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

KurdishCinema.com / May 2, 2007

By Devrim Kilic / Melbourne

Part 2

Exposing cultural influence

In Vodka Lemon, Saleem exposes the influence of Armenian
and Russian cultures on Kurds living in Armenia. And the
director also shows in spite of everything the Kurds still
preserve their culture. The Kurdish villagers in Vodka Lemon
drink vodka-lemon all day including at the graves of their
loved ones. I think the images showing the Kurdish villagers
having a lot of alcohol all day in and outside of their home
represent the influence of Armenian and Russian cultures
on Kurds. In Kurdistan this would not be the case as the majority of Kurds are Muslim and
influenced by the Arabic culture. Nonetheless one has to consider the fact that the Kurdish
villagers in Vodka Lemon are not Muslim but Yezidi which is a distinct faith or religion of
certain Kurds.

Also the dressing of Kurdish villagers gives some idea about the Armenian cultural
influence on the Kurdish villagers. The Kurds in Armenia are represented as wearing
trousers, skirts and jackets. But the Kurds in Kurdistan dress in traditional Kurdish
dresses which is the case in Ghobadi’s film. (Kilic,
www.kurdishcinema.com)

Another indicator of cultural interaction is the languages spoken in the film. The Kurdish
villagers speak Kurdish, Armenian and Russian, not only with others but also with each
other. This means that the Kurdish villagers have close relationship with Armenians and
Russians in Armenia and indicates that the Kurds are assimilated sufficiently into the
Armenian and Russian cultures.

Likewise the structure of the houses in the Kurdish-Armenian village does not resemble
the traditional village houses of Kurdistan which is well portrayed in the films of Bahman
Ghobadi. (Kilic,
www.kurdishcinema.com)

    On the other hand, it could be said that in general Kurdish
    culture is patriarchal and has very strict restrictions; and
    thanks to the influence of the Islam, the main religion of
    Kurds, the most prohibited and unexpected thing for a
    woman is having sex out of marriage. In this sense the
    scene in which Dilovan and Romik talks about Avin’s
pregnancy is important. Sitting outside on chairs, Dilovan tells Romik that his daughter,
Avin, is not a virgin anymore. Apparently Romik’s son had sex with his daughter. Normally
in any ordinary Kurdish village when a woman gets pregnant before marriage this creates
big problems like fighting between families. Even in some cases the woman who gets
pregnant before marriage gets killed by one of her own family members. As the family
claims that the woman dirties her family honour. Most importantly not many Kurds would
discuss these kinds of issues outside of their houses as they would not want any other
villagers to hear of it. So this scene too shows the effect of Armenian and Russian
cultures on Yezidi Kurds in Armenia. In this respect the Kurds in Vodka Lemon are
represented as secular and open minded people than the Kurds in Kurdistan. What
draws attention is the wedding ceremony of Romik’s son and Dilovan’s daughter Avin. At
the wedding ceremony the sound of duduk (a kind of flute) connotes Kurdish-Armenian
culture but the way the bride and groom greet the people is unusual. The groom brings
Avin holding her up in his arms and they sit on a platform facing the crowd. Interestingly
there is no Kurdish folk dance. Another point is the song heard during the wedding scene.
A woman sings a French love song. Interestingly this is the same song the bus driver was
singing during Hamo and Nina’s return from the cemetery. To me this French song could
also be another indicator of cultural influence on Kurds of Armenia.

Emphasizing the Kurdishness through the use of Kurdish language and songs

In terms of emphasizing the idea of Kurdishness Vodka
Lemon does not significantly refer to it. For instance, the
word ‘Kurdistan’ is never heard but only appears twice on a
poster sent by Hamo’s son from Paris. Yet at the post office
scene Hamo proudly declares that he is a ‘Kurdish Yezidi.’
By describing himself as “Kurdish Yezidi” Hamo also
speaks of his religious faith. ‘Yezidism’ is the distinct
religion of certain Kurds. What is significant is that Kurdish
villagers do not talk about the situation of their mother
country Kurdistan. It is noteworthy that in Long Live the Bride
and Kilometer Zero the characters have some strong
connections with Kurdistan, whereas in Vodka Lemon this
connection is so weak. In the two films mentioned above there is some dialogue and
scenes that refer to the Kurds or Kurdistan but interestingly Vodka Lemon does not
emphasizes on the social life of Kurds and does not refer to the plight of the Kurdish
people as a nation. I think the reason for that is the fact Vodka Lemon, as Tom
Birchenough suggests is not a social commentary; “In the hands of another director
‘Vodka Lemon’ could have emphasized social commentary. Saleem, however, avoids that
direction…” (Birchenough,
www.themoscowtimes.com)

The most important way in which Vodka Lemon emphasizes the Kurdishness of its
characters is by the use of Kurdish language and songs. Vodka Lemon, in its use of
Kurdish language, reveals the fact that the Kurdish villagers still preserve their culture and
ethnic identity despite living in a remote village of Armenia. Hence instead of making the
characters talk about the plight of Kurdish people, Saleem uses the Kurdish language to
highlight the Kurdish culture.

Furthermore the use of Kurdish music plays a crucial role in strengthening the idea of
Kurdishness. The heartbreaking Kurdish song in the opening scene is so emotional. It is
a classical Kurdish song and probably there is no Kurd who would not feel something in
his/her heart while listening to it. From my perspective, Hiner Saleem, by opening the film
with this beautiful and affective classical Kurdish song, tries to create a “Kurdish colour” at
the beginning of his film. Another Kurdish song is heard when Hamo and Nina return
from the cemetery. They drink vodka-lemon and sing a beautiful Kurdish love song. The
third time we hear a Kurdish song is in the scene that shows Romik, Hamo and some
other villagers sitting at Romik’s house.  

Also, it should be stated, the names of the characters highlight the idea of Kurdishness in
Vodka Lemon. Many characters in Vodka Lemon have Kurdish names such as Hamo’s
son Dilovan, Dilovan’s daughter Avin and Nina’s daughter Zine. All these names also
indicate that Kurds preserve their culture by giving Kurdish names to their daughters and
son.  

Moreover the beautiful snow covered landscape and the scenes during the nights in
Vodka Lemon are extraordinary in terms of cinematography. But I think Saleem by setting
his films in winter times and reflecting the snow covered landscapes surrounded by high
snowy mountains connotes his desire to Kurdistan. As explained above migrant or exiled
directors tend to represent their nation or motherland by specific symbolic images. In this
sense the snow covered landscape and high snowy mountains in Vodka Lemon are the
images that denote Kurdistan which is the motherland of Hiner Saleem.

The Kurds as the victims of the Saddam

Kilometer Zero, set mainly in Iraq during Iran-Iraq war in late 1980s, is partly
a road movie. The film develops around a Kurdish man, Ako, who wants to
escape from Iraq so as not to join the Iraqi army, but his wife, Selma,
cannot leave Iraq before his sick father dies. Later on Ako, even though he
is against the war, has to join the Iraqi army unwillingly. While in the army at
the Basra front in South Iraq he is summoned to return for the funeral of a
soldier to his family in Iraqi Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. After that the film
focuses on Ako’s journey. Accompanying him is an Arab driver with whom Ako has some
‘ethnic’ arguments. Finally Ako flees to France with his wife and there they learn the fall of
Saddam in 2003.

Kilometer Zero, -a drama with a political aspect-, makes direct references to the
Kurdishness of its characters and the cruelties of Saddam Hussein’s regime while
portraying the plight of Kurdish people. The Kurds in this film are seen to be teased,
beaten, tortured and killed by Iraqi soldiers. Also interesting is the relationship between
ordinary Arabs and Kurds represented through Ako and his Arab driver. The scenes that
show the Iraqi soldiers killing Kurdish men who are accused of being traitors are striking
as the killings are seen from the eyes of a Kurdish man Ako who is also an Iraqi soldier.

Innocent Kurds

The film opens in Paris showing Ako driving a car, and next to him is his wife, Selma.
They are listening to a radio station which gives recent news about the US lead invasion
of Iraq in 2003. Then, via a flashback the film goes back to Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988. There
Ako, wearing his pajamas, is seen walking in a street with bread in one hand.

    Suddenly military cars appear and
    soldiers harshly descend on the
    people. They search and beat people
    who later on are taken to a nearby
    military headquarter. At the entrance of
    a military building an Iraqi
    commander stops a fat man, Salih,
    and asks if he is a Kurd. The fearful
    Salih says “I am an Arab.” The
    commander repeats his question.
    This time Salih acknowledges his
    being a Kurd. The commander makes
him step all the way down without turning his back. Later commander says “Since you are
a Kurd you dance well” and so the fat Kurdish man is forced to run back and forth and
then, dance. What is interesting with this scene is that there are clear references to the
ethnicity of the characters namely that they re Kurds and Arabs. Also by showing the Iraqi
soldiers beating and teasing the Kurds, Kilometer Zero creates some sympathy towards
Kurds. There is a polarization of oppressor and oppressed mirrored as cruel Iraqi
soldiers versus innocent Kurds.   

In the following scene at the military headquarter Ako sees an Iraqi soldier shooting a
man, most probably a Kurd, on his head. Once it is understood Ako is not an army
deserter he is freed. In the next scene, while running back to his home Ako encounters
some Iraqi soldiers who took him to the military headquarter. He slows down in fear and
the soldiers ask him to jump in the car but Ako just says “No thank you”. Nevertheless the
soldiers threaten him and then go. Yet in fear Ako salutes the departing soldiers. Ako’s
salute to the Iraqi soldiers who abuse him reveals how much the Kurdish people are
subjugated and frightened by the Saddam regime.

Kurds: agents of imperialist

At the end of the day Ako has to join the Iraqi army. On his first day in
military camp Ako witnesses the killing of several Kurds. Before the
shooting began we see an Arab soldier saying “These are the Kurds
who helped the enemy”, a line which makes the Kurdish soldiers
angry. In this scene I think the film tries to reveal the problems
between the Kurds and Arabs of Iraq. The speech of the Iraqi
commander at the military base before the killings is attention
grabbing: “We have domestic enemies too. The traitor Kurds are the agents of
imperialists and Zionists,” Indeed the Kurds have always been accused of being
accomplice of ‘imperialism’ while all the accusers were/are supported by those very
imperialists states, like Iraq and Turkey. These kinds of scenes give an idea about the
gravity of the massacre the Kurds had been subjected to during the Saddam era. There is
a statue of Saddam Hussein that we see in the film. “The movie is haunted by Saddam’s
pervasive image, his statues, his self-infatuated voice on the radio.” (Dupont,
International
Herald Tribune
) And I think Saddam’s statue implies Saddam Hussein’s responsibility in
the killing of Kurds by Iraqi state forces.

Kurds fighting for their enemy

Strikingly in Kilometre Zero the Kurds are portrayed as people who have to fight for their
enemies, in this case for Saddam regime. Kilometer Zero shows how the Kurds are
murdered ruthlessly in the blink of an eye by Iraqi soldiers but yet they are forced to join
the Iraqi army to fight against Iran. But while being a soldier in the Iraqi army the Kurds are
still abused, insulted and “shipped off to the front as bomb and missile fodder in the war
with the neighbouring Iran.” (Young,
Variety) In fact Ako does not want to go to war but life
forces him to join army. His unwillingness is shown in some scenes. While they are at
the Basra front, Ako says “Why are we fighting for? What am I doing here?” One of his
friend answers him; “We are fighting for Iraq not for Kurdistan.” So Ako decides to find a
way out of the war zone. When Ako is summoned to take the corpse of a soldier to his
family he accepts the duty willingly. After that the film focuses on Ako’s journey to Iraqi
Kurdistan with his Arab driver.

Revealing ethnic and cultural differences through the journey

During the journey there is not much conversation between Ako and his Arab driver but
occasionally some ethnic tension arises between the two. For example after eating some
food at one of their breaks Ako wipes his mouth with the Iraqi flag wrapped around the
coffin, an act that connotes Ako’s hatred towards Iraqi states. But the Arab driver gets
angry with Ako and says “You Kurdish people are traitors”. Besides the scene, towards
the end of the film, that shows Ako first playing/dancing with Iraqi flag and then kicking,
tearing off that very flag is worth mentioning.

    In line with Naficy’s point above, there are some
    images and cultural elements that denote the
    distinct Kurdish culture and Kurdistan. For example
    at a certain point in their journey Kurdish music is
    heard in the back ground indicating that the two have
    arrived in the Kurdish area. When they enter the
    mountainous Kurdistan region Ako gets out of the
    car and kneels down to kiss the land demonstrating
    his desire and love for Kurdistan. The Arab driver
    also likes the landscape of Kurdistan and says “It is
like a heaven”. But once Ako says “This is Kurdistan” the driver gets angry again and says
“There is no Kurdistan, this is Iraq, Iraq!” In one of the following scenes, the Arab driver is
seen listening to an Arabic song while they are in Kurdistan. This time Ako gets angry and
turns off the cassette player. They pull over the car to talk about their ethnic identity and
cultural difference, but interestingly enough none of them starts the discussion;
conversely they beat each other. I have to say that the dialogues between Kurdish Ako and
the Arab driver are not that influential though they emphasize fact that “there is little
possibility of ever finding much common ground between them”. (Kutschera,
www.chris-
kutschera.com) Yet Samir Farid, an Arabic film critic, thinks that the journey sequence is
crudely executed.

    “One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is why Saleem failed to make the
    nameless Arab driver a rounded character- conscious decision, it would seem-
    though one wonders whether the answer to Arab racism is Kurdish racism. The
    film, is not devoid, however, of poignancy in the way it depicts Kurdish-Arab
    relations: the moment at which Ako and the driver discuss the conflict, for example,
    each from his vantage point; they are hurling hostile questions at each other and
    when the questions remain unanswered, in the end, the viewer does not feel that
    either party is in the wrong.” (Farid, weekly.ahram.org)

Secular Kurds, religious Arabs

Furthermore in terms of revealing cultural differences between Kurds and Arabs, the film
portrays the Kurds as more secular. In one of earlier scenes, the Arab driver asks Ako if
he has any children. Ako shows him the picture of his son and his wife. When Ako asks if
the Arab driver has any picture of his family, interestingly the driver only shows the picture
of his son, covering the picture of his wife with his hand. Seeing that makes Ako angry and
he says “As if I am going to eat her!” Also, in one of the other scenes, the Arab driver is
seen praying while Ako stands up staring at the landscape. I think that in these scenes
Kurdish culture is being represented as a secular, in contrast to Arabs who are portrayed
as non-secular people.

Use of landscape to alienate the audience

During the journey only a few people and small buildings appear on the screen. All we
see are some soldiers, an executed person, a shop keeper and two praying people.
There is no trace of life around, only Ako, his Arab driver and the coffin on top of their car.
The landscape is not that attractive and the way the camera reflects it, not just during the
journey but also in the Kurdish area, is not that effective. The representation of bare and
unattractive landscape during the journey helps alienating the viewers from Saddam
regime and depicts the confinement of Ako and the Kurdish people in Iraq under Saddam
regime.

Corresponding to general tendency of migrant director in depicting their motherland, in
Kilometer Zero there are high mountains representing Kurds and Kurdistan along with
some Kurdish music. But what should be stated is that Saleem’s portrayal of Kurdistan’s
landscape is not that attractive and does not create significant dramatic effect. Yet there
are some dialogue the refer Kurds’ love towards their country. For example, in one of the
other earlier scenes, some Kurdish soldiers are seen in the back of a military vehicle
going down to the Basra front. One of them, Salih, says “Look at those Kurdistan
Mountains, we will not see them again.” But the way the mountains and the landscape are
reflected, not just in this scene but throughout the film, does not create significant
dramatic effect, at least from my perspective.

Conclusion

This essay analyzed three films of Hiner Saleem who is a migrant Kurdish director living
in France so as to understand his portrayal of Kurds. Long Live the Bride, a comedy,
reflects the life of Kurdish migrant living in France. In Long Live the Bride the director
criticizes the way Kurdish men choose a wife and in Saleem’s depiction of migrant Kurds
is not very sympathetic as there is a kind of ‘superior’ look involved. On the other hand
the portrayal of Kurds in Vodka Lemon is more sympathetic, also it is the case in
Kilometer Zero.

Vodka Lemon pictures the life struggle of Kurdish villagers in a mountainous and snow
covered landscape of Armenia with a dramatic/lyric way. And the beautiful landscape of
this film is reminiscent of Kurdistan’s landscape. I think the resemblance has something
to do with the director’s desire to his homeland. As explained above, mountains and
snow are the some specific geographic symbols used by exiled directors to represent
their motherland. In Kilometre Zero the film is driven mainly by dialogues. There are direct
references to the plight of Kurds and Kurdistan. The dialogues play significant role in
Long Live the Bride also.

The director shows the Kurds in Kilometer Zero as a people who are oppressed under
Saddam regime and who have to flee their country, as represented in Ako character, as a
result of the oppression. Whereas in Vodka Lemon the Kurds represented as living in
harmony with other ethnicities and cultures, such as Armenian and Russians, in
Kilometer Zero the Kurds are shown as having great and insoluble problems with Arabs
of Iraq.

What should also be noted is that Saleem films are a mixture of Kurdish and French
cultural elements. The languages, songs, dialogue or even the topics of his films always
have something to do with France. For example in Long Live the Bride the characters
live in France, in Vodka Lemon  Hamo’s son lives in Paris, and Ako runs to France in
Kilometer Zero. I think the ‘French connection’ in Saleem’s films as the natural result of
his life experience in France and making his films financed through some French
production companies or institutions. For instance in Vodka Lemon the use of the French
song and the fact that one of Hamo’s son lives in France, to some extent, have something
to do with Saleem’s endeavor of trying to put as many ‘French elements’ as possible into
the film in order to get French financial support for shooting and distribution of his film.
Apparently those French elements weren’t enough, as certain French institutions did not
provide the expected financial support on the basis that there weren’t enough “French”
words in Vodka Lemon. (
www.wikipedia.com)

Another point is that while Long Live the Bride and Kilometer Zero make direct references
about Kurds and Kurdistan, in Vodka Lemon there are lesser direct references about
Kurds. In Long Live the Bride and Vodka Lemon Saleem concentrates on the life of
Kurdish migrants or the Kurds who live outside of Kurdistan but in Kilometer Zero Saleem
turns his camera to Kurdistan and focuses on the plight of Kurds living there. In Vodka
Lemon Saleem shows us that the daily life of the Kurds living in Armenia or in other
countries such as France, differs from the daily life of Kurds living in Kurdistan, be it
villagers or city dwellers. For example drinking alcohol at someone’s grave would not be
appropriate in Kurdistan, but in Armenia and maybe in somewhere else in the world
where the Kurds live, it is a part of the local culture.

Works Cited

Birchenough, Tom. ‘Bittersweet Cocktail’. March 4, 2005. themoscowtimes.com 13 March
2007   http:// context.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2005/03/04/110.html

Dupont, Joan. ‘Making a movie in and on Iraq’. International Herald Tribune. May 12, 2005.
www.nytimes. http://www.nytimes.com/iht/2005/05/12/movies/12cannes02.html?
pagewanted=print&po28/09/2006.

F. Taflinger, Richard. ‘Sitcom; What It Is, How It Works
A Theory of Comedy Sitcom.’ Chapter Six; A Theory of Comedy
www.wsu.edu  2 April 2007. http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~taflinge/theory.html 30 May 1996.  

Farid, Samir. ‘The way of the Kurd’. Al Ahram weekly online magazine. 19 - 25 May 2005
Issue No. 743.  http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/743/cu1.htm  1 May 2007

Ghiyati,  Karim. ‘Vive la mariée... Ou la libération du Kurdistan’
www.chronicart.com 14 April 2007
http://www.chronicart.com/cine/cine_ensalles.php3?id=347

Kilic, Devrim. ‘The representation of Kurdish Identity and Culture in the Films of Bahman
Ghobadi’ www.kurdishcinema.com  15 April 2007 http://www.kurdishcinema.
com/KurdsinBahmanGhobadi.html  26 December 2005

Kutschera, Chris. ‘Kurdistan Iraq: Hiner Saleem, Film Director; Long live the Bride... and
the Liberation of Kurdistan’ www.chris-kutschera.com 12 October 2006
http://www.chris-kutschera.com/A/Hiner%20Saleem.htm

-------------------  ‘Kurdistan Iraq: Out of Exile, Hiner Saleem Tells the Joys and Sadness of
Coming Home’. www.chris-kutschera.com  16 December 2006
http://www.chris-kutschera.com/A/Hiner.htm

Naficy, Hamid.  ‘An Accented Cinema. Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking’ Princeton
University Press, Princeton, N.J. 2001. 160

‘Vodka Lemon’ wikipedia.com  14 March 2007 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vodka_Lemon   
4 March 2007

Young, Deborah. ‘Review of: Kilometer Zero’. Variety, May 10, 2005. www.variety.com 11
February 2007
http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117927067?categoryid=31&cs=1 12 May 2005

return to part 1

Devrim Kilic's other articles:

1- Representation of Kurdish Identity and Culture in the Films of Bahman Ghobadi

2- Narcissus should Blossom

3- Criticism of cultural biases and celebration of love!

4- Kiarostami’s portrayal of Kurds in ‘A taste of cherry’ and ‘The wind will carry us’