Turkish Kurdish Films

in 31st Istanbul Film Festival

by Nicole Santé

Last year the London Kurdish Film Festival was bigger than ever, screening more than 120 Kurdish films. Kurdish cinema is rising — maybe inspired by the rising hope for independence in Kurdistan. And although Kurdish films may still not be found in Turkish cinemas, it is promising that they represented a quarter of the films in the national competition during the 31st edition of the Istanbul Film Festival.

The Kurdish identity is of course prevalent in the films which are made by Kurdish directors. They are still looking for their voices and for a legitimate place in Turkish cinema. With four of the films in the national competition, this search is strongly and literally portrayed, in most cases also autobiographical. The title says it all in Where is my Mother Tongue, directed by Veli Kahraman. His father Mustafa is one of the few people who still masters Zaza, a Kurdish sublanguage, spoken by a minority in the Kurdish area. The old man feels his end is near and he is desperate to try and find a way to preserve and pass on his language, which he has failed to do — due to harsh laws and punishments — during his lifetime. Frantically he starts collecting words in a homemade dictionary with the help of some old tapes, meeting the boundaries of his memory and also being confronted with the inevitability of death — not only his own, but also that of his language. The film tells not only a deeply personal story about loss of identity but also shows the impact of the strict and unforgiving assimilation policy in Turkey.

Because Kurdish is such an oral language, it is not surprising that tapes also play an essential role in Voice of my Father, by Orhan Eskiköy and Zeynel Dogan. Here we see one of the directors, the Kurdish Zeynel Dogan, visiting his mother’s house, in search of the history of his family. The tapes consist mainly of conversations his father — who was working far away from home — had with his mother. He reprimands her for not speaking Turkish and sheds light on how the Turkish authorities went about trying to integrate the Kurds and eliminate the Kurdish identity. During the film Dogan also finds out why his family had to migrate — they barely survived the Maras pogroms. Although she’s adamant in not wanting to talk about it, the mother still hangs on to the past, even more so now her husband is dead and both her sons are living their own lives. The other son is only present in recurring phone calls, where his mother picks up the phone and utters a Turkish phrase into the silence on the other end of the line. The silences combined with the carefully chosen shots and the voice of the dead father in voice-over; craft a strong film which focuses on people’s need for their own history.

The most literal search (for Kurdish identity) takes place in I Flew You Stayed by Mizgin Müjde Arslan — editor of the first book on Kurdish cinema: “Kurdish Cinema: Rootlessnes, Border and Death”. In this documentary she is looking for traces of her father, whom she has never met. He died as a freedom fighter when she was young. Arslan travels to different refugee camps and finds people who knew and loved her father. The search in the camps is alternated with scenes where she speaks with her resilient mother in her mother tongue. It is a search for identity, one that goes on in Kurdish society and Kurdish cinema.