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Tribeca Tribute: Bahman Ghobadi

Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi got the world's attention in 2000 with A Time for Drunken Horses, the first Kurdish-language feature film ever made. His newest film, Half Moon (TFF '07), is banned in his native Iran, but out in the US.

Bahman Ghobadi first came to the world’s attention in 2000 when his A Time for Drunken Horses scored a triumph at the Cannes Film Festival, earning the Caméra d’or for best first feature. The film offered a harrowing depiction of the travails of five orphans struggling to eke out a hardscrabble existence as smugglers in the mountainous border region between Iran and Iraq, where they’re confronted by snowstorms, land mines, and adults who menace them whether they're wearing the garb of soldiers or bandits. Upon its release in the US some months later, New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted the way the film’s visual style underscored its harshness, describing it as “an affecting, and in its way, beautiful movie.”

Perhaps because it was billed as an Iranian film, and because Ghobadi had served earlier as an assistant to such notable Iranian filmmakers as Abbas Kiarostami (on The Wind Will Carry Us) and Samira Makhmalbaf (on Blackboards), few viewers noticed that the language spoken in Horses was not Farsi, Iran's principal tongue, but Kurdish, which has been banned from country's schools since the 1940s. In fact, Horses was the first feature film in Kurdish to achieve international release.

Born in 1969 in the Iranian town of Baneh, near the Iraqi border, Ghobadi, has subsequently completed three more feature films, all in Kurdish, which have won prizes at major film festivals around the world. His 2002 film, Songs of My Motherland (known as Marooned in Iraq outside Iran), unfolds against the backdrop of the flight of the Iraqi Kurds toward the Iranian border after the 1991 Gulf War. But Ghobadi’s story is about an aging Kurdish singer from Iran who wants to cross the border into Iraq to find the female singer who left him 25 years before. As he has done elsewhere, Ghobadi makes fruitful use of non-actors, many of them children, many of whom had never seen a movie camera before.

Ghobadi’s next film, Turtles Can Fly (2004), takes place in a Kurdish refugee camp in Iraq, where residents anticipate Saddam Hussein's fall even as they fear that the impending American invasion will bring new devastation. Most of central characters are children, and their leader is an adolescent who calls himself Satellite as a badge of the technical knowhow that gives him an advantage over the other kids—including a new rival, a boy without arms.

Completed in 2006, Half Moon marked the first time Ghobadi fell seriously afoul of Iranian authorities, who were doubtless upset not only by the use of Kurdish language, but also by the film’s depiction of an aging impresario’s struggle to mount a concert in Iraq that includes female singers, who have been banned from performing in public since the Islamic Revolution of 1978. They first advised him to make cuts in the film, then banned it entirely.

Inspired by Mozart's Requiem, Half Moon was one of six films from a diverse group of international filmmakers commissioned last year by the city of Vienna, under the supervision of theater impresario Peter Sellars, to mark the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. The film screened at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, and began its theatrical run in New York at the ImaginAsian cinema in NYC on December 14. A limited national release will follow.

How is it possible that more than three-quarters of a century after the birth of talkies, a language spoken by as many as 40 million people had never been heard before in a film? One might also ask how the Kurdish people—a diaspora of non-Arab Sunni Muslims spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Armenia—still do not have their own nation. Last May, I traveled to the northern Iraqi city of Ebril (also known by its Kurdish name, Hawler). Once a major stop on the Silk Road, it is the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, home today to more than a million Sunni Muslims, Shiites, Christians, and Zoroastrians. I talked there with Bahman Ghobadi about filmmaking and Kurdish identity.

Tribeca Film Festival Artistic Director Peter Scarlet conducted the following interview with Bahman Ghobadi on the roof of the Erbil International Hotel, in Erbil, Iraq, on May 30, 2007. Translation by Babak Rassi. 

Bahman, you’ve shot films here in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in Iranian Kurdistan. What’s easy and what’s hard in both places? Is it harder here in Iraq?

This place has its own difficulties, but far fewer than in Iran. I feel I have more freedom here. There is no such thing as censorship—you can make whatever you want in this land. The difficulty is in putting together a production crew: in Kurdistan, in both Iraq and Iran, they don’t have film professionals to fine-tune the script, or good assistants or location managers. You have to find everything yourself and you have to find the actors yourself. You have to do everything yourself—you’re performing the functions of 15 people. I had to roam around in the back alleys of villages to find actors and it’s difficult to convince them, or even to tell them what cinema is!

For example, in the film Marooned in Iraq, I brought in that curly-haired guy and he said, “It’s an honor to work for you.” And we worked together for one day and then at night he said, “Goodbye, I have to go!” So I said, “What do you mean? You have to stay!” and then he says, “What? I’ve been working for ten hours and your movie is only two hours.” I had to explain to him that a whole day basically means just a minute in a film. I had to convince him for a week, and I had to get a college professor to talk to him. It took a long time to convince him that it takes two months of work to make 90 minutes of film.

What led you to become a filmmaker in the first place?

There is no film school or any sort of system in Kurdistan, and the government of Iran never imagined that one day there would be a Kurdish filmmaker. Everything was by accident and chance. I was born in a land where there was no cinema whatsoever. There were a couple of theaters that showed terrible commercial films of those days. There was no system to guide you as a budding filmmaker; there was no model for me in Kurdistan, especially in Baneh, the small border town where I’m from.

It was very accidental. I remember I loved to go to the movies with my uncles. I was a kid and I loved sausages and baloney sandwiches, and the sandwich shop was below the theater. It seems to me now that as a kid I thought you couldn’t eat the sandwiches until you went into the theater. I thought you had to eat the sandwich when you saw the film, so it was for the sandwiches that I went to cinema. My uncle would tell me, “Don’t eat it yet, let’s go in the waiting area," so then we would go to the first salon and I would ask “Can I eat it now?” And he would say, “Let’s wait until we get into the main salon.” Then we’d enter the theater, and I would say ’”Can I eat it now?” and he would say, “Wait till the lights go off.” And then finally when the lights went off and the movie started, he would say, “Go ahead, eat!” So I ended up eating a lot of sandwiches in the dark—along with the paper wrappers—and I still remember the taste of those sandwiches! I can tell you—and I’m being serious—I got involved with cinema by falling in love with tasty Kurdish sandwiches.

And to this very day, Peter, I wasn’t—and I still am not—just in love with cinema, I’m drunk with cinema. You understand? There is such a pain that drags me with it, that makes me think I’m drunk, as if I don’t know what I’m doing. I mean, I’ve never “enjoyed” cinema. I bust my ass. It’s the hardest profession in the world, I know it’s the hardest thing in the world, in Kurdistan, in the Middle East, in this particular situation. So much so that every night I think I’m going to have a heart attack or a stroke. There’s a lot of pressure. There is nothing in either Iranian or Iraqi Kurdistan to support you. You make a film and you have no idea where to show it. If your film is in the Kurdish language there is no place to show it. You want to die from grief.

Now there is a little bit of a hope in Erbil, that there will be some support if I make a film about Kurds in Iraq, but in reality, it’s very very hard for me and that is why I’m telling you that I’m drunk with cinema, and its pain—there is such a drunkenness in me.

How did you get your training in filmmaking?

My biggest support was my mother, the only one who secretly encouraged me to go ahead and make short films.

I want to tell you a story. When I was 17, my parents separated, and when they separated I played the role of father in my family. There were seven of us kids—with my mom, eight of us—and as the oldest son, I had to make a living. For two or three years, I left school, and I had this juice stand and I sold juice on the street. Then I met this photographer, and I said, “Wow, your photography is great,” and he gave me some pointers. I ended up in a library looking for photography books and I saw this book about film animation, and I brought it home, and the first film I made was an animated film with my mother’s help. When I decided I wanted to pursue filmmaking, the first question my mother had when I told her that I wanted to pack up my juice stand was, “Is there money in it? Can you pay for the household?” I said, “Yes,” and it was my mother’s prayer. I call my cinema the cinema of prayer—nothing but my mother’s prayer, and I really believe in this.

Finally, I was able to get a few small jobs. The only thing that taught me about cinema was my own life, my own culture. It was the tragic stories of Kurdistan, about my aunt’s having to have her leg amputated, about being displaced from Baneh, about living in this village and that village. For example, I made A Time for Drunken Horses in one of these villages in western Iran where I’d spent three months, going from Baneh to Sanandaj, and living in poverty. These are the things that made me a filmmaker. I did go to college, but you don’t learn filmmaking in college. What you do get is the technical education—camera, sound, music, etc… I didn’t even pick up my degree, because it’s haram (sinful). College didn’t make me a filmmaker. That’s why I left and I flaunted the fact that I left college.

The second coach I had was my father, because he was very hard on me, in not letting me pursue cinema, in controlling me, in always having a cop or a soldier follow me. This back-and-forth with my father’s soldiers and my father—like cops and robbers—taught me rhythm. I learned to run, and it taught me stories, and the thing that taught me cinema, to the extent I’ve learned it, was the short films that I made, which were simply about life. Those short films are what made me a director. They taught me a certain way of looking at things, as though they were pointing my way towards my own type of filmmaking.

All your feature films are set near a border, near a frontier, either between Iraq and Iran or Iraq and Turkey, Why is the border, the frontier, such an important concept for you?

I was born in Baneh, Iran’s closest border town to Iraq. It was the most dangerous area—Baneh and Marivan had the highest Iranian casualties, both in internal conflicts as well as during the war with Iraq. A lot of things happened to me in Baneh, so I was right on the border. The village that I took refuge in for three months was called Sardob Surab, and that’s where I shot A Time for Drunken Horses. I learned the meaning of “border” from childhood. I’m familiar with the smell of “border.” There are 40 million Kurds dispersed through four or five countries, and there are even some in Russia and Europe—and they all have borders between them. Many members of my family live in Iraqi Kurdistan, and I have to wait months or a year before I’m allowed to go and visit them. The distance might be only 50 or a hundred kilometers, but I have to wait a year before I get the permit to visit them, you see. And it’s a conflict for me—it chokes me up. If I even want to speak to Kurds from Iraq, it is very difficult for me.

Music plays a very important part in your films. In fact, in two of your films the main character is a musician. Why is music so important to you?

If I hadn’t turned out to be a filmmaker, I would have been a musician. I love music, I make films with music, I eat with music, I sleep with music, I think with music. Music makes me dream, it strengthens my creativity. I can travel with music, I close my eyes, and I can travel all over the world with music—and one after another, stories come to me, and I just record them. If I hadn’t been a filmmaker, I definitely would have been a musician, and in fact I am pursuing that now, and I hope to begin composing in two years.

Your films appear on the world market as being from Iran, but they’re all in the Kurdish language. Why is that, and does that cause you problems at home in Iran?

Nobody ever gave me permission to make a film in the Kurdish language. Slowly and with many smiles, I was able to make the first Kurdish-language movie in the history of world cinema. It was the first time that an international film was being made in the Kurdish language, and especially under the Iranian government, the second one, the third one, all were made the same way—with many smiles.

But now I have had some problems with the fourth one, even though I’d made three “normal” films. With the fourth one, Half Moon, right before filming began, the authorities called me and told me not to make it in the Kurdish language and to keep it to only twenty percent of the dialogue. “I am a Kurd,” I said. “I am an Iranian Kurd, and I have rights in this land. Kurdistan is part of Iran and they have the right to have their own language.”

So I made Half Moon, but it’s banned, and it’s interesting that they are not giving me a permit to work on my next film. I don’t know why, but perhaps if I weren’t a Kurd, this wouldn’t be happening. Many of Farsi-speaking filmmakers have made films that are far riskier. If I had made only five minutes of those films, I would have been banned from entering the country! I don’t know what my crime is. I’m fiercely Iranian, and I’m fiercely an Iranian Kurd. Iran is my land and I’m making films for my country. My “problem” is discussing the problems of my country. I’m a second-class citizen as a Kurd, and I want Kurds to have a better situation, to have equal rights with the Farsi-speakers. Kurds do not have the same rights as the Farsi-speakers and I’m trying to discuss this with the camera, to use the camera to bring this issue to the fore.

I want to ask you to say something about each of your films, so let’s start with A Time for Drunken Horses, your first feature.

When I made A Time for Drunken Horses, I had no idea what a feature-length film was. I took a piece of paper and I wrote six lines on it that basically said: “Bahman, you have to make a serious film about the kids on the border.” And then I divided it into eight sections. I didn’t have a story, so I said, “Listen, Bahman Ghobadi: You’ll make eight ten-minute films.” And I began to make those ten-minute films, looking for a line to connect the stories.

After I’d been taking photographs and making short films, I went back to Kurdistan and I decided to visit the village where I had been a refugee for three months. I found it full of smugglers, so I started to take pictures and I made a short film there [Life in Fog], but when I realized that nobody is going to show a short depicting the problems of that area, I decided to make a feature-length film, which became A Time for Drunken Horses. I didn’t actually make a film, I simply recreated life in front of my camera, exactly like reality. Parts of it I would improvise and parts of it would come directly from the locals. I would say seventy percent of it came from them and their lives and thirty percent from stories of my past. Ayube is a childhood version of Bahman Ghobadi, in the time when he has lost his father, and without a mother is trying to make ends meet for his family—not unlike what I had to deal with when my parents separated, but it has a different texture.

I am very nervous in all of my films. I am very nervous and stressed on all of my films, and I am looking for relief. Part of it is to be relieved of my complexes. I’m screaming against the experience and hardships of my past and present life. When I made Songs of My Motherland [aka Marooned in Iraq], many people told me, “This is a very harsh film.” And I would say it’s because I’m sad inside, so my films are a mirror of my own soul. I wanted to make a different film that wouldn’t follow the straight line of A Time for Drunken Horses, so I made Songs to represent part of Kurdish culture. It’s kind of a road movie because the story of Kurdish people is like a road movie—there has never been a place where we could settle for a long time. We have kept moving, we became refugees from here to there. So the Kurdish culture and the life of the Kurds is like a road movie—I mean, we’ve had a “road” life. We’ve always been on the move. There’s always been something at our backs. We’ve always taken our carpets from one place to another, and this image has found its way into my films. And in Songs, there is also a part where I included a problem from my childhood.

In Turtles Can Fly, I wanted to make an antiwar film, and I saw that the most persecuted and vulnerable part of the society was the children. I started with children also because of their effect on the audience. We are the wasted generation, the youth of this generation, and they are the most wasted, and so what are we going to do for the next generation? This is why I chose to use children for this, the first film made after Saddam’s fall, and all the characters in Turtles Can Fly come out of me: Agri is one part of me, Satellite is another part of me. They are all parts of my past. All the behavior of the kids in the movie is similar to the behavior of the kids in my childhood.

In Half Moon, the main character, Mamo, is partly the older Bahman, maybe Bahman Ghobadi in his sixties or seventies. Through Mamo, I illustrated my fear of death, with the shadows getting longer around me every day, with all the pressure, desperation and hopelessness in this area. In everything, from filmmaking to all the other pressures—the banning of my film, the fact that I’m not working right now—the shadow is getting heavier and heavier, and it’s bothering me. Death is going to be the subject and idea of my future films,

I’d like to talk before we lose the light about Turtles Can Fly. Maybe you can talk about the city where you filmed some of it?

For Turtles Can Fly, I shot some of the sequences in Erbil and some parts of it right here—right over there is the bazaar for satellite dishes, and right there, where there is construction going on, that is where we shot the bazaar of arms dealers. The rest of it was shot to the north, in that area where it is very cloudy. Some of the players were from here, from Erbil, and some were from Kirkuk, and a couple were from Suleimaniyeh. I searched for three months before I found all of them, three months.

I want to go back now to your second film, which was called the Songs of My Motherland, but in the west it was retitled Marooned in Iraq. Why was it retitled, and can you tell us anything about the film?

One of the foreign producers emailed me and asked, “Is this title good? Is it good for marketing?” I said, “What do you guys think? Don’t ask me, because I just want to make my next film.” They thought this was a better title and I didn’t oppose it. I just wanted the film to get to the screen, so I kept silent and said, “Whatever you guys think is right. If that’s the title you want, go ahead and use it and be done with it.” But I think the best title would have been Songs of My Motherland!

Your most recent film, Half Moon, just this past year was made as part of a celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. How did you connect with the great Mozart to make a film in Kurdistan?

Look, I believe that today you see thousands of Mozarts. Mozart is not a person, Mozart is a spirit that is part of millions of artists in today’s world. I wanted to talk about the artists’ predicament now, so I am showing you Mamo in the year 2007. Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Mozart had women sing in his work, and now I’m showing you a Kurdish character living in a part of the world where in 2007 women still cannot sing. You see, there are many sad stories in this part of the world where we live, and I think the worst part of the world is the Middle East. It is our bad luck to have this thing called oil—because of oil, no attention is giving to anything else, not to culture, not to art, not to creativity, nothing—just oil, business, stealing, selling of military equipment. My money and the money of the kids in my films goes to the West, in exchange for military equipment, and they give that to us and then I have to turn around and look for an idea, and the only themes I find are land mines, the wreckage of tanks, and obsolete guns and war. And I don’t know when this is going to change so I can change the theme of my work.

One last question, you’ve always worked with non-professionals, except in Half Moon. Do you want to work now with bigger stars?

To tell you the truth, I’m not really happy working with professional actors—when I make films, I like to enjoy my filmmaking, and I much prefer working with amateurs. I have used professional actors, and they’re very good—especially Golshifteh Farahani and Hassan Poorshirazi and Hedieh Tehrani—they’re great people and they’ve helped me, but I’m much more comfortable and it’s less complicated with amateurs than with professionals. That’s what I think.

But definitely, in the future I will look for professional actors again, and I’m looking for an American star for my future projects, an American actress. I do have a project in a mixture of English and Kurdish, an idea so that I can get my films seen more widely in other countries, and through that, get more exposure, because independent film is so poor and such a victim that it cannot easily make its way. A film like Turtles still has a lot of difficulty before it gets distributed. There are many many stories like the one in Turtles in this world that are never seen and we have to help. What can we do to escape this predicament? Using stars, in my opinion, if you can bring them into your own stylistic fold, is one of the ideas that I would like to try. Angelina Jolie would be great!


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