Examining The Case of Kurdish Cinema

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Examining The Case of Kurdish Cinema

Yilmaz Güney, one of the fathers of Kurdish filmmaking

The Past

Map of The The Ottoman Empire, XIXth century, Library of Congress

Their homeland is scattered between 4 hostile to each other countries, with the seemingly only uniting factor being the repression of the group.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and later decolonization efforts, several national republics have been established throughout the region.
Turkey, forging the ambitions of its predecessor gave up the claims for the Middle East.
Countries of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon formed in a turbulent process of the post-war retreat of the European empires.

Scattered between the newly forming and the old powers – the Kurdish people were forced out from establishing their own country. Rather, holding a minority status in several of the aforementioned states.

The Kurds, however were not passive to the changes happening around them. Several movements hoping for Kurdish self-rule have emerged over the nation’s century-long history.

The Present

Rojava fighter, Syria 2018, X YPJ Rojava

The Rojava in Syria, fighting both for Kurdish independence and against extremism or the relatively newly established Kurdish Autonomy in Iraq.

These and other movements signal the determination of the Kurds to the world. Through political, peaceful but also sometimes armed activity Kurds’ long history of path to statehood continues.
Their struggle however expands beyond the obvious tools of resistance. Kurdish artists continue to gather attention to the still unresolved and conflicted state of their people.
In opposition to the suppression they face at home – whether it be language bans, political disenfranchisement, or restriction on freedom of expression they continue to create.

Often resorting to emigration, the bulk of today’s focus – Kurdish cinema, is being created abroad. In the metropolis of Western Europe, the creativity of the nation flourishes.
One of the strong sides of Kurdish cinema is documentary, a genre perfect for the necessary advancement of stories that might seem distant and misty to a foreign audience.

The Art

The 2018 “Cornered In Molenbeek” production by Sahim Omar Kalifa develops an empathizing narrative for the inhabitants of the titular district described by media as a “No-Go Zone”.
Although not focusing particularly on the topic of independence struggle, the film tackles another topic, faced by those who chose to emigrate.
The popular portrayal of the minority-majority regions as dangerous has been a common feeding ground for populist anti-immigrant narratives.

We had the pleasure of talking to Kalifa about the movie and the reality of being a Kurdish filmmaker.

Kalifa with the poster for his latest project “Zagros”

On the topic of Molenbeek, he mentions –

The people there said “no, the Belgian government isolated us, they didn’t pay attention to us, they demonized us”.
That’s the way that people are thinking of trying different things.
Why they told you what they have been faced through all the 40 years in Belgium didn’t pay attention to them. That way we named the film “Cornered” to show how somebody put in the corner to pay no attention to them – there will be a reaction from him.

Sahim, born in Iraqi Kurdistan, explains the reality of being an artist from the region.
Growing up as the deadly Iraq-Iran war was raging on, he immigrated to Europe – where he currently resides and creates.
He describes his childhood experiences that would in turn guide him onto the path of filmmaking :

In 1991 so I started to take pictures with the camera – the analog. So I was 11 years old so I have done in two years and from there – from the photo to the camera. I went to filming by my own, I have done a lot of short films with my brother sister, but I have only done for for my own because it made me very happy – pictures, photo, video – it was not my intention to become a filmmaker

Sahim, like many other Kurdish artists, would later migrate to other countries – finally settling in Belgium where he began his professional career.
His films the 2012 “Badgad Messi”, and 2011 “Land Of The Heroes” among others, would be recognized in the industry and Kurdish diaspora alike.

His films, still often have strong political undertones, although focusing mainly on Kalifas own words:

I’m always interested in family drama. For example, the relationship between a man and his wife, his father’s son, father’s daughters.”

One of the main defining elements of the Kurdish cinema is its re-living of the traumas and hardships endured by the nation. As the generational wound has not yet begun to heal – and the struggle for statehood continues – Kurdish films continue to predominantly focus on the topic.

Although the experiences vary as they inhabit lands from Western Anatolia to the eastern side of the great Zagros mountains.
The situation of Armenian Yezidis and the 3rd-gen immigrant Kurds living in Istanbul differ wildly. The unifying element however is persistent in all the countries they inhabit; the Kurds face some levels of oppression.
As Kalifa reflects on his identity after 30 decades away from his hometown –

I think if you see I am Kurdish or Palestinian then politics become a huge part of your life if you work of your study of your conversation everything that’s the way because for me I’m Belgian I live in Flanders we have a lot of good Belgian filmmakers they tell the stories from Belgium I think in my eyes I was also is very rich for the Belgian cinema that we have Diversity in our department that people from another countries also tell the stories not always the balance to you I think it’s also for me is also really really important where I came from.

Still from Kalifas’ 2011 film “Land Of The Heroes”

Politics often go hand in hand with the artistic expression of those affected by turbulence back home. Whether it be the rise of the 1960s counterculture movements or the resurgence of contemporary Ukrainian art.
Kurdish filmmakers use their platform to share with the world the beauty but also the not-so-positive reality that their homeland is in.

The beauty of this subdivision of film, however, is its unity in diversity. By adding different cultural aspects of the countries – while retaining their identity, Kurdish productions often result in unconventional and shocking end results.

The struggle however appears the most common headache of every filmmaker – physical resources.
The lack of available resources or infrastructure – be it film schools, prop rentals, or government aid, limits the options of local filmmakers.
Even if one is to overlook the political aspect of this issue – like the denial of access to the Kurdish language in Turkey, the state of the native cinema is quite precarious.

On the topic of unified Kurdish filmmaking, Kalifa jokingly says – “Some of my friends they tell me – if You see a Kurdish movie it means you’ve seen almost all of them”.
Pointing to the previously mentioned issues. A rather logical answer considering the 40+ Kurdish population. However, one aspect seemed to connect most of the films made at home – be it Turkey, Iraq, Syria, or Iran.

all of them were about the trauma about the genocide about the problem we have been faced or all of them are almost the same or for example about the answer combine but chemical weapons against people.

The need to constantly express heavy topics onto the screen starts to make sense after reading any piece of literature on the topic of their history.
However, Kalifa, as well as other Kurdish filmmakers, wishes to move past this aspect and not let it be the defining factor in the perception of the nation by others.
The monothematicness of the industry can also be explained by the lack of adequate attention being given to the local, aspiring filmmakers.
Kalifa adds on the topic :

Because there is no organization to say okay – you would like to have some horror film and that’s the way, because we have no country and no organization but I cannot tell you that we have A “united cinema”. But we are really good movie and directors as well

The film organizations in their home countries either prefer to fund the films of the majority ethnicity. Or as is the case for Syria and Iraq – have been severely underfunded and deconstructed due to the ongoing conflicts.

The Future

Erbil the capital of the Kurdish Autonomy, La Bien Public

The Kurdish experience can be defined by two things: hope and resilience. Although far from establishing an independent country, the nation has achieved some autonomy in the homeland of today interviewed – Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Duhok International Film Festival, held in the northern city of Duhok, Iraq, attracts Kurdish filmmakers from all over the region and the diaspora. The 9th edition of the festival is to be held in late 2024, signaling a turning point for the native filmmakers.

The 2019 documentary “The Many Lives of Kojin” is – a story about a young, iranian-kurd confronting his community with his homosexuality. The film explores deeper layers of the internal versus social struggles. Adding fresh air to the mainstream local film industry, often reluctant to tackle the topics of queerness.
A wildly interesting and serious story told through a light-hearted lens, the film received deserved recognition from critics and the audience alike.

Khalifa also mentioned a film he is in the process of creating, covering a similar topic.
The film talks about the experiences of an asylum seeker in Belgium, finding himself on a difficult journey of discovering his true identity.

Although still continuing, the story of Kurds captured the hearts of all those appreciating their dedication and determination for self-governance. With the dynamic situation of the Middle East, chance for Kurdish independence seems to be a real option.

Until then, let the message of their artists ring loud around the world, reminding the people that – Kurdistan and its people still stand.

Julia Chmielewska

One response to “Examining The Case of Kurdish Cinema”

  1. Annabelle Avatar

    👾 good article

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