Top Ten: Kurdish Films:
The rich mosaic of Kurdish culture across the four regions of Kurdistan has always been subject to assimilation and violence by the dictatorial regimes of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. A range of oppressions and assimilation policies such as Arabization and Turkification, outright denial of the existence of Kurds, banning of Kurdish language and publications, ethnic cleansing, executions and arbitrary arrests, banning of Kurdish political parties and self-expression have colored the experience of the Kurds within the modern state era.
For this reason, the Kurds have always attempted to retain their culture in the form of art, music, dance, literature and folklore as a means of self-preservation, even as they have been divided by the colonial borders. Of these mediums, film has generated perhaps the least attention, impacted by the lack of financial support Kurdish films and filmmakers are provided with, and the negative and extreme responses of the regimes these narratives are founded in. Nevertheless, a rich array of passionate and powerful Kurdish movies are available, which boldly confront issues of Kurdish reality and life, all of which involve common themes of mysticism, the hauntingly beautiful Kurdish landscape, and the surrealism of war and displacement.
I recommend these films particularly for those who are beginning to discover the Kurdish Question and who wish to learn more about the Kurds; their history, culture and society. The following list, in no particular order, is by no means comprehensive or complete but attempts to outline some of the most popular and important movies made in the last two decades.
1.Turtles Can Fly (2004)
Turtles Can Fly is essential for any Kurdish-related movie list. Turtles Can Fly was the first movie to be made in south Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2004. A war drama film, Turtles Can Fly is written, produced and directed by Kurdish movie maker Bahman Ghobadi with music composed by the renowned composer Hossein Alizadeh.
The film is set in a Kurdish refugee camp in the Iraqi Kurdish border and follows the stories of several children impacted by the devastating Saddam war on the Kurds. The children await their fate as the American invasion of Iraq occurs with uncertainty. A deeply powerful narrative made more emotional by being directed through the eyes of children, that eclipses many of the horrors experienced by Kurds in this context, the film’s depiction of war, trauma, depression, rape and sexual violence, and cultural taboos in the era of Saddam is a raw and honest testament to the impact of the anti-Kurdish wars and regimes against the Kurds.
2.My Sweet Pepper Land (2013)
My Sweet Pepper Land follows the story of a Kurdish teacher named Govend who is sent to teach in a remote village in Iraqi Kurdistan. She meets the charismatic Baran, a Kurdish patriot working as a policeman in the village. The two soon clash with the local villain, Agha and their situation becomes increasingly complicated and dangerous.
Set in the stunning Kurdish landscape, this is essential watching for its depth of tribal and traditional village values, infused with feminist notions of gender liberation, honor killings, sexual liberation and the patriarchal terrain women must navigate. A movie well ahead of its time in its depiction of female characters and sexuality through the portrayal of the passionate, headstrong Govend, and a truly engrossing and compelling feminist film.
3. A Time for Drunken Horses (2002)
Another film by Bahman Ghobadi, the story depicts three orphaned siblings, their harsh reality and ultimately the tragic decisions that change their lives forever.
Another difficult watch but essential for understanding of the traditional cultural values that still determine the lives of Kurdish people in light of the harsh economic policies imposed on Kurds by regimes like Iran’s. A transcendent snapshot of the hierarchy of power within village life, A Time for Drunken Horses is an extraordinarily bleak twist on the coming of age story in a uniquely Kurdish setting.
This story is also important for understanding the ongoing plight of the Kurdish Kolbers in Rojhelat which is an ongoing form of cultural and economic oppression imposed on the Kurds.
4. Half Moon (2006)
Inspired by Mozart’s Requiem, the poetic narrative follows Mamo, an old Kurdish musician who wishes to hold one final concert before entering his twilight years. Renowned for its mystical and affecting depiction of the struggles of navigating the Kurdish borderlands, the narrative takes on a surreal air as the story unfolds, portrayed through its otherworldly and exquisite cinematography. An atmospherically unique film in the Kurdish movie repertoire, Half Moon is an equal parts surreal, hilarious and thought-provoking meditation on the political and artistic consequences of the imposition of colonial borders on Kurdistan.
5. Banaz: A Love Story (2012)
This is a critical documentary film based on the tragic true story of Banaz Mahmod. The film shows the life story of Kurdish refugee Banaz, and highlights the struggles that Banaz experiences as a Kurdish woman in south London living between conservative, traditional Kurdish culture and that of Western values. Banaz: A Love Story is essential viewing for showing the double burden of fighting the oppression of the state as well as internally within patriarchal cultural values. A raw portrayal that tackles the life of one of many disposed Kurdish women, highlighting themes of conflicting identities, control of women’s bodies and sexuality and the challenges of assimilation.
The culture clash ends with tragic results, but this is crucial viewing of the concept of Honor Killings where each year thousands of Kurdish women are subjected to across the four regions.
I wanted to add Banaz’s story into the mix because it is essential to understand the struggles of the Kurdish Liberation Movement in places like Rojava in not only fighting ISIS terrorism but also fighting internally against oppressive cultural norms.
6. El Clasico (2016)
A film drama directed by Halkawt Mustafa that follows the story of two Kurdish brothers who pursue their dreams and risk everything to meet their football hero, Cristiano Ronaldo. Their situation is exacerbated by the fact that both brothers are little people in South Kurdistan (Northern Iraq), who meet and must overcome many challenges in order to achieve their dream.
The story takes a hilarious and often sad turn as the brothers follow their dreams. A lighter watch that shows an element of Kurdish culture and society that is not depicted by any of the other movies on this list.
7. Jiyan (2002)
A 2002 film written and directed by the Kurdish director Jano Rosebiani, the story follows that of Diyari, a Kurdish-American who returns to his hometown of Halabja, five years after the Saddam chemical bombings. Diyari intends on building an orphanage in the devastated town and goes on to meet some of the orphaned children in the town, most notably Jiyan and Sherko.
The film is a reflective piece on the impact of war and the resulting trauma for the survivors. A serious somber film, the story highlights the tragic impact of Saddam’s genocidal al Anfal campaign, especially that of the chemical attacks on the Kurds. The achingly beautiful script is further enriched by the subtle, haunting cinematography and I guarantee that this is a film you won’t forget.
8. David and Layla (2005)
Based on a true story, David and Layla depicts a love story of a Muslim woman and a Jewish man falling in love. The story is a beautiful depiction of the struggle to live a normal life after war, Kurdish refugees living in the diaspora and the cultural disconnect of multiple identities. David and Layla face several challenges, including the opposition of their families and Layla facing deportation. A lighter film that nevertheless highlights a number of cultural and post war challenges, the viewer finds herself rooting for the good-natured protagonists as the story unfolds. Reminiscent of My Big Greek Wedding in its humour and representation of cultural differences as well as its optimism and hopeful tone, the narrative is a likable, engaging romantic-comedy that still touches on themes of identity, resilience and starting over as a refugee.
9. Reseba: The Dark Wind (2016)
Reseba tells the story of Reko and Pero, a young Yezidi couple on the verge of marriage when the Islamic State attacks and seizes Shengal. In the massacre that follows many women, including Pero are captured and sold into sexual slavery.
This film can only be described as necessary because it tackles an extremely difficult subject matter that is relevant today while also tackling ingrained cultural taboos about gender-based violence in Kurdistan. With devastating and confronting cinematography conveying themes of trauma and sexual violence but also, more optimistically, the journey towards healing and recovery, Pero becomes the voice of thousands of Yezidi women, still in captivity to this day.
10. Zer (2017)
A movie about self-discovery, identity and family, Zer shows the story of a young man, Jan, who has grown up in New York and distanced from his Kurdish identity. When his grandmother sings him a song on her deathbed, he is moved towards an emotional journey that holds many surprising and tragic discoveries for him. In time the tragedy behind the song reveals a rich, lost heritage trying to survive in the face of a violent history of massacres and oppression. A poignant, enigmatic narrative, set against the gorgeous Kurdish landscape and framed by an evocative and melancholic soundtrack, Zer must be on any and every list of Kurdish films.