The Everyday Absurd

in 14th Pusan International Film Festival

by I Myung Hee

Constructed in an innovative style which combines realism and poetic surrealism, the Kurdish-Iraqi film Kick Off provides a rare glimpse of present-day Iraq. Shawkat Amin Korki, in his second film as director, distills the Iraqi Kurdistan of 2008 and places it in a war-ravaged stadium located in Kirkuk. We recognized this film with the FIPRESCI Award at the 14th Pusan International Film Festival.

The film centers on the refugees and the war-wounded who have lost their homes, livelihood and land – sometimes confiscated by force – and taken shelter in a bombed-out, dilapidated stadium. Most of the characters are played by non-professional actors who live in the area, with their surroundings and scattered debris serving as the film’s backdrop and props.

Despite lacking the basic equipment, one of the stadium’s Kurdish inhabitants, a young man named Asu, organizes a football match to cheer up his neighbors and his brother who lost a leg in a landmine explosion. The teams are composed of Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Assyrians who agree to compete in a friendly match as neighbors.

Little by little, as preparations for the event unfurl and even during the event itself, the film presents several different situations that illustrate the extremely tough, difficult lives of these people. A lack of water and fuel, an unhealthy environment, no proper schools or public facilities, indifference, individualism, harassment by the authorities… But these situations ultimately lean toward the ridiculous, evoking laughter at their absurdity. This film is, in short, a tragicomedy.

On football stands under the open sky, on the concrete grounds of the stadium, in a place where there is nothing, the film plays out between the poles of emptiness and abundance as if pitting reality – the absence of the essential required for human dignity – against the imaginary, all the while offering several scenes that are pure poetry. Cut off and excluded from normal life, refugee children run through the stands, learning and singing as if in class; a man chants an Islamic prayer; peasants walk their cattle around the stadium’s cement grounds… These incongruous images highlight the absurd, heightening their impact on the audience’s consciousness — there are no beautiful landscapes, plains, schools, mosques, or pastures here. One of the most surreal images in the film is that of a horse, possibly a symbol of freedom, running onto the field with the football players in a scene that is at once poetic and pathetic.

The director’s use of space is very interesting. The decor of a stadium constantly exposed to the danger of explosion, in a land where there is no land, set against a landscape that is not a landscape, forms a sort of symbolic microcosm. This miserable stadium in the middle of nowhere seems to connote an entire country with its multiethnic population and its socio-political conflicts and problems.

Shot under truly difficult and dangerous circumstances – including real explosions and helicopter scenes – Kick Off does not hesitate to evoke the desire and hope for peace and harmony among peoples.  This optimistic message cuts through the harshness of the situations depicted in the film, bringing life to images shot in a stylized manner with most of the color drained out. Kick Off is a promising film by a talented filmmaker whose images speak with an unflinching truth about a harrowing real-life situation.

Edited by Lesley Chow