuries. While Kurdish as a written language is not very old at all, other aspect of the culture of Kurdistan, such as music, costume, and religion, so that such an important film should have been treated as a treasure for Kurdish people.

Organisers of the festival unfailingly did a superb job running this event, days and weeks of work was put in by limited numbers of people for it all to happen, and the community has to be grateful and thankful for the great work they have done year after year. However the way LKFF was handled it was evident that it was lacking for misorganization and was more clear as no analytical or proper presentation of the movies was giving by the LKKF organisers before the start and end of each movie. In addition, during the question and answer events with various directors, there was a lack of proper management with people whose language and communication skills were not sufficient and who did not encourage the audience to participate fully, and it seemed it did not handled the whole team of MC. As the London Kurdish Film Festival grows bigger every year, the organisation will become more demanding and harder work; it appeared this year’s event, which is a big project as whole, was rushed through, to the detriment of the presentation of some fantastic films which were a rare opportunity to view.

The festival closed with American production David and Layla, a phenomenal film inspired by a true love story. Married since 1990, the real David & Layla now live in Paris. The film centres on the following premise: the sparks that fly when a Jew and a Muslim fall in love in New York! This heart-felt, romantic comedy s reminiscent of the worldwide hit MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. But David & Layla offers unexpected insight and a lot more spice reflecting today’s political world as our Romeo and Juliet (David and Layla, also was referred to Layla and Majnaon-in Kurdish) attempt to shake off the. baggage of their families’ deep rooted prejudices. Sparks fly when David, a Jewish American TV sex and spice host in New York, falls in love with the sensual and mysterious Layla, a Muslim Kurdish immigrant from Iraqi Kurdistan.

About to be deported, Layla is forced to choose marriage between the Kurdish Dr. Ahmad or the Jewish David? Despite, David’s mad pursuit of Layla, which sets off a playful veiling and unveiling of the similarities (and contrasts!) of their ancient cultures, both families are dead set against this unlikely romance.

David who is sexually frustrated with his Jewish girlfriend, and after their break up layla a wife to be does not want to have sex with him until their wedding night, he also has a gay brother who finds a Kurdish gay man at their wedding ceremony. This film is a big, light hearted taboo breaker, with gay issues and things of this nature hardly put in to the public domain through conventional Kurdish films, which also contains repeated remarks about drink, food (Halal and Kosher), regional politics of the Kurds and other issues which normally other Kurdish directors are trying to keep their distance from.

David & Layla Director Jalal Jonroy discussing the film with some of the audience

This film even by most mainstream standards, was sexually explicit and an open-minded work, although not so much visually but there were constant remarks about sex and at times a sense of sexual tension. The very interesting thing about this film, it can be said it was truly the only Kurdish film which made you constantly laugh; that is something you would not do normally watching a typical Kurdish move. The other and most significant part of this move was how the director was trying to break the sex taboo within the traditional and culturally Muslim society by directly telling and visually representing sexual acts and teasing the Kurdish audiences, something that some viewers were not comfortable with, and expressed their unhappiness after the movie at the time of the question and answer.

But the film tried to address cultural and religious point to the greater world audience, something that Jonroy himself said. The film made direct reference to religion and somehow give quite Islamic and conservative religious image of Kurds to Islam, but also tries to represent some aspect of the Kurdish culture as similar to that of Arabs, by featuring all kind of ways to connect Kurds with popular Islamic culture.

Again something that most viewers after the end of the movie did not agree with, even in point some individual started swearing at the director as to why he is making very open and explicit remark to sexuality.

It would have been interesting to see if such reactions would have been different if gender roles were reversed and David was Kurdish and Layla Jewish; some wondered it would not made so much sensitivity within the Kurdish male population as then the pure image of Kurdish women would have not been questioned.

However there is a worry if David and Layla can be understood in a Middle Eastern context and in particular in Kurdistan for its unique and open expression of sex, at the same time it is a shame that such a good quality film for sure will be censored and even banned from showing in many Arab countries as well as in Turkey, Iran and Syria for its direct remark on regional politics, such as the Armenian genocide and politically sensitive Kirkuk as well as Palestinians and Jews.

As this review comes to its end it would be fair to say the best movie and winner of this year’s 4th Kurdish Film Festival has to be David and Layla. Not only for its superb direction and light hearted approach to introducing important political issues in an unorthodox and controversial way – which all good art should accomplish – but also for its rich portrayal of the beauty and benefit that comes of multiculturalism at the human level, that is, when people fall into relationships with those from different backgrounds and break down cultural barriers through love and laughter.

This is no doubt a theme which man in multicultural Britain can personally relate to.

Kurdish filmmakers should not try to expose so much the importance and beauty of Kurdish life, history, but show fair and ethical images of this unique visual presentation of this hidden culture which has not had the opportunities to flourish. Rather than focussing only on the tragic past of the Kurds and getting bogged down in political issues, Kurdish directors must also be encouraged to express themselves on purely artistic levels.

Equally, they should not only look to represent exotic and sometimes inaccurate images of very traditional Kurdish life. Such repeated action by Kurdish directors will endanger and misinterpret the rich cultural history, a culture which is yet to be researched and written about extensively. And while so much prejudice faces the Middle East, directors as socially embedded artists should very well face this challenge.

But Kurdistan today is not only about traditional culture, and as it rests on the brink of massive developments, Kurdistan has been highlighted on the international stage as its films and filmmakers make headway on the artistic front through the international festival circuit. Mesopotamia is considered is one of the most beautiful lands in the world, with great civilisations and culture, dance, sex, spice all contributing in some way to modern cultures of Europe and the Middle East.

Projects such as the London Kurdish Film Festival are important to broadening dialogue because they address human realities, while also portraying particular aspects of Kurdish existence. They speak to humanity, not only the Kurds. When well-known filmmakers travel the globe presenting their films at festivals in Europe, North America and Asia, they invite diverse audiences to learn about the Kurdish people.

Those with no prior knowledge of the Kurds will see the unique aspects of the culture and history, as well as shared universals. The London Kurdish Film Festival achieves the same at the local level, by allowing this opportunity to Londoners from all cultures, faiths and heritages. Many people will first be exposed to such things through the universal phenomenon of the arts.

As contributions to the world of cinema by Kurdish directors expand each year, presenting an image of contemporary Kurdistan and its people, Kurds themselves are also given an opportunity for reflection in the ways they see themselves portrayed. New or previously taboo topics can be tackled by audiences and filmmakers alike.

In this context, it is vital for Kurdish women and female directors to address and expose the treatment of gender and the unequal situation of woman in their work. This can open up further dialogue and help to bring social change.

It is to be hoped that next year Kurds in London will hold the 5th Kurdish Film Festival and build on the efforts and continue to improve, with greater films, greater aims and greater hope for a peaceful solution for the people and the land of Kurdistan. In the meantime, art and the history it can bring to light plays an important part in helping us to integrate these aims into the wider society.

Kameel Ahamdy at the Film Festival

Kameel Ahmady is visual anthropologist who has written number of film reviews and research dealing with themes of gender, diaspora, multiculturalism and modernity in the Middle East and Europe.

Kameel maintains a website at:

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in Deletions are marked by.

The bold emphasis is mine.

Labels: Armenia and Kurds

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