Between Iraq And A Hard Place: Bahman Ghobadi’s Kurdish Tale “Marooned In Iraq”
by Nick Poppy
By some miracle of bureaucratic largesse, Bahman Ghobadi, the 33-year-old Iranian Kurdish director, sits in the airy office of a Soho public relations firm, giving interviews in support of his second feature, “Marooned In Iraq.” Citizenship in the Axis of Evil has won him no favors with U.S. authorities, and his Kurdish status hasn’t helped his case in Iran. He was roughed up in the American consulate in Dubai, and of course there are no direct flights from Tehran to New York, but all the same, here he is, with his sister at one side, a translator at the other, and about to open a movie here in the States that won the Francois-Chalais Prize at Cannes 2002.
Ghobadi is a member of one of the planet’s more benighted populations. There are approximately 30 million Kurds, most of them spread out among Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They are a people without a country, the largest ethnic group in the world that does not have its own state. They have never had one. Moreover, they are actively oppressed by their host countries; Syria forbids them citizenship and the right to own property, their language was outlawed in Turkey until 1991, and things are not much better there now. One need not look very hard in the news to learn this. The Kurds are in a long, slow-burning crisis. It is difficult for them to assimilate (and they are unwilling to do so), and just as challenging for them to express their own culture. The Kurds need many things, like human rights, material support, greater international regard — and they also need the cultural right to have their stories told. Heroism is a strong and overused word, but something like it might be applied to Bahman Ghobadi and a group of young Kurdish filmmakers (including Bahman’s younger brother) right behind him, who are getting those stories told.
Ghobadi’s “Marooned In Iraq” tells the story of a family of musicians — a stubborn old man and his two grown sons — who travel in Kurdish land from Iran to Iraq just after the first Gulf War, looking for the father’s former wife. The journey takes them across deserts and over mountain passes, through snow and mud, and they do their best to dodge thieves, fighter planes, and their own quarreling. The film is a grand tour of the area known as Kurdistan, and it proves rich in its details: a lively marriage party, women making bricks from mud, countless refugee camps. And because the main characters are musicians, there is plenty of Kurdish folk music; playful and boisterous, it seems to strike a blow against the all too evident despair.
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. Ghobadi asserts that this wandering is crucial to contemporary Kurdish life. “The story of the Kurds has to do with movement. Because of the oppression, because of the wars, because of all the problems within their own communities, they’re always, always on the move,” he says. “And in Kurdistan, you never see a Kurd who is not going somewhere, who’s not in motion. You can’t send a postcard or a letter, or try to get a telephone number, because it does not exist…The Kurds have become like nomads.”
Ghobadi’s films capture this peripatetic culture, and in some small way keep it from getting any more lost. “Marooned In Iraq” is a repository of uniquely Kurdish songs, gestures, and conversations. Ghobadi also makes documentaries about Kurdish life and customs, but prefers narrative fiction for his larger works, believing that “in documentaries, it’s harder to have a storyline that will keep viewers interested for a length of time [The] objective is to enable viewers to learn, but at the same time, be entertained. And you can do that better with a fictional story.” His methods have much in common with the Italian Neo-Realists, who shot their films in the rubble of post-war Rome, using natural sets and non-professional actors, to powerful and gritty effect. For “Marooned In Iraq,” Ghobadi used real musicians in the roles of the main characters. To prepare for the film, he lived with these actors for an extended period of time, to better learn about their lives. He gives his actors some basic guidelines, but no direction; he prefers for them to improvise their scenes, to add to the film’s realism.
If it is important for international audiences to learn about the Kurds, it is doubly important for the Kurds to learn about themselves, to see their customs and to hear their language on the big screen. While “Marooned In Iraq” and Ghobadi’s first feature, “A Time For Drunken Horses,” have played to acclaim in western countries, their fate in Iran has been much more haphazard. Despite the Cannes prize, only one theater in Persian Iran screened “Marooned In Iraq,” with very little promotion. It fared better in the Kurdish areas, although there are few movie theaters there. Most of the time, Ghobadi would bring a video projector, and screen it himself.
Jamsheed Akrami, a professor of film at William Paterson University who is also an Iranian Kurd, describes what this must be like for hometown audiences: “Imagine as an American going to the movies and never hearing characters speaking English. Can you imagine what an alienating effect it would have on your sense of identity? If you happen to be of Kurdish descent, that’s a common experience for you.” Akrami recalls the first time he heard Kurdish language in a film, spoken by some minor characters in Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us.” “I remember how mesmerized I was,” he says. “That little bit of Kurdish that I heard gave me this bizarre feeling of as if I was hearing myself. . . I was hearing a language I had only heard within the confines of my family, growing up, and nowhere else. I felt the satisfaction of somebody who’s lost some valuable object for a long time, and now he’s found it again.”
Akrami also notes how Ghobadi’s works reclaim some quality of “Kurdishness” for the Kurds. “There’s been a whole bunch of stupid, banal, mindless action movies shot in Kurdistan, in which the Kurds are portrayed as ruthless bandits, smugglers, where the villains are the Kurds,” he says. “In contrast to those movies, the two Bahman Ghobadi movies stand out as realistic portrayals of Kurdish life and Kurdish people. I would open a separate account for his movies as being the real representation of Kurdish reality. Here you have a Kurdish filmmaker defining his own culture and his own people.”
Towards the end of our interview, Bahman Ghobadi draws a striking analogy between cinema and the lives of the Kurdish people: “The Kurds may not have theaters to go to, to watch films, but their lives are played out like a movie. The war, the fighting, all of that is a backdrop to their real lives…Kurds are like the extras in films. They are not the stars. Their screen is the blue sky above their heads, and they watch planes flying overhead to see what will happen next, whether they will be bombed.”
He stops for a moment and looks at the coffee-maker, a bookcase, the art on the walls. He makes a gesture and says, “Here, we’re sitting, having a very tranquil conversation, but in Kurdistan, if we were doing an interview, we would be on the move. We would not be in one place.”
His translator adds, “He said he was born when he was on the move, and he will probably die on the move. This is the story of the Kurds.”