The representation of Kurdish identity and culture in the films of Bahman Ghobadi - I

Monday, December 26, 2005

KurdishMedia.com - By Devrim Kilic

Part One:

“…Their history is a history of exodus. It is a history of people always on the move. In this sense
they have something in common with the cinema, which is the art of movement.” (Bahman
Ghobadi)

Bahman Ghobadi, a Kurdish-Iranian director, has directed three feature films; A Time for
Drunken Horses (2000) Marooned in Iraq (2003) and Turtles Can Fly (2005) Ghobadi appeared
on the international arena when his first feature, A Time for Drunken Horses, won the Camera d’
Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. In his films Ghobadi reflects the plight of Kurdish
people in a neo-realist type style. The Kurds, in Ghobadi’s films, are portrayed as of a distinct
ethnicity whose “country” is divided by borders. In Ghobadi’s films the Kurds are a people who
are restricted by the geography and harsh climate of Kurdistan. His films are very significant
because the Kurds are rarely taken as the subject matter of films. Moreover, apart from A Song
for Beko directed by Nizamettin Aric in 1992, and Blackboards directed by Iranian Samira
Makmalbaf in 2000, for the first time the Kurdish language has been used as the main language
in a film that has won international film awards. Ghobadi’s three films draw attention to the daily
life of Kurds in a very realistic manner. In his films, the Kurdish land is depicted as an area that
is divided by borders, filled with land mines and devastated by wars. His films show the Kurds
as a people who are caught ‘in-between’ borders and are reduced to being smugglers in their
native land. Ghobadi’s films are also important because they could be considered as
milestones of an emerging Kurdish Cinema.

This thesis will analyze Ghobadi’s three feature films in order to investigate in what way Kurdish
culture is represented on screen. In addition, this thesis aims to understand the political and
cultural meanings of his films for the Kurdish people. First of all, a brief historical background of
the Kurds will be provided for the reader to help comprehend the reality of the Kurds.
Subsequently, Ghobadi’s films are to be scrutinized in terms of the ways in which they represent
the Kurdish landscape, the importance of borders, and the reality of Kurdistan as a region
without internationally recognized national borders.

Above all, I should say that in the course of my research on Ghobadi’s cinema I have
encountered many difficulties. Namely, my thesis topic is a very recent and current one and
therefore there is not a lot of academic scholarship on Ghobadi’s films or Kurdish identity in
cinema generally As a result, I have had to rely mainly on articles published on the web. The
articles I was able to obtain mainly come from popular film and cinema magazines. Some
others are little more than film reviews in newspapers. Additionally, a small number of articles I
found were in Kurdish language web sites or newspapers, including several interviews with
Bahman Ghobadi. On a more personal note, the other difficulty that emerged in the process of
writing the thesis is the fact that I myself am Kurdish. Therefore, I found it very difficult to separate
myself from the topic as a student who is writing an objective academic work. I consistently tried
to be impartial and keep my own feelings to one side, but I would like to acknowledge the
difficulty of doing so when addressing issues that have a direct relevance to my life.

The subject or theme of Ghobadi’s cinema is the plight of the Kurds, and the style or form
through which he expresses that content is drawn from the neo-realist and documentary
traditions. In his films the shooting technique, hand held camera, the use of natural sound, the
use of non-professional actors are all of note in this regard. I think Ghobadi’s preference for the
neo-realist style is very appropriate in terms of the cinematic reflection of Kurds because the
plight of the Kurds is of very real and immediate concern. In order to characterize the reality of
Kurds, the neo-realist-documentary approach seems the most appropriate. Ghobadi’s films are
rich in terms of the vivid vision of the Kurds, Kurdish culture and landscape. His films in every
ways praise the Kurds’ life: they denote the ‘pure reality’ of the Kurdish people and create
sympathy towards the Kurds. All three of Ghobadi’s features are films that are shot from the
perspective of the Kurds, by a Kurdish filmmaker for the Kurdish people. Most importantly the
language spoken and heard in his films is Kurdish. That is why they are of unique importance for
Kurds because throughout the history of cinema only a few films have taken the Kurds as a
subject matter and used their language as well. This point will to be clarified in the following
chapters. Additionally, for the first time films for the Kurds by a Kurdish director have drawn
international attention. His films represent every aspect of life in the Kurdish lands: there is the
harsh and cold Kurdistan climate, the huge snowy mountains that dominate the landscape, the
attention to the way they dress, the way they behave with each other, the way they organize their
cultural ceremonies. And, equally importantly, he deals with the issue of geographical borders,
landmines and the impact of war on the Kurds.

Kurds, with a population of approximately 40 million, do not have their own independent state yet.
Their land has been occupied by four countries Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurds are not
represented in any international institution and are not recognized by most of the world. That is
why Ghobadi’s determination in showing the reality of Kurdistan and the Kurds by representing
Kurdish life and culture in his films is very significant for the Kurds. Prior to Ghobadi there was a
famous Kurdish director from Turkey, Yilmaz Guney whose films The Way and The Herd won
international acclaim and prizes. Though, while his films portrayed Kurdish culture and life,
because of political and legal restrictions placed on him by the Turkish State, his films were
made in the Turkish language. In no way was he allowed to use the Kurdish language (except
some Kurdish music) in his films.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ghobadi is trying to help bring about the creation of a
Kurdish Cinema. While it is not the intention of this thesis to discuss the broader issue of the
emergence of a Kurdish Cinema, I do want to mention that there are an increasing number of
films dealing with the Kurdish people coming out of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and from the Kurdish
diaspora generally. Despite the fact that not all of them are as “Kurdish” as Ghobadi’s films and
not all of them are in the Kurdish language, still, these films can be seen as part of the new
emerging Kurdish Cinema movement. Some of those films are from Iran, such as Blackboards,
Legend of Love, Black Tape, The Wind Will Carry Us; from Turkey, Big Man Small Love,
Photograph, Far Away, Land, Journey to the Sun; from Iraq, Jiyan, and from the Kurdish
diasporas, Vodka Lemon. It is obvious that films about Kurds, including Bahman Ghobadi’s,
came into existence as a result of the changes in the status-quo of Kurds. There is a certain
connection between what I call the rise of a Kurdish film movement and the rise of Kurds and the
‘Kurdish issue’ on the international diplomatic stage. In particular, after First Gulf War in 1991,
Kurds have been a popular topic in the international arena in terms of political and cultural
agendas. Moreover, with the USA’s determination to intervene politically and militarily within
countries like Iraq, Iran and Syria, the Kurds have gained more prominence on the stage of
international politics. Therefore, these changing circumstances have offered an opportunity for
Kurds to express their plight by means of films. Before commencing a analysis of Ghobadi’s
films proper, it may be of value to the reader to provide a short overview of Kurdish history so as
to better understand the broader issues that inform Ghobadi’s cinema.

AN OVERVIEW OF KURDS AND KURDISH HISTORY

The Kurds are said to be the largest ethnicity that does not have its own state in the
contemporary world. (Houston, Christopher. 2001. Islam, Kurds and the Turkish Nation State.
p99) The Kurds mostly live within the boundaries of four countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
The estimated population of the Kurds varies between 20 and 40 million within the region.
(White. 15-16), (McDowall. The Kurds. pp.5-8) Although having resided for at least two thousand
years in the Middle East, the Kurds have not been able to establish their own independent
national state. The language they speak is Kurdish and the land they live on is called Kurdistan,
which means “land of Kurds’ or ‘where Kurds live’. The Kurdish language has four main
dialects, namely Kirmanchi, Sorani, Zazaki, and Gorani. The most common dialect of the Kurdish
language is Kirmanchi. (McDowall.2004. pp.9-10)

According to Kurdish mythology, Kurds are descended of people who fled to the mountains to
save their lives from the oppression of the despotic Iranian King Zahhak. It is believed that the
people who fled and hid in the mountains over the course of history created a Kurdish ethnicity.
(Bulloch and Morris. p50) Mountains, to this day, are still important geographical and symbolic
figures in Kurdish life.

Although there are no formal borders (or official diplomatic recognition), Kurdistan is an area
about the size of modern France. “The Kurds have lived in a mountainous, roughly 74,000-
square-mile region known as Kurdistan for the past two millennia.” (Brunner.) Historically late in
creating a nationalist sense and forming a national state, the Kurds, especially in the 20th
century, have been subject to oppression by other ruling states. They have fought for
independence and resisted the ruling states numerous times throughout the 20th century, but
for various reasons, they have not as yet succeeded in achieving their goal of creating a nation
state. (Gerard.) After the Lausanne Treaty signed in 1923, Kurdistan was recognized as a region
but not a State. (Gerard. p5) Consequently, the Kurds remained within the borders of different
countries.

KURDS IN TURKEY

Turkey is the country where the largest concentration of Kurds live. The largest part of Kurdistan
is under the control of the Turkish state, which has not recognized the existence of Kurdish
ethnicity until recently. (Bulloch and Morris. 1992- p51) It is believed that there are between 10-20
million Kurds living in Turkey, mostly in eastern Turkey. (White. pp16-17) There is no official or
accurate information about the Kurdish population in Turkey on account of the Turkish state’s
historical denial of the existence of Kurds as a distinct culture and people. The official Turkish
ideology claims that there is no such ethnicity as Kurds and there is no language as Kurdish.
According to official Turkish ideology, the Kurds are “mountainous Turks” who forgot to speak
Turkish and created a kind of “mountain language”. (Bulloch and Morris. pp166-189) As a
consequence of this official perspective, the life for Kurds has not been easy in Turkey. As a
result of Turkey’s recent demand to join the European Union the oppression on the Kurdish
language and culture has been eased, but by no means can it be said that the Kurds are free in
Turkey. However, the Kurds have at least become a reality that can no longer be denied by
Turkish state.

Kurds have been denied in Turkish cinema too. There are quite a number of Turkish films
dealing with Kurds and Kurdistan, but in these films the Kurds are portrayed as feudal Turks,
and the Kurdish language could not find any room in these films at all. There is an exception in
the case of the famous Kurdish filmmaker Yilmaz Guney. His films The Way and The Herd for the
first time portrayed Kurdish culture and Kurdish land as being distinct from the Turkish culture.
Moreover, in The Way the name “Kurdistan” appears on the screen when one of the characters
arrives at a Kurdish city. That was enough to ban the film in Turkey (Cutschera. interview with
Yilmaz Guney) (Jonroy. http://www.newrozfilms.com/yol.htm) It can be said that Turkish cinema
throughout its history portrayed and reflected Kurds as Turkish by every means possible.

KURDS IN IRAN

The Kurds constitute approximately 10 % of the Iranian population, numbering around 6 million.
Although there is a province called Kurdistan in western Iran, it cannot be said that there is no
tension between the Kurds and the Iranian state. Although Iran does not deny the existence of
Kurdish culture and language, it does not allow any Kurdish ‘nationalist’ movement to take seed
within its borders.

Iranians and Kurds have been accepted as “relative nations” by many historians. For this
reason, the Kurds are often mistaken as being Iranian or Persian by the international
community. In fact, there are more similarities between Kurdish culture and Iranian culture than
between Turkish and Kurdish culture, but still Kurdish and Iranian cultures are very different. As
one writer puts it:

“Kurds and Persians are as similar and as different as, say the Italians and the French. No one
would mistake an Italian film (or their music or food) with France’s even though both nations are
Latin, do share borders, have the same religion, and speak branches of the same language
group- as do Persians and Kurds of Iran.”(Akrami, Jamsheed. newrozfilms.com)

When it comes to Iranian cinema, the portrayal of Kurds and Kurdish culture go hand in hand
with the political tensions between the Kurds and Iranian authorities. Excluding Ghobadi’s three
films, there are more than 5 Iranian films directly dealing with Kurdish life and in all of them
Kurds are depicted as Kurdish not as Iranian. Some of these films are; The Wind Will Carry Us,
a film made by famous Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, and The Legend of Love, The
Blackboards and The Blacktape.

KURDS IN IRAQ

The Kurdish population in Iraq is around 5 millions making up approximately 25 % of Iraq’s
population. (McDowall. 2004. p3) The Kurds in Iraq have struggled for freedom throughout the
20th century but could not succeed in their goal. When the Kurds rose in 1920s in Iraq, there was
a British administration in the region, and the British did not see the Kurds’ demand for freedom
as useful to their national agenda. Hence, they oppressed the Kurdish uprising and created the
modern state called Iraq. (McDowall. A Modern History of The Kurds. pp151-183)

Currently Iraq is the only country where the Kurds enjoy a degree of moderate national freedom.
They established two separate Kurdish Governments in Northern Iraq as a consequence of
American and British interference and involvement in Iraq since 1991. (McDowall. 2004. pp368-
394) There is now one united Kurdistan Regional Government in north of Iraq. Also, the present
president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani is of Kurdish descent, and the latest Iraq Constitution
recognizes autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan. So it could be said that at least the Kurds in Iraq are
now enjoying their freedom despite the intimidation of Turkey, Iran and other dominant forces in
the region.

KURDS IN SYRIA

There are over 1 million Kurds living in Syria. What is interesting in the case of Syria is that Kurds
are not even accepted as Syrian citizens. Hence, they are deprived of even the most basic
human rights. That is why they cannot buy land or any real estate, or organize a political party.
While Syrian authorities do not deny the existence of Kurds in their country, by denying the right of
citizenship to them, they consequently render them as refugees in their own land.

CHAPTER 1: THE USE OF LANDSCAPE IN GHOBADI’S FILMS

The use of landscape is of central importance in Ghobadi’s films. Gobadi shows, especially by
means of wide-angle shots, the beauty of Kurdistan’s landscape; namely, the huge snowy
mountains, snow covered villages, and dusty roads. The representation of landscape through
hand held camera creates a documentary feel in Ghobadi’s films. He pays special attention to
landscape, which plays an important part in representing Kurdistan and Kurdish life. For
example, in A Time for Drunken Horses the snow covered high mountains exist as a quasi-
permanent panorama throughout the film. The image of a mountain is a central symbol for
Kurds. Kurdistan is a high mountainous geographical area that runs between Eastern Anatolia
and the Mesopotamia region. The image of Kurds and Kurdistan can be, in a sense, equated
with mountains and snow. A Kurdish proverb and belief says, “There is no friend of the Kurds but
the mountains”. In fact, there is even a book about Kurdish history titled “No Friends but The
Mountains” written by two English journalists, John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, after Gulf War in
1991. As one writer notes: “Moreover, the idea of Kurdistan for many Kurds is also characterized
by an almost mystical view of ‘the mountain’, an imaginary as well as a real place.” (McDowall.
2004. p3). Early in the film a group of children are seen getting on to the back of a ute near a
bazaar as the vehicle starts its journey along the snowy mountains. The trip towards the
mountains in the middle of snow-covered landscape is an excellent reflection of Kurdistan and it
is crucial in showing the importance of snow and mountains in Kurds’ life.
Two of children at the back of the vehicle start to sing in Kurdish, one line of their song being:
“Life is making me older and bringing me closer to dead by taking me around the mountains
and valleys.”

Once the vehicle comes close to a border crossing, the driver says “Iraqi boys get down”. Two
children get down and run on snow towards the mountains. They are going to pass the border by
walking over the snowy mountains. We see them from the perspective of the other children
inside the vehicle. The children at the back of the ute look like captives. It seems as if they are
confined in the harsh climate and landscape of their land. On the other hand, when Iranian
soldiers stop the vehicle at the border passing they discover notebooks on children and
confiscate them. The children are being used to smuggle notebooks into Iran. Accordingly, the
vehicle is impounded and the driver arrested. As for the children, they must walk their way back
to their village through the snow, wind and cold. Obviously, this is not the first time they have had
to walk back to their village through the snow. It looks like they are used to it. It is the reality of
their daily existence. One composition is striking: an expanse of white snow and a little bit of the
sky fills the image as the children appear at the far end of the frame running through this
expanse of whiteness as the howling of wolves can be heard in the background. This scene
perfectly reflects life, for snow and cold weather is the reality of Kurdistan’s climate. Being a high
mountainous country, most of Kurdistan is covered under the snow for more than 6 months of
the year. Ghobadi explains the importance of snow in Kurdish life as follow: “I cannot picture
Kurdistan without cold and snow. All my memories of Kurdistan are somehow winter memories,
maybe because all wars and political turmoil in the area have happened in the winter.” (Ghobadi.
Interview by Jamsheed Akrami. www.newrozfilms.com)

Later on in the same scene, Ayoup, the protagonist, is seen helping his sick brother, Madi, with
his medicine. Madi is sick and must take his medicine despite the deadly cold. Ayoup and his
sister Amine stop running towards their village, and give Madi’s medicine. They have such an
extraordinary affection for their brother. It is a dramatic scene indeed. In order to swallow his
medicine Madi must eat snow as it is the only available drink right there on top of the mountains.
Finally, their village is seen from a distance. The village is called Sardab, which is very close to
Iran-Iraq border and it is the hometown of the director Bahman Ghobadi. (Young, Deborah.
Variety. 2000) The houses in the village are built with rocks and coated with mud. There is no
traditional roof on the houses, instead, the roofs are flat and made of soil and mud too. All the
houses are very close to each other and one can walk around the village on the flat roof of the
houses passing from one to another.

Another scene from A Time for Drunken Horses is significant in terms of celebrating the Kurdish
landscape. Without a doubt, it is noticeable that the director Ghobadi draws our attention to the
landscape on many occasions in this film. The scene that shows Ayoup chopping wood on the
side of a hill is extraordinary in terms of its visual composition; with the sound of every stroke of
the axe, the images in the scene change. Almost everything is covered under white snow with
exception of Ayoup and a few leafless trees. Ayoup loads the chopped wood on his back to carry
home. His burden looks incredibly heavy but still he manages to walk through the deep snow.
The entire village, too, is covered under the white shiny snow. In this scene the director is not just
praising the Kurdish life and geography but also imparting to the snow a symbolic meaning; “I
see snow as a cleanser. To me, the white purity of snow symbolizes the innocence of the
suffering Kurds.” (Ghobadi. Interview by Jamsheed Akrami.www.newrozfilms.com)

In Marooned in Iraq too the use of landscape attracts attention. From start to end, the function of
the landscape in terms of representing Kurdistan and Kurdish life is essential. Because the film
is a kind of ‘road’ or ‘travel’ film, Marooned in Iraq shows Kurdistan’s landscape in all its different
aspects.

“The road movie is one of cinema’s great structural conventions, though its use in Marooned in
Iraq is especially appropriate. Travel, in the form of forced migration and flight from war, is a
sadly common way of life for the Kurds.” (Nick Poppy)

Marooned in Iraq opens with a view of a wild looking mountainous area accompanied on the
soundtrack by the background noise of a military aircraft and Kurdish music. It is daytime and the
sun shines as we see the wild looking rocky landscape from the perspective of a man, Barat,
one of the protagonists. We see him from a wide angle shot riding his motorbike on a dusty road
towards his village. In contrast to A Time for Drunken Horses wintry landscapes, we are
introduced to the Kurdish mountainous land in summer time. As the three main protagonists,
Barat, Audeh and Mirza, start their journey we witness the landscape from a wide angel shot. The
trio goes up to the mountains and the camera follows them from a distance making it possible
to see the barren mountains of Kurdistan. In his films Ghobadi consistently chooses camera
angles and compositions which emphasize characters within an environment which makes of
the landscape a dramatic character as much as the protagonists.

The first stop in their journey is a refugee camp. It is almost dusk and it is very striking to see a
refugee camp in the evening with its many tents and people walking in pools of water and mud;
some of them start a fire to keep warm. The sight of the camp shocks the trio. The sounds of
ambulances and the sight of barbed wire around the camp are striking. Their second stop is a
village called Gollige. It is very difficult to distinguish the houses from the landscape; the village
consist of several houses made of stones coated with mud that give the houses a brownish
colour making them look like part of the mountain. It looks like a deserted village. There is no
sign of life. Finally, two old people appear in front of their home. Mirza makes the comment: “I’ve
been to Gollige before but it was not in ruins then.” The old man replies: “Damn Saddam! He
ruined this entire region.” Because of the war and turmoil going on in the region there are lots of
deserted villages in Kurdistan. It could be said that as a result of war the image of deserted
villages became a prevalent part of films depicting the landscape in Kurdistan. For example, this
scene of the deserted village is reminiscent of a scene in Samira Makmalbaf’s Blackboard
where a character encounters the same kind of images of a deserted village.

The trio continue their journey and end up in another village where a wedding ceremony is taking
place. It is an average Kurdish village and many villagers are watching the wedding from on top
of their houses as their roofs are flat. Again, as in A Time for Drunken Horses it seems all the
houses are joined to each other. The village is built on the slope of a mountain, that is why, from
a distance, the images of the houses create a kind of stepped structure. This scene is an
absolute reflection and portrayal of the Kurdish lifestyle:

“What is unique about Ghobadi’s work is that it provides for the first time, an authentic depiction
of Kurdish people, instead of the tangential references in our news media.” (Moledina. The
Cinematic Verses. 2003)

As the trio goes further up to the mountains heading for the Iraqi Kurdistan, the weather
becomes cold. That night they are robbed by thieves disguised as soldiers. Thieves take
everything from them, including their gold teeth, musical instruments, vehicle, and their winter
clothes. Eventually, they make their way to a village, where they go to a teahouse and have
something to eat and drink. It reminds us of the scene in A Time for Drunken Horses where the
main character Ayoup goes to a teahouse operated by a boy in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is as if, from
film to film, within a dramatic narrative framework, Ghobadi is also documenting in a kind of
ethnographic manner the culture and environment of the Kurdish people.

“There are many fascinating scenes with authentic details and ethnic colors (brilliant, colorful
costumes to ancient villages to tea house to refugee camps) of these vital Kurds and their
striking, mountainous landscape which they describe in their songs as ‘paradise on earth’.”
(Akrami, Jamsheed. www.newrozfilms.com)

Throughout the narrative events, the sound of bombs and military aircraft are always heard, as
they have become part of life in Kurdistan, the implication being that these ‘unnatural’ sounds
have become a kind of natural sound in Kurdish geography. As Ghobadi puts it:

“The roar of the bombers and explosions has become part of the Kurdish music…War has
turned into a melody form. It used to be a sad melody, but now we have heard it so often that we
have learned to dance to it. We have become intoxicated with war.” (Ghobadi. Interview with
Jamsheed Akrami)

Our trio’s journey is one in search of Mirza’s ex-wife, Hanareh, who left Mirza 23 years ago and
went to Iraqi Kurdistan. It is obvious that their search for Hanareh is just a narrative excuse for
the filmmaker to show Kurdistan in all its varied aspects to the spectators. Later on in their
travels they come across another refugee camp, this one exclusively made up of orphaned
children. Leaving Audeh in the orphans’ refugee camp, Barat and Mirza move on and arrive at a
place where they witness women in black chadors digging for the bodies of their loved ones in a
muddy mass grave. Again, all we see is bare landscape almost covered with snow without any
trees around. Lastly, towards the end of the film, continuing on his way by alone, Mirza comes to
another refugee camp which is full of women. There he finds Hanareh’s sister ,Mastooreh, and
Hanareh’s little daughter, Sinooreh. He learns that Hanareh has already left the camp and that
her lover, Sayeed - for whom she left Mirza- has died. Sayeed’s body had been kept under snow
to preserve the corpse, and ironically, it is Mirza who ends up burying the body in accordance
with Sayeed’s last will. Following the funeral ceremony, Mirza takes Sinoreh - which means
border in Kurdish the language- and passes the snowy and mountainous border with the little
girl.

In Marooned in Iraq we see four different refugee camps in different occasions throughout the
trio’s journey. It seems that refugee camps too, as a consequence of war and turmoil, have
become part of the life and landscape of Kurdistan. To emphasize this point, in Ghobadi’s
following film, Turtles Can Fly, the principle location will be a refugee camp whose neighbouring
meadows and fields are planted with landmines.

So it would not be an exaggeration to say that refugee camps are now of the reality of the Kurdish
landscape.

Part Two


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’

5-  Hiner Saleem's representation of his own people, Kurds