"Kurdish Cinema Really Started out with Yilmaz Güney"

Is there such a thing as authentic Kurdish cinema, a Kurdish language film style? Amin Farzanefar speaks with Mehmet Aktas and Bülent Kücük

photo: International Kurdish Film Festival Berlin
The International Kurdish Film Festival was initiated for especially those filmmakers from states where Kurdish cinema and Kurdish culture are still forbidden, Mehmet Aktas explains

​​You have organized the International Kurdish Film Festival Berlin annually since 2002. What gave you the idea for this festival?

Mehmet Aktas: Initially there was no other Kurdish film festival anywhere in the world. At the time I talked a lot with Iranian-Kurdish directors, and they gave me the courage to believe that a new process of Kurdish filmmaking had gotten underway.

When I visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 1998 I saw the works of Kurdish filmmakers who are virtually unknown in the outside world. In Europe, as well, there are many filmmakers for whom Kurdish issues are very important.

These filmmakers are scattered all over the place, and so we wanted to provide them with an international platform, especially those artists from states where Kurdish cinema and Kurdish culture are still forbidden.

There was another major motivation for me as well: due to the high visibility of the Kurds' political activities, now we had to do something different. We wanted to found a Kurdish cultural association, completely separate from all the Kurdish associations and parties.

After the first festival we saw that there is such a thing as Kurdish cinema, and there is also interest in our festival. We wanted Kurdish filmmakers to start up an exchange of ideas and a dialogue among themselves so that they could find a clearer language of their own – like Iranian cinema, for example.

In terms of chronology: when do you see the emergence of a universal Kurdish cinema?

Aktas: At the very beginning there were the Turkish films by Yilmaz Güney – especially his last works "The Herd" (1978/79) and "The Way" (1981), but even the first film he made on his own, "Seyit Khan".

Before that the productions weren't really Kurdish and the language wasn't Kurdish. It really all starte with Güney and his two most important films – "The Herd" and "The Way"; many elements, like the music and the characters, differed radically from the narrative techniques of Turkish cinema.

Visually, too, he had created a different style, a different language. His political and artistic dream was to continue developing this kind of cinema, but unfortunately he died very young.

Then, in the early nineties, "Xece and Siyabend" was shot in Turkey, but unfortunately was not released there. Then "Mem and Zin" was filmed, the most important Kurdish epic.

In 1992 Nizamettin Aric filmed "A Song for Beko" in Armenia, and in 1994 Ibrahim Selman's "Silent Travellers" was made in Greece – all films telling Kurdish stories in the Kurdish language.

After the first Gulf War there was the free zone in Iraqi Kurdistan, and young filmmakers there started telling their stories as videos and short films. After that people living abroad also started going to Kurdistan, resulting in films like "Hope" by Janu Rojbiani, "The Burning Paradise", by Aras Rashid, and many others.

An important step was taken in 1998 when the Iranian government started funding ethnic cinema. Since then Iranian Kurdistan has seen the emergence of filmmakers such as Bahman Ghobadi, actually the entire Ghobadi family, Ali-Reza Rezai, Khosret Ressoul and many other younger filmmakers.

Bülent Kücük: You could say that the cinema was pregnant until 1999, and at the end of the nineties the child was born. And now this cinema is completely authentic, completely "Kurdish". For example, Iranian Kurdish films differ from typical Iranian cinema because they aren't as slow – there's more movement and energy, more stories, and on the whole a stronger Kurdish element that is related to the Kurdish heritage, the Kurdish mountains, the Kurdish lifestyle.

And of course exile plays a very big role when you're talking about Kurdish cinema: for example, the last film Hener Saleem made in France, "Vodka Lemon", has a style of its own, different from French cinema or the Armenian perspective, which also forms part of the background: the attempt to find an original language.

There are different approaches and perspectives, but they're still interrelated. Can a festival convey that, or do you have the feeling that you need to integrate even more? Is there already the sense of a unified whole?

Aktas: That's the fate of Kurdish history, of the Kurdish people: the filmmakers – like the Kurdish people – come from very different traditions. Our idea is to first take a look at the overall picture, see what we have – and what could be.

Of course it's not enough for us to film Kurdish themes in the Kurdish language: at the moment what's most important for us is to find our own cinematic language. And the festival also plays a major role in the film scene because we often have discussions along with the screenings.

For a long time, Kurdish events had a strong ideological element. Is this changing, are people starting to say: culture comes before politics?

Aktas: The Kurdish political movement has very little hope left, and the Kurdish people are starting to think: What actually happened over the past twenty years? There is a debate about that now, and many Kurdish intellectuals are suddenly discussing Kurdish cinema now – and they've begun to respect it, too.

Kücük: The Kurds as a whole are decentralized and fragmented. Of course, that's also due to the politics: the entire political scene is fragmented, simply because of the geographical divisions, for one thing, for another because there are all these competing parties and organizations.

On the other hand, that's also a plus: it means that film has many different movements, organizations and traditions, for example in exile – any filmmaker living in France or Germany brings a certain German or French influence to his films.

That makes everything a bit more diverse, but the real question is whether culture goes beyond politics – whether a public space can be created somewhere where everyone can get together. But when someone organizes something, people still ask: who did that?

We want to be open to all movements, to all parts of Kurdistan, all the people who will actually end up showing their films. For the most part we've succeeded in that, but we still need a bit more time to show that this festival is a place for everyone.

How good is the cooperation with the countries, states and regions where the Kurds live? Is there any interest there? Is there any coverage of the festival in Turkey, for example?

Kücük: Only in the pro-Kurdish media; sometimes Cumhuriyet writes something – usually negative, they have to find something negative so that they can report on it, like a scandal. If something positive happens, they don't refer to it as "Kurdish" – when Yüksel Yavuz wins a prize, he's really a "Turk".

Aktas: But when he sells drugs, he's a "Kurd".

Yüksel Yavuz is known as the director of German-Turkish films like "The April Children" and "A Little Bit of Freedom". Is it important for him to present his Kurdish side or bring it to bear on his work?

Aktas: We opened with his film in 2003; he's very committed. It's quite clear to him that he's a Kurdish-German filmmaker. Last year he won a prize in Ankara with Kurdish themes, in "A Little Bit of Freedom".

But on the other hand he has the Turkish audience he's also interested in. That means that he has two audiences – even three. It's a little problematic to balance all that, but so far he's managed.

What has changed over the past two or three years? Has the trend changed at all – or has a trend emerged?

Aktas: Since 2003 even more films have been coming from Iraqi Kurdistan. Last year we showed "Before Dawn", the first production by a local Kurdish region that received official support. On the whole, more is coming out of Iraq and Iran.

What role does Bahman Ghobadi play, the Iranian director of "A Time for Drunken Horses" and "Marooned in Iraq" who just had a new festival hit, "Turtles Can Fly"?

Aktas: After Yilmaz Güney, Ghobadi was the first to bring the Kurdish cinema international recognition again. All his films are very authentic, very "Kurdish", and at the same time he's created this international language of emotion that's so important for us.

He selected and submitted films for the festival, and he has attended every time. Ghobadi is the most important figure in contemporary Kurdish cinema – he's young, he has plenty of time left to make lots of movies, and he has incredible energy.

Kücük: This is the problem: as long as there is no locale, no institutionalization of the Kurdish cinema – let me put it this way: a state – a Yilmaz Güney will come along, ten years later there'll be a Ghobadi – and then nothing. So far the cinema has only operated in a transnational arena; among other things, there has to be a Kurdish bourgeoisie to support this institutionalization.

Aktas: I see things a bit differently. But we're going through a completely different process than we were in Güney's day. There's already a Department of Kurdish Cinema in the Iraqi Kurdish region which has shot five films this year, covering part of the production and logistics costs, for example for Hener Saleem and Manu Khalil. There's on-location support, and that's very important.

The "Mesopotamian Cultural Center" in Istanbul has provided support for several films. Does it play a role as well?

Kücük: It also depends on European funds that get to Turkey by way of foundations. In Turkey itself, however, this is still problematic. The Kurds themselves have very little capital, and the opportunities are limited.

In Iraq now there's actually the chance to create a form of state support – and as Mehmet said, this might create a locale for Kurdish cinema, a market. Again, it's the people in exile who are behind this: they have more opportunities, better resources and better training, and that could provide a new impetus – in the Kurdish regions as well.

In this respect is there a parallel with Palestinian film, given that it has also developed largely in exile and has still succeeded in creating an internationally-acclaimed aesthetic sensibility in recent years?

Aktas: The Palestinians always had more opportunities than Kurdish filmmakers, a bigger lobby, more money, and more locations as well. They could always film in some Arab country as a background motif.

For a long time this possibility wasn't open to Kurdish filmmakers. When you're in exile you always have to ask: Where can I shoot this movie, how can I persuade the European producers?

Interview: Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2005


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