Daily Routine in Northern Iraq

in 39th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Alin Tasciyan

A bride on her wedding day steps on a mine just before crossing the border between Iraq and Iran. She has to remain calm so that she won’t remove her tiny foot. A land mine shows no mercy for human beings or animals. Once you step on it, it becomes a killing machine. Easy to activate, impossible to stop. Her helpless husband runs to fetch help in the middle of nowhere while the terrified young woman stands there screaming and crying.

An old man accompanied by two youngsters heads for the border. They have to count 100 power pylons to reach there. The old man carries some local drink for his grandchildren. He has not seen them for five years and this is his first present for them since then. No matter how thirsty they get he won’t spare a drop of it.

Bombs fall near a small village. An old lady picks up her granddaughters from their beds, takes them on her back and begins to run towards the border. She tells her granddaughters the stories of happy brides in order to soothe their sobbing.

Another old lady wanders on the mountains with a cow, a chicken and a few household items. These are all that she has got.

A teenage boy carefully carries some guns on his back. He goes up and down the hills hiding from helicopters and planes that continuously patrol the region.

A middle-aged man carries the most heavy thing on his shoulders: The dead body of his only son. The body wrapped in nylon slowly decomposes but he simply cannot bury him in foreign soil. The man, who had brought along his son to work with him in Iraq against his mothers’ will, now feels obliged to take him back to her. He talks to his precious son and asks his forgiveness for having dragged his body up the hills.

One by one illegal and desperate travellers for Iran gather around the mine field that draws the border between the two countries. In the middle of which is the bride standing still on top of a mine.

The story of the Iranian entry in the competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, “The Riverside” by Ali Reza Amini reminds us a little bit the Oscar winner “No Man’s Land”. But it is totally different from the Balkan problem. This is what daily life is like in Northern Iraq. There are symbols but no irony. If there is some humour in it, that is only because of the nature of the protagonists, those simple country people. This is pure tragedy that has become a routine since long ago. For the last quarter of a century, people living in Northern Iraq have only experienced war and a few ceasefires. They suffered first the Iran – Iraq War then severe discrimination and attacks from the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. In “The Riverside” we witness the period right after the American attack on Iraq when Iraqi forces bombed Kurdish settlements around Kerkuk because they were allies…

Kurdish or Turkish or Sunni Arabs, inhabitants of this region, don’t live there any more, they only survive. The old ones have brought their children up on the front hoping for the peace to come. The young ones born during the war have not experienced peace yet. “The Riverside” makes us realise this horrible truth and puts us in the shoes of the victims of war, at least for a while.

Although “The Riverside” has all the elements that are typical of Iranian cinema – such as the documentary-like realism, the repetition of the events and dialogues, the simplicity of the characters driven by instinct and fate rather than reason, and no villains, turns out to be almost a tragedy in the classical sense. All the events take place in one day, at one place and none of the violence and death is displayed. But that feeling of “life is not going anywhere” which dominates a major part of Iranian films leaves the bitter pain of sudden and untimely death.

In the Karlovy Vary competition there were other films dealing with more or less with the same theme especially “Aftermath” from the Netherlands and “My Brother Frankenstein” from Russia, but they were telling the tragedies of people who had lives to lead, in the Dutch case even an elegant lifestyle. Through the eyes of Ali Reza Amini we clearly see there aren’t any options or any remedy for the Iraqi Kurds. Amini neither gives any clue for the ethnic identity of the Iraqis trying to cross the border nor makes an open political statement. He simply shows what some people’s daily routine is like.

He elegantly symbolizes the longing of freedom for Kurds in Northern Iraq by the bride who steps on the mine. We know, there’s no rescue… It will explode sooner or later. Russia, with the shadow of the Chechnya war, the Dutch couple who have lost their teenage daughter in a car accident, have the possibility for rehabilitation, they have families, friends, a state that takes care of them in one way or another but the bride with the red scarf has nothing. And this has been going on like this for a life time.

“The Riverside” is not a masterpiece, not even a very good film but it is impressive, it has a strength, a sincerity, an authenticity, and the most important of all, a conscientious attitude. You believe that the filmmaker is concerned for his characters which is a feeling that no documentary could have given to the audience.