Filmmaking, the most modern form of art that reflects culture and humanity, is a craft that requires absolute autonomy of authorship in form, content, and expression, an art form that can make you laugh, cry, or walk away with something to reflect upon, to meditate on, and be transformed by as a consequence.
Film is also a powerful tool for delivering one’s message to the far corners of the world – a prospect very much essential in our case as Kurds. However, filmmaking is still relatively new for us and only with genuine support can it be empowered and utilized to serve its intended purpose.
Kurdish cinema was practically nonexistent in the 20th century save for a few titles, among them “The Herd” (Zeki Okten, 1978), and “Yol” (Yilmaz Guney, 1982), which Guney directed from a prison cell via proxy Sherif Goren.
“Yol”, which means “The Road”, is the more significant of the two for its courageous subject matter at a time when Kurdish language and art were unconditionally prohibited in Turkey.
Despite its Turkified title, the film marks the birth of Kurdish cinema, introducing the world to the suffering of a people.
“Yol” garnered Cannes’ Palm d’Ore award and a nomination to the Golden Globe Awards. As a result, Guney and his film became an inspiration for many young Kurds, this writer among them, who eventually began lensing their own stories.
I for one first saw the film in the heart of Washington DC along with a few college friends in 1984 and consequently made my first dramatic TV movie a year later – “Come Back” – an experimental drama about a delusional Vietnam War veteran who thinks her child has returned from the dead.
Although it was not a Kurdish film, “Come back” was a testing ground for me which prepared me for a career in filmmaking emboldened by a local Washington Post award.
And with that I was transformed from television producer to filmmaker and the credit duly goes to “Yol” for it put me on this new path marking the start of a lasting journey.
The transformation was circumstantial. With the conflict with Saddam’s regime being in full swing culminating in the infamous Anfal genocide, the 1980s was the harshest decade in the history of the Kurds to which the West and the world community at large performed an Oscar-worthy role of deaf and blind. I was taking journalism courses as part of my communications major, but my Washingtonian teacher who was also a full-fledged news reporter, had never heard of Kurds. This was frustrating to say the least. I was in the midst of this twilight zone and was doing my lot to promote the Kurds in a time our own Kurdish representation in DC wasn’t up to capacity.
I published a monthly newsletter called “Kurdistan Today” covering the war and Anfal crimes; I dedicated a few episodes of a weekly cable access television program (Culture International) that I was producing and directing in Fairfax (Channel 10); and I wrote often about the genocide in my college newspaper at NOVA (Northern Virginia Community College).
When one of my articles made it to the front page, not surprisingly, all copies of the paper were removed from the stands across the campus and later were found in a dump. This struck newsworthy and received due attention. As a consequence, a new edition of the paper was printed and teachers were instructed to distribute them personally in their classes. All this helped promote the Kurdish predicament but also garnered me new enemies among some Middle Eastern students and anonymous threats on my life which we assumed to be from the Iraqi embassy.
Come “The Road” and the post-film discussion at a pizza parlor with friends at the trendy Dupont Circle. Having watched my very first Kurdish film rekindled my aspirations and set me off on my original but long-spurned calling – to make films in order to educate the world about Kurds. Though my TV film “Come Back” was not about Kurds, it set me off on the right track.
I anticipate parallel narratives were the lot of other Kurd filmmakers, artists, and intellectuals in diaspora. In other words, Kurdish cinema did not come to us on a silver platter. Just as Guney directed “The Road” from a prison cell in Turkey, inspiring filmmakers were plodding through unforgiving terrains of their own in their new homes away from home.
The films that followed “Yol” in the 1980s and 90s were few and far between. The only one which comes to mind that received international viewership was “A Song for Beko” (Nizamettin Aric, 1992).
Then, with the turn of the century, Kurdish cinema began to flourish, specifically following the defeat and removal of Saddam Hussein and the strengthening of the Kurdistan Region’s autonomy.
From the year 2000 onward a wave of Kurdish filmmakers from all parts of greater Kurdistan and the diaspora turned out a slew of films, gaining international recognition and winning awards from prestigious film festivals.
Dozens of films were made in the first decade of the new century, most prominent among them (in order of production year) “A Time for Drunken Horses” (Bahman Ghobadi, 2000); my film “Jiyan” (2001); “Vodka Lemon” (Hiner Saleem, 2003); “Crossing the Dust” (Shawkat Amin Korki, 2006); “Before Your Eyes” (Miraz Bezar, 2009), and many more.
Kurdish cinema continued to flourish in the present decade in spite of the speed bumps created by the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 – an unwelcome melee which brought film production, like other arts and industries, to a standstill.
However, ISIS also opened up a whole new array of subject matter for Kurdish writers and directors to tackle, notwithstanding their cataclysmic reality – a reality that is all too familiar in Kurdish cinema.
The premise found in the majority of Kurdish films is characterized by the suffering of their subjects under oppressive foreign regimes, by destruction of their lands and livelihoods, and by a succession of massacres of genocidal proportion.
As a result, Kurdish cinema can best be described as a platform for and a window into the tragedies of a nation – a political cinema with human rights issues at its core.
Attesting to this phenomenon is my own first-hand experience when touring the festival scene with “Jiyan”. Every filmmaker panel I participated in, starting with Rotterdam FF in 2002 and then festivals across Europe, North America, and Asia, featured a banner of some sort referencing politics and/or human rights.
Likewise, “Jiyan” was often included in categories alluding to this kind of subject matter. I am certain all Kurd filmmakers have faced this handle, and will continue to be confined to such designation until the day a sovereign state of their own is realized.
Even then, there will no doubt remain many stories of past tragedies to be lensed for decades to come.
Jano Rosebiani is an American-Kurdish scriptwriter, director, producer, and editor associated with Kurdish New Wave cinema. This is the first in a four-part series about the history of Kurdish cinema.