Hollywood in Kurdistan


For a second time I missed the visit of a delegation from Hollywood to Kurdistan. It happened in November and I wasn’t aware of it.

I must say that compared to the first time, things have gotten more serious.

When some American movie makers first descended on the impressive citadel of Erbil and the wild landscapes of Kurdistan, the idea was that Hollywood should make films here, any film.

Now some prominent Kurds from Sulaymania want Hollywood to produce a film showing the genocide campaigns against the Kurds in the times of the Baath Party. The wife of Iraq’s president, Hero Talabani, told an American journalist that she hopes “a major movie about the Kurds would have an impact the way the film Schindler’s List did about the Holocaust”. Najat Abdullah, the Kurdish cultural attaché in Washington, thinks  that “Hollywood can change the world. We need good friends around the world, because our situation in the region is not 100% stable. We need to let people know about our suffering, because we don’t want history to repeat itself.”

I wish the Kurds all luck with their endeavors. But there are a few thinking mistakes here that might lead to failure from the beginning.

First of all, there are very few films in the world that were made because of visually very interesting landscapes, buildings, nature or  ruins. The order of proceeding is usually: this is the story, where is my location?  The location is often intimately linked with the story and has to give “the feel of place”.

Of course American movies have a tendency to choose especially non-descript highways, bars, offices, kitchens and bedrooms as locations for their heroes and anti-heroes – and so much so that nowadays it feels as one location, even if the kitchens are quite different.

You might say such easy locations also exist in Kurdistan – except for the bars – but the problem is twofold: there are hardly any Americans living in Iraqi Kurdistan, struggling with their complicated lives, and secondly: Kurdish kitchens, bedrooms and so on definitely don’t look American.

So, if the Kurds would like to do themselves a favor, they have to dig up, review and translate into English their best novels of the last forty years, make fellow Kurds write their memoires and autobiographies and have these translated too, so that sooner or later a Hollywood writer gets inspired by a story. Why it didn’t happen yet?

Telling individual stories to foreign journalists in a frank, honest  and intense way is not done in Kurdistan. Journalists are served stories dominated by clichés and with few personal details. The refusal to go beyond clichés is a cultural phenomenon that works against getting the history of all Kurds across the international community. Real autobiographies rich in individual details and feeling are not exactly the hallmark of the entire Middle East and neither of Africa. I remember a novel on a coup d’etat  in Africa, in which the black writer needed only three sentences to describe the return to his village where he found out that his whole family had been exterminated. No one in Hollywood, and in many places on earth, would be inspired to turn such paragraphs into a film. But exactly such kind of superficial stories are often “extracted” by Kurds from Kurds, such as in the Oral History Project in the city of Sulaymania. They are so flat that it almost looks as if even to the victims themselves personal suffering does not matter. This story-telling habit goes against one of the basic rules for novel and film script writing: to let a reader grasp what happened to an entire nation, you have to show the downfall of one particular hero.

The comparison with Schindler’s list is off the mark. Long before this film was made in 1993, the extermination of around six million Jews  by the Nazis was a well-known event and survivors had alreaady been given sympathy, financial compensation, museums and much more. Decades earlier, some surviving Jews had written down their experiences in unforgettable ways, such as the Italian Primo Levi.  As American Jews were part of the Hollywood elite, the Holocaust victims  very soon got their films showing their past and search for solutions. Such films have been part of the Hollywood repertoire ever since 1946.

In fact the death of another estimated thirty million people during World War II received less attention from movie makers in the West, even the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Of course the Soviet Union and now Russia have been producing forever films and novels about their suffering during Nazi occupation, as did writers and film producers in other countries which got a bitter taste of German fascism. The stories treasure of World War II has still not been exhausted. Just recently a fabulous novel (The Night Watch) was published about the Blitz in London, Hitler’s rockets war against the British capital that must have looked like Tehran during Saddam’s war against Iran. The Second World War was such a huge chain of events that even sixty years later people all over the world still tell passionate stories about it.

While nobody could and can overlook the Second World War simply because of its scope, the wars waged by the Baath Party against its own people, and against Iran and Kuwait have been much smaller events. This is not to say that the human suffering, or destruction, or death toll or racism involved in these tragic events is not worth a film. In fact I wished there were already movies about these genocidal wars, movies that would appeal to a much wider audience, if only because of the support of  first the Russians and the French and then also the Americans for Saddam’s regime – to mention only his biggest friends since 1968. But there have been around fifty wars between ‘small’ nations since 1945.

Why is it that other recent genocides  such as the extermination of millions of Cambodians and  the mass killings in Rwanda have already made it into films and into famous films even, such as The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda – but not for example the Anfal campaign against the Kurds?

It cannot be lack of interest in Iraq and the Kurds. For example the BBC’s worldwide public in 2007 selected British film director Gwynn Roberts’ documentary Saddam’s Road to Hell, about the search for the 180,000 still missing Barzanis, as one of  the three best documentaries  it wanted to see again.

So, what is the reason for Hollywood’s production of The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda?

First of all real stories existed, published in book form, that  Hollywood’s cooks could read.

The book The Killing Fields (published in 1984) is based on the experiences of three journalists: Dith Pran, a Cambodian, Sydney Schanberg, an American, and Jon Swain, a journalist from the UK. In 1980 Schanberg wrote a book, The Death and Life of Dith Pran, which became the inspiration for the film. Dith Pran worked for many years in the United States before he died and was the founder and president of the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project. Jon Swain also wrote a book about his personal adventures:  River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam which chronicles his experiences from 1970 to 1975 during the war in Indochina, including the fall of  Phnom Penh.

Paul Rusesabagina, the heroic hotel manager in the film on the 1994 Rwandese genocide, who saved over twelve hundred  citizens from being slaughtered by the Hutu militias, published  his autobiography An Ordinary Man in 2006, two years after the release of the film.  But his story was already known to many journalists who had published about his actions, also because he became a kind of enemy of the new Rwandan president Paul Kagame and went for political asylum to Belgium.

Directors are not that important in the list of reasons why Hollywood produced these films. Roland Joffé became only world famous after  his film on the Cambodian genocide, so he wasn’t an authority yet in Hollywood. Terry George, the Irish born director of Hotel Rwanda, was almost deported from the United States and also wasn’t an influential director such as Steven Spielberg, the director of Schindler’s List. Interviews with all people involved might add to our knowledge about negotiations on new films in Hollywood. But if the Kurdish leaders  love to see films about what happened to the Kurds in Saddam’s time, the winning strategy would – most probably – be to bring personal stories to Hollywood instead of bringing Hollywood giants to Kurdistan.

One things works in favor of the Kurds and that is that many events happened decades ago. The Shah of Iran’s betrayal of his Kurdish allies took place in 1975, the last year of the Kurdish Revolution. The 1970’s and 1980’s saw the destruction of thousands of villages, the Anfal campaign, the resistance by the Peshmergas (Kurdish guerrilla fighters) and the chemical warfare by the Baath Party. The uprising of 1991 and the civil war between the two biggest Kurdish political parties, KDP and PUK,  took place in the mid nineties. The most gruesome events all happened more than ten years ago.

Literary history shows us that the best war novels – and films – are written quite some years after a war ended. Writers and other witnesses need a long time to digest what happened and order their experiences under a certain angle, to give senseless cruelty in the end some personal sense.

It is not guaranteed at all that a Kurdish war story will be shot where that war took place. Depending on the story someone in Hollywood would pick up, the shooting of the film might happen in Kurdistan – or in the Rocky Mountains, in the snow of Canada or in Saddam’s prison for the Kurds in the South of Iraq – or in Australia, if the story is about a Peshmerga who meets Saddam’s hidden son in Sydney. This means, if Kurdish government circles want to support movie-making about their people’s history, that they have to make a choice between the importance of the story and the importance of making films on their territory.  Do they want the story out or the money and professional experience in?

I hope getting the story out comes first.

There are a few other points to be made.

In a personal story the details are clear from a human point of view. There is no “we”-message, no message to make allies in the future, but of course any spectator will have this feeling of “please, never again” when it comes to genocide. But wars and genocides are not blessed with a sharp division between good and evil men. Turtles Can Fly is an amazing low-budget film by Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi about the treatment of Kurdish girls raped by Arab Iraqi soldiers. The implicit criticism is very harsh. The girl commits suicide, after she has drowned her beautiful kid, because her own Kurdish family and others in mostly archconservative Kurdistan will not accept her as a victim. Such dramas also happened in Berlin in 1945 when Catholic priests encouraged German women raped by Russian liberators to kill themselves. In real life, human cruelty has many faces.

Personal stories about real events are all the more important to grab the world’s attention for the Kurds’ recent history because reconciliation between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq and between groups in Kurdistan has still not taken off.  Not much justice has been done yet, which explains partly the lack of reconciliation. This means that all events of the past are still dividing the political actors, that there is an army of skeletons in the closet and many taboos in the media to describe events that don’t fit the clichés and pious beliefs of the rank and file or the leadership of parties.  The Kurds haven’t agreed among themselves on what happened in the years under Saddam and why, not even when it comes to crucial histories such as the tragedy in Halabja. Under such circumstances a Hollywood project inside Kurdistan might actually be quickly torpedoed by one of the political parties because they don’t like the interpretation of history it gives.

Which story the Kurds would like to tell? That Saddam was against Kurds? But the clever dictator worked with certain Kurds when it suited him and over 100,000 Kurds served in the Djash, a pro-Saddam Kurdish militia. Do they want to tell the story of the missing Kurds? How come Arab Iraqis are not helping them to find the mass graves?  Would they like to tell the story of individuals in Iraq who saved the life of Kurds?  Who were they apart from Iraqi soldiers who signaled in the dark to pershmergas that they didn’t want to fight?

To get started on portraying the events, personal histories must be accepted as they happened, with not only Arab Iraqis but also Kurdish Iraqis in the role of villains – sometimes.

To comfort the Kurdish leadership: every nation has its traitors, its cowards, its selfish merchants, its power-hungry leaders,  its mercenaries,  its confused humans, its broken souls, its cruel child soldiers. You might even need them as characters in a movie to show the real, almost improbable heroism of the brave and morally sound.

Languages having little in common with European languages are an obstacle too to attract the attention of Hollywood. I have heard  many stories about, for example, Peshmerga life  but I haven’t heard enough personal details of one ordinary or one outstanding individual to write a scenario. This is my fault, I suppose,  because I cannot read Kurdish. (I am sorry, I am getting too old, and my brain already has digested nine languages.)

I don’t know  how many American movie makers  are going to learn Kurdish in the future but to put it bluntly: the printed word comes before the movie, especially when it comes to historical events. Kurdish stories need to be translated.

I understand that Kurdish educators give priority those days to translating foreign works into Kurdish, but let there be some initiatives into the other direction too.  To begin with, a website full of summaries and reviews of Kurdish war stories,  novels and plays could be created, with two pages in translation, to give readers a taste of the story.

Needless to say that such initiatives need individual volunteers, a sweet kind of patriots who are passionate about their land and people and history. Not everything can be done just by government subsidies, although creating such a website could be an excellent employment project.

(First published in December 2008)


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