A delegation representing the Kurdish film industry has been trying to say their word” this week at the 15th Busan International Film Festival, Asia’s most important film event, according to Lebanon’s Daily Star.
Kurdish film programmer Mustafa Gundogdu rests his head on his hand for a moment as he considers the fate of his culture and of his cinema.
“The first word that comes to mind when you think of Kurds is ‘existence,’” he says. “In the places that Kurds live, their very existence is constantly questioned. And it is the same with Kurdish cinema.”
This year it includes a special section – “Kurdish Cinema: The Unconquered Spirit”– which is showcasing eight Kurdish productions. There was also a seminar in which the whole nature of Kurdish cinema was questioned.
“Does Kurdish cinema even exist?” asks Gundogdu, who heads the Kurdish program at the festival and also runs Kurdish film festivals in London and New York.
“Well, we are here today so that shows that it does. The industry has been slowly growing and like the Kurdish population itself, its voice is getting louder and louder,” he added.
With their homeland split as national borders were redefined after World War I, the Kurdish population has found itself divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Thousands of ethnic Kurds have left those nations, often claiming persecution, and it is through these communities that the Kurdish cinematic movement has, over the past decade, really started to take shape.
Autonomous Kurdistan region was formally established in Iraq, back in 2005 after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Its government has started to set up film schools and, importantly, to fund films made by Kurds in Iraq, and from all over the world.
Director Miraz Bezar has been one who has benefitted and his film “The Children of Diyarbakir” has screened at the South Korean film festival. Bezar, who lived in Turkey before his family moved to Germany while he was a child, explained that there have long been Kurdish filmmakers but only recently have they established themselves as a collective.
“We all take inspiration from Yilmaz Guney,” he says of the director whose “Yol” won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at the Cannes film festival in 1982.
“For a long time he was considered a Turk when in fact he was Kurdish and his films were always about the Kurdish situation. In our films, there is always a political message because our situation is purely political.”
Bezar’s film looks at three children coping with life after their parents are killed. He has recently been able to screen the production in Turkey – a situation previously unheard of.
“When I was growing up, whenever we traveled my mother used to have to change my first name from Miraz to Marat, a common name in Turkey, to hide the fact that I was a Kurd,” he says.
“We had to leave to get our freedom. And it has been those Kurds in exile who have thus had the chance to be creative, to become individuals who create, because in Turkey and other countries this was not allowed as these countries have denied our very existence. But we are slowly finding our voice.”
The breakthrough for modern Kurdish film – internationally at least – came at last year’s festival when Shawkat Amin Korki was handed one of the two first prizes in the main award, New Currents, for first or second-time Asian filmmakers.
His “Kick Off” traced the story of refugees struggling for existence inside a football stadium and has since been screened at festivals all over the world, winning Best Middle Eastern Film at the Beirut International Film Festival.
Mano Khalil is also in Busan with the documentary “David the Tolhilda” which focuses on the life of David Rouiller, a young Swiss national who left his homeland in 2001 to join the Kurdish freedom movement PKK.
Khalil has been based in Switzerland since the late 1980s. He says he cannot return to his home in Syria after authorities there in 1992 questioned the fact that a Czech newspaper had referred to him as a “Kurdish filmmaker.”
“I was imprisoned for a short while and have not been able to go home,” he says. “They showed me the clipping – which was by then about four years old – and they made it clear I was not welcome.
“The paradox for us is that you make a film and in Europe or America they applaud you but in your own country they call you a criminal, a terrorist, a separatist.”
For Khalil, though, the fight for recognition goes on. “They say a hungry person cannot dance or sing,” he says. “And we Kurdish filmmakers are still hungry.”
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