Crossing the Border: A Refreshing Voice in Kurdish Cinema

in 8th Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival

by Övgü Gökçe

The 8th edition of the Golden Apricot Yerevan Film Festival presented an interesting and strong selection of films ranging from region-focused programs and retrospective film screenings to praised competition films from different continents, as well as a rich collection of shorts and documentaries, and of films by special guests (the so-called “master of cinema”), namely Béla Tarr, Roman Balayan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The prizes of this year’s festival equally reflect this variety of different geographies and tendencies in the local, regional and international context, cutting across countries, borders and cinematic styles.

The FIPRESCI winner, the Iraqi production Mandoo (originally Mandû, which translates as ‘fatigued’ from Sorani Kurdish) by the Kurdish filmmaker Ebrahim Saeedi from Iran, Mahabad, is very much in tune with this sort of cross-border storytelling. Comprising a story that focuses on a family’s journey back home from Iraq to Iran and with a production context that reflects this border-crossing in terms of the creative and production crews, it would be fair to say that Mandoo satisfies the conventions of transnational cinema that characterize particular (yet variable) common elements of production, style and content.

As well as having this international quality, Mandoo also belongs to and enriches the contemporary thread of Kurdish filmmaking, which is a much more recent development, particularly with the pioneering work of Saeedi’s compatriot Bahman Ghobadi. In the past couple of years, film critics and scholars alike have led discussions at a small number of venues, such as the London Kurdish Film Festival or the first Kurdish Cinema Conference organised in Diyarbakir (Turkey) in 2009, which highlighted the emergence of a cinema made by Kurdish filmmakers that is distinguished by certain imagery, such as mountains, borders and roads. In resonance with the experience of Kurds living in border regions and conflicting environments — whether in Iraq, Turkey, Syria or Iran —, common themes such as immigration, homelessness or belonging accompany the visual imagery on a narrative basis.

Mandoo reflects these traits both in its narrative and aesthetics with a story that takes place in the border region of Iraq and Iran, focusing on the journey of an Iranian family who took refuge in Iraq during the political turmoil caused by the Iran-Iraq war in 1979. Saeedi tells the story of this journey back home through the eyes of the grandfather, the old Sherif, whose point of view is identified with the gaze of the camera and accompanied by his continuous heavy breathing in the sound track. Sherif is old and sick, yet the feeling of weariness that defines the tone of the film (and is also referred to in the film’s title), evidently represents more than the old man’s state, but rather the exhaustion of the Kurdish people in between exile, immigration and repression. Sherif’s niece Sheelan, a young doctor who immigrated to Sweden with her family when she was a kid, is visiting them to take Sherif and the family to Sweden to treat his illness. However, although their papers for Sweden are ready, Sherif’s son Shaho is determined to take Sherif back to his own village in Iran. As Sheelan decides to join the family in the back of a minivan, which becomes the main location throughout the film, relationships of genders, generations and traditions surface.

One of Mandoo’s greatest merits is its imaginative camerawork and editing, and the way it utilizes space as a distinguishing element while telling its story. By juxtaposing the restricted setting of the van with the vast geography the family has to muster, Mandoo clearly refers to the quest of the Kurdish people and their preoccupation with limits and borders, as well as their resilience to such living conditions. The camera that imitates Sherif’s point of view and what it sees throughout the film also works in such a juxtaposition: while it imposes the gaze of the father on different emotions and actions of family members, it also points out to moments of fright and confession that eclipse the reach of this gaze’s absolute authority in situations of life and death. The end of the journey, as in all quests, is the homecoming, as Saeedi’s camera reflects Sherif’s face in a mirror at the end of the film; and it is an exhausted, but a strong face.