Cinema in Kurdistan

in 8th Duhok International Film Festival

by Yilmaz Özdil

Kurdish Cinema in the Shadow of Political Conflicts

While they had adopted the theatre in the 1920s, the Kurds did not appropriate cinema until the 1990s, almost a century after the arrival of cinema in Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish filmmaker Yılmaz Güney, who has become the spiritual father of Kurdish cinema, is a notable exception. This invisibility of the Kurds in the cinema is due to sociological as well as political reasons. On one hand, the requirement of technical and financial means for film production did not correspond to the socio-economic reality of the Kurds, the vast majority of whom lived in the countryside before the 1990s. On the other hand, in four parts of Kurdistan (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey), state negationist policies and the conflictual context engendered by its policies prohibited any kind of Kurdish visibility and therefore did not allow the making of films in Kurdish language.

Today, any reflection on the definition of a Kurdish cinema ends up referring to this politico-historical context which has become the real theme of the majority of films made by Kurdish directors. This close relationship between cinema and the Kurdish “political question” is particularly evident, when one attempts to define a Kurdish cinema run up against the absence of a Kurdish state and national identity. In other words, during a time when the term “national cinema” has lost its meaning, the absence of a Kurdish national identity continues to generate all the debates on the existence and not the existence of a Kurdish cinema. Other factors such as the political difficulties in the use of the Kurdish language, the absence of an internal cinematographic market and the belonging of Kurdish directors to various nationalities, confirm once again that Kurdish cinema is marked in all its dimensions by the historical consequences of this political question.

Thus, the vast majority of Kurdish directors have a non-Kurdish national identity and some are even stateless. This was the case with Yılmaz Güney, who had been stripped of Turkish nationality by the government of the day in 1982 for “treason of the motherland”. Ahmet Zirek, who played the character of Cafer, the Guardian, in Yılmaz Güney’s film The Wall (1983), is still stateless and currently lives in Paris. He tells his personal story in his film Pari(s) d’Exil shot in 2009. Here is the national belonging of some other Kurdish directors who have all suffered tragic consequences of this political context: Hiner Saleem, originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, has French nationality. Iraqi Kurdish directors Jano Rosebiani and Jalal Jonroy have American nationality, and Hisham Zaman has Norwegian nationality. Mehmet Aktaş (producer), Miraz Bezar and Yüksel Yavuz are Kurds from Turkey with German nationality. Mano Khalil and Shiar Abdi, Kurds from Syria, have Swiss and German citizenship. Kazım Öz, Hüseyin Karabey, Erol Mintaş, M. Ali Konar, Rezan Yeşilbaş are directors of Kurdish origin of Turkish nationality, Shahram Alidi, Babak Emini and Jamil Rostami, of Iranian nationality, Shawkat Amin Korki, Hassan Ali, Massoud Arif, Hussein Hassan, Z. Nerwayi of Iraqi nationality.

Because of the complexity and the scale of this political question, even today the debates concerning Kurdish cinema are not approached in a professional or industrial context, implying the taking into account of the dimensions, not only socioeconomic, political and ethical, but also of technical, aesthetic and narrative kind. Given the influence of this historical reality, we can say that Kurdish cinema is made up of films by directors of Kurdish origin, whose language is predominantly or entirely Kurdish or whose subject relates to one of the socio-cultural, economic or religious aspects of the Kurdish question, even if the film is not shot in the Kurdish language. From the release of Kilamek Ji Bo Beko (A song for Beko) by Nizamettin Ariç (1991), considered the first fictional film shot in the Kurdish language, to the film Govenda Alî û Zîn (The Dance of Ali and Zin) by Mehmet Ali Konar (2021), the majority of Kurdish films have of this political question their main theme. Moreover, this definition cannot be applied in any case to all aspects of films made by directors of Kurdish origin, especially in the diaspora. This is the reason why the “Kurdishness” of a film depends not only on its subject and its political discourse but also on the Kurdish identity of its director and his commitment to that identity.

Yılmaz Özdil
Edited by Savina Petkova