An exiled director's representation of his own people, Kurds

KurdishCinema.com / May 2, 2007

By Devrim Kilic / Melbourne

Part 1

Introduction

Hiner Saleem, a Kurdish director living in France, has directed five
feature films; Long Live the Bride…Liberation of Kurdistan (1997) - this
film will be referred as Long Live the Bride in the rest of this essay -,
Beyond Our Dreams (2000), Vodka-Lemon (2003) which won the best
film award at Venice Film Festival in 2003, Kilometer Zero (2005) and
his most recent movie Dol (aka The Valley of Tambur) (2006).
Unfortunately Beyond our Dreams and Dol are not available on DVD’s
or VHS cassettes so this essay will only provide analyses of Long Live
the Bride, Vodka Lemon and Kilometer Zero. Also it should be stated
at first that I was only able to watch Long Live the Bride on SBS TV in Australia a few years
ago, as apparently no DVD version of this film available on the market either. That is why
my criticism of this film will only rely on my watching the film a few years ago.

Before analyzing these three films in detail a brief background of the director will be
provided in order to make it possible for the reader to gain a better understanding of
Saleem’s films as they are to a certain extent the reflection of the director’s life experience.
After that these three films will be closely analyzed so as to comprehend the characteristic
of the films and Saleem’s portrayal of Kurds in them as a Kurdish-French director.
Saleem’s portrayal of Kurdish people is important because although the director was
born in Kurdistan he has been living in France for more than 15 years. So this essay will
explore how a migrant or exile Kurdish director, in this case Hiner Saleem, portrays his
own people and his motherland in his films.

Film scholar Hamid Naficy explains in his book ‘
An Accented Cinema, Exilic and
Diasporic Fimmaking
’ that exiled directors tend to represents their motherland and their
nation with certain natural and cultural symbols such as “mountains, ancient monuments,
and ruins…” Furthermore Naficy states that this is especially the case with the directors
who belong to nations whose status are “in dispute, as with Palestinians, Kurds, and
Armenians.”(
Naficy, 160) As stated by Naficy, the statue of Kurds who live in the border of
four different states, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria are in dispute. And indeed the Kurdish
directors portray the Kurds and Kurdistan via some specific natural and cultural symbols;
like snow, high mountains, natural life or music. For example, this is the case with the
films of another Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi, from Iran. (Kilic,
www.kurdishcinema.
com) This essay will examine Saleem’s film in order to see if his representation of Kurds
contains such symbolic images. Moreover this essay will make the criticism of Saleem’s
film to see if his representation of Kurds has been influenced by his life experience in
France. Also a comparison will be made between the films of Hiner Saleem and the films
of Bahmah Ghobadi so as to see the differences in their representation of Kurds.

A brief background of Hiner Saleem

    Born in the city of Akkra in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1964 Hiner Saleem had
    to move out of Iraq in 1982. Saleem went first to Italy where he
    worked as a painter/caricaturist. Then he moved to France where
    he currently lives and works. It is said that Hiner Saleem did not
    attend any film school and his interest in cinema started when he
    was a child. Saleem tells us that while watching TV he had noticed
the presenter spoke in Arabic, so he decided to make a TV program that would be in the
Kurdish language. (Kutschera,
chris-kutschera.com) As he promised Saleem made two
films for TV, Dream Smugglers, and Absolitude.

Representation of Kurdish migrants of France by a migrant Kurdish director

Saleem’s first feature Long Live the Bride, set in
Paris, takes the life of Kurdish refugees/migrants
who, although living in France, have strong ties with
Kurdistan as a subject matter. The film portrays a
group of Kurds gathered around an association and
working for the “Liberation of Kurdistan” as the
film’s title tells us. This film is a pure comedy that
concentrates on the comical aspects of the life of
Kurdish political activists. Shot in the French and
Kurdish language Long Live the Bride is a kind of political satire. The protagonist Cheto,
played by French actor Georges Corraface, is a Kurdish migrant living in Paris. Cheto
chooses a beautiful Kurdish girl living in Kurdistan from her video image. Interestingly, the
girl who arrives happens to be to some extent “ugly” Mina, the sister of the girl who Cheto
has chosen. After that the film develops around this funny event. Cheto does not want to
marry Mina, played by Marina Kobakhidze, but the pressure of Kurdish society makes him
live with her. In time Mina changes and in the end she comes out as a beautiful woman.
But for Cheto now fallen-in-love with Mina, it is too late for everything.

Though there are some images from Kurdistan, Long Live the Bride mainly takes place in
France. I think an analysis of this film and its representation of Kurds will give us an idea
about the influence of Saleem’s life experience in France. The portrayal of Kurdish
migrants in this film caused some negative criticism of the Kurdish community of France.
Some Kurds blamed the filmmaker for making a false representation of Kurds. For
example Chris Kutschera, a famous French journalist, tells us that the reactions of
Kurdish audiences were different from the French audiences’ response to the film.

    “French filmgoers seem to love Hiner Saleem’s comedy which focuses on a lively
    community they largely ignored until the film came out. Kurdish audiences
    however, are divided. While most women love it, many Kurdish men do not like the
    image the film portrays, especially with regard to their relations with women. Many
    militants are also shocked by details which they consider to be ‘unrepresentative’;
    for example the film shows Kurdish militants who drink, who use force to collect the
    ‘revolutionary tax’, or who interrupt their mission to meet their French girl friends.”
    (Kutschera, chris-kutschera.com)

To me Saleem’s portrayal of Kurdish people in Long Live the Bride is to some extent
problematic. What is noteworthy is that in Saleem’s portrayal of Kurds there is a superior
look or outsider’s gaze involved. In this film Saleem ridicules the Kurdish political activists
by portraying them as ‘uneducated’ or not ‘westernized’ enough, at least as much as the
director. The way people talk to each other and the way in which they discuss the Kurdish
issue is rather exaggerated. The Kurds in Long Live the Bride, look strange and weird
especially while talking about the fate of Kurdistan. As if those Kurdish migrants in the film
were involved in the political activities just for ‘fun’ and the dialogue between them do not
provide any crucial knowledge about Kurds and Kurdistan. (Ghiyati,
chronicart.com)

The problem with this film is the level of exaggeration. It is said that exaggeration is a part
of the comedy. (Taflinger,
www.wsu.edu) What I want to say is that when exaggeration is
exaggerated too much it becomes somewhat problematic. And I think this is the case with
Long Live the Bride. From my point of view the negative response of the Kurdish
audiences, especially in France, is the result of this problematic portrayal or
representation of the Kurds in the film. According to Kutschera the Kurdish audiences
reacted negatively to the film because they believe the film’s portrayal of Kurds was not
realistic and was not based on absolute facts. And Kutschera proposes that Saleem’s
film does not have to be based on absolute facts because it is not a documentary.
Kutschera says: “…it is a comedy based on the lives of Kurdish exiles, torn between their
distant homeland and their new country’”. (Kutschera,
www.chris-kutschera.com)

    Indeed Long Live the Bride is not a documentary and therefore
    does not have to be based on absolute facts. Nevertheless this
    does not mean that making a comedy means just ‘ridiculing’
    people whom the film deals with. The way a filmmaker portrays
    certain characters and certain cultures can provide some idea
    about the directors’ cultural, social and even ideological
perspectives and attitudes towards the subjects of his/her films. And when audiences
conceive the attitudes of the director as ‘unsympathetic’ or as ‘being negative’ not
surprisingly the filmmaker may receive disapproving reactions. The problem with Long
Live the Bride has nothing to do with whether it is based on absolute facts. What I am
trying to say is that the excessive exaggeration in portrait of the Kurds creates some
problems. The Kurdish characters of Saleem do not even look like Kurds as they are
played mostly by non-Kurdish actors/actress. There are almost no characters, with which
especially Kurdish audiences can identify themselves, accept to some extent Mina. The
Kurds in Long Live Bride are inept in their involvement in political activities, especially
while they are meeting and discussing the fate of Kurdistan at the Kurdish association.
Saleem almost portrays them as a bunch of people who do not care very much about
Kurdistan at all. Throughout the film Saleem just makes fun of Kurds in order to criticize
“video marriages”. In Long Live the Bride the Kurds are not even able to deal properly with
their own ‘national’ issues. When I watched this film I first thought that the film was made
by a French or a Turkish director who does not sympathize with the Kurds at all. I believe a
film has to be impartial while being critical in portraying subcultures or different ethnicities
living within the context of a bigger society.

Long Live the Bride does not create much sympathy towards Kurds in the eyes of the
majority of the audiences. In this way its representation of Kurds causes negative
responses in the Kurdish audiences. Interestingly, after receiving negative reactions,
Saleem had to explain that he did not want to hurt the struggle of the Kurds and he is one
of the supporters of the Kurdish liberation movement. (Kutschera,
www.chris-kutschera.
com) In Long Live the Bride, Saleem projects a superior or an outsider’s look at Kurdish
migrants. Saleem is being superior because he is assimilated into French culture in
every way and he, certainly to a certain degree, becomes a westerner and portrays his
characters from a French perspective not a Kurdish one. I think Long Live the Bride
reveals how much Saleem has been influenced by French culture, to the extent that he
casts a troubled gaze at his own people.

On the other hand the Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi also, to some extent,
criticises Kurds and there is always comedy in his films. In Marooned in Iraq (2002) the
so called doctor character is portrayed as a selfish and greedy person who only thinks
about making money although there is a war and massacres going on in Kurdistan. He
even says “God bless Saddam, because of him I earn a lot of money” a line which would
disturb most Kurds. Yet on the other hand Ghobadi’s portrayal of the old Kurdish doctor is
not just based on ridicule. Later on in the film the doctor is also seen as an indirect victim
of Saddam’s regime. In one scene the doctor is seen sitting outside where everywhere is
covered by snows. He cries because he has been robbed by thieves.  

Criticism of patriarchal Kurdish society

Yet it cannot be said that all the Kurdish audiences reacted in the
same negative way towards the film. As stated by Kutschera, for
example most Kurdish women love the film as the film makes a
criticism of patriarchal Kurdish society. In fact by making the
criticism of male/female relationships in the Kurdish community
of France Long Live the Bride becomes a feminist film to a certain
degree. The final scene of the film is especially noteworthy. The film finishes with an
ironic scene in which a group of Kurdish young women are seen watching some video
images of some Kurdish men from Kurdistan in order to choose one of them as their
future husband. Thus the ending of the film becomes a pure satire and criticism of
patriarchal Kurdish culture.

Also it should be said that, in contrast to Naficy’s statement above, there are not much
symbolic images that represent Kurds and Kurdistan in this film. Although an exile
director, Saleem’s main focus is not on Kurds living in Kurdistan or on his desire or love
to his motherland but he is concentrated on the life of Kurdish migrants in France.

Portrayal of Kurds of Armenia

    Vodka Lemon, the third feature of Saleem, is a drama with a level of
    comedy. Set in a Kurdish village of Armenia during winter, Vodka
    Lemon is about a Kurdish man, Hamo. The Kurdish villagers in
    Vodka Lemon are so poor that they have to sell their households so
    as to survive another day or so. Hamo visits his ex-wife’s grave
    frequently and there he meets a beautiful mature woman, Nina, with
    whom Hamo falls for. He has three sons but only one of them is
    with him, the other two living abroad, one in France and the other in
    Turkmenistan. Hamo waits for the money his son will send from
France but at the end it is his son who asks for money. The story around Hamo is well
organized and sub-plots also works well: like the plight of the piano player girl Zine, and
Hamo’s granddaughter Avin's marriage with a Kurdish man.

part two