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Art in Adversity

“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.”

Yet, repeatedly, Ghobadi denies being a political filmmaker. He works out of a long-standing intellectual and cultural tradition, he insists, one that has flourished through the ages.

“There are many intellectuals,” he says with fervor. “The best musicians in Iran are Kurdish. There are some great poets and writers. But whenever anyone from the outside has reported on the Kurds, they’ve spoken of war. No one has approached it from the cultural angle, to report on cultural phenomena. With all of its poverty, Iraqi Kurdistan has 20 daily papers. In complete poverty, where they don’t have food to eat at night, they’re printing books at an incredible rate. Without being formally schooled, without degrees, the Kurds are raised to be cultured and thoughtful. Without teaching, with no film school, with nothing of the sort in Kurdistan, I became a filmmaker. Why? Because from the minute you are born, you are raised on stories. When my parents would lay me down and tell me their stories, or the stories of their parents and forefathers, they were the craziest, craziest stories — stories and images that were not to be found in any book, not in Kundera’s books, nor in Gabriel García Márquez’s books. Believe me, all it would take would be to establish a publishing house in Iraqi Kurdistan and, within the next 10 or 15 years, 20 Márquezes would emerge. From the moment we are born, we are the most cinematic and cultured people, and why?”

Again, the inevitable switch on the conversational track:

“When we open our eyes, what we see first isn’t the happy face of our mother, it’s a house on fire or an injured person. You don’t learn how to say ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ first in Kurdistan. You learn ‘bomb,’ ‘war,’ ‘run, run, run!’”

Try going to your local bookstore and looking up something about Kurds. The single best resource, Mehrdad Izady’s The Kurds: A Concise Handbook, has been out of print for years. After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness, a sharp, devastating piece of reportage by Jonathan Randal, published in 1997, is already out of print. Randal’s book in particular, of which there are two circulating copies at downtown L.A.’s Central Library, is a punishing chronicle of American betrayals over the past 30 years — and not just in 1988, after the gas attacks at Halabja, or in 1991, when Saddam struck back at the Kurdish uprising encouraged, but not supported, by Washington.

“The very fact that you were not able to find a great deal of resources that dealt with Kurdish history shows the lack of affection of America for the Kurds,” Ghobadi says simply. “One of the countries that has always made promises to the Kurds in order to advance its own interests is America. Now Americans think, ‘Oh yes, there’s a Kurdistan. Oh, yes, there was Halabja.’ If you meet someone and they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and you say, ‘I’m Kurdish,’ they say, ‘Oh, how are you faring? How are things with Saddam?’ Suddenly you’re a political person, a political Kurd. And I said to myself, ‘Bahman, you will hold a camera instead of a weapon, and you will be a cultural filmmaker.’ That was when I began making films. Now, when I look at my films, they’re full of political threads. But it’s not because I’m political. It’s because this is the life of the Kurds.”


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