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“I have come here just now, to sit with you. I am sitting, I’m relaxed. But really, I can’t relax. All I can do is run. That’s all I know how to do. From the time I was little, I’ve run. That’s what I do.”
The speaker is Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, and though he’s comfortably sprawled out in a chair on the breakfast patio at the Bel Age Hotel, it’s easy to believe him. Belying his posture and quiet voice are his eyes. Whatever their true color, when he reaches a point of intensity in the conversation — which is to say, every couple of minutes — they turn the color of onyx. It’s as if some massive measure of self-control has fused all his anger or frustration or bitterness into a narrow beam that shoots out harmlessly, if disconcertingly at times, through his gaze.
Ghobadi is in town to promote his new film, Marooned in Iraq. The 35-year-old filmmaker won international notice with his first movie, A Time for Drunken Horses, a mostly grim tale about a family of children locked in a harsh, day-to-day struggle for survival. The new film, despite being set during Saddam Hussein’s brutal 1991 assault on the Kurds in northern Iraq, takes a wider view of life through humor, sadness, bitterness, satire and tragedy. Speaking in Farsi through a translator, Ghobadi explains that it wasn’t so much an intellectual shift as a visceral one:
“The Kurds have undergone all this tyranny through the ages. It’s as if they’ve been injected with frowns. To combat this, they seek refuge in humor and passionate music. This will get them through, this gives them hope for a destination that is other than bitter. When you see the tiny pictures that happen across the screens of CNN now, if you really pay attention, the people are smiling. As we speak, in the encampments, they’re sitting with the saucepans, beating them, making music and dancing. This is how they live. Just as there is no way that you could find a single Kurd who has not lost someone — every single one has lost a relative, someone close to him, at least one — there is not a single Kurd who doesn’t know how to make music. They’re almost intoxicated by the fate that has befallen them. They don’t know how to transcend it other than in this way. This merging of humor and tragedy is the essence of Kurdish life.
“The strangest land in the world is the land of the Iraqi Kurds. When the children in America go out to play, they play with balls — over there, the land mines are the size of soccer balls. We don’t have any schools teaching cinema, and, in fact, there are no movie theaters in those Kurdish regions. But our people see more films than any of the children here because all they have to do is eat the Kurdish equivalent of popcorn and lie on the mountaintop, look up, and see what children here only see at the movies. The latest war movies are currently being made over there, and they’re sitting live on location watching them. And because they will die, they are the extras. That’s why I believe that the Kurds are more cultured than the Europeans or Americans. Because they are actually living with tragedy.”
Ghobadi doesn’t just talk the talk. A graduate of the University of Tehran, he was born and raised in the Iranian Kurdish town of Baneh, which, if you could flatten the towering, rocky, snow-covered mountains between them, is about 40 miles northeast of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. His film begins with a back-road crossing of the Iran-Iraq border, and it’s a trip the filmmaker has made himself.
“The route is part paved road, part dirt road,” he says. “What you see in the film — the crossings on mule, the bandits on the road — that is exactly what the crossing is like from Baneh to Sulaymaniyah. If they give us a permit, we go with a permit. If they don’t, we go on the sly.”
Ghobadi wanted that improvised, obstacle-laden aspect of Kurdish life to permeate every cell of the filmmaking process, even the editing: “We live in a mountainous area, it’s a harsh climate, and the people there talk fast and walk fast. And when we were filming, I had the sense of working very fast. We decided to make the editing reflect that beat, reflect the jaggedness of those mountains.” Then the conversation takes a turn, as it will throughout our talk, toward history and politics. “Why are the Kurds so much in a hurry?” Ghobadi asks with just a hint of exasperation, waving at the empty dishes on the table. “Because over years and decades and centuries, they can’t have a relaxed breakfast like this. They eat their breakfast squatting down, ready to run, because there’s always someone coming. The Turks are coming! The Iraqis are coming! They’ve got their backpacks with them, ready to run and carry.”
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