Kurdish cinema and you tend to think of the bullet-strafed mountain country of
Iranian Kurdistan captured in Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards.
Or Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses, with its desperate orphans
braving sub-zero temperatures and mines on the Iran-Iraq
border. You might anticipate the anger of Jano Rosebiani's Jiyan, which inspects
the town of Halabja, subjected to a chemical and biological attack by Saddam
Hussein's air force in March 1988. But you would certainly not expect the polite
suburban setting of the Turkish film Hejar.
Hejar, a slow-burning drama, examines the unfolding relationship between a
crusty old man and a headstrong five-year-old girl. There's little here to cause
offence; still less to suggest that Hejar might be a threat to Turkish national
security. Yet last year, at the request of the police, the film was banned from
being shown in Turkey, which gives some indication of just how politically
sensitive the Kurdish question was there at that time.
Turks and Kurds, director Handan Ipekci (herself Turkish) says, have lived
peacefully side by side for centuries in Anatolia. And they largely continue to
do so in the country's cities. "It's such a mixed community," she
says, "that you can't really say 'the Turkish people' and 'the Kurdish
people'." But, until a recent ceasefire, there was an ongoing armed
struggle between government forces and the Kurdish guerrillas in the south-east
of the country, which resulted from what Ipekci describes as "a political
mistake" during the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1917. She
means neglecting to implement land reform in the region, leaving Kurdish
peasants locked in a financially crippling feudal system. Another significant
factorwas a national ban on the Kurdish language in Turkey. An intense woman in
her mid-40s, Ipekci says with absolute finality, "It was not possible for
me not to make a film about the Kurdish people."
The idea for Hejar came during a period of nationalist fervour in 1998
surrounding the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Turkish republic.
This, together with the threat of tensions in the south-east spilling over into
the urban communities, convinced her to make a film about the relationship
between the Turkish and Kurdish communities. "It was," she says,
"a terrible time."
The script tells a simple story hooked on less-than-subtle symbolism.
Five-year-old Hejar (the name means "oppressed") is left by her
grandfather at the Istanbul flat of a distant relative. But the apartment is
also sheltering a pair of dissident Kurdish guerrillas. Across the hallway,
retired Turkish judge Rifat instinctively sides with the police when they raid
the flat, but can't bring himself to turn a child over to the officers in
The question of language is central to the film. The old judge, Ipekci explains,
is the authoritarian figure who symbolises the official line that the Kurdish
language doesn't exist. His beleaguered Kurdish servant represents cultural
It's a gently optimistic message which might have gone unchecked but for one
contentious scene in which the police raid raid the flat and an officer
apparently shoots an unarmed woman at point-blank range. It's a moment that
Ipekci defends - "We have had cases where the police did go in shooting to
kill in a totally unlawful way" - but it was enough, given the unstable
political situation at the time of the picture's release in October 2001, to get
Hejar withdrawn from cinemas, even through it had already won numerous film
festival prizes and had been chosen as Turkey's entry to the Academy awards.
Ipekci went to court and eventually the decision was reversed, but it was too
late to get the film reinstated in the Istanbul festival's national competition,
where she was tipped to win several prizes.
Ipekci is philosophical about this disappointment. Hejar is not the first film
she's had to fight to get shown. No Turkish distributor would support her first
picture, Dad Is in the Army, which looked at the impact of the 1980 military
coup through the eyes of a child. Consequently, Ipekci took on the
responsibility herself, driving around the country and brow-beating exhibitors
into showing the film. It was, she says, a tragicomic situation.
Jano Rosebiani, the director of Jiyan, has more fundamental problems with the
authorities. Taking film equipment into Iraqi Kurdistan is, in his words,
"a no-no", so he was forced to seek the help of smugglers to transport
his digital camera equipment into Kurdistan from Turkey. His film is closer in
content and style to Iranian cinema. As in Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us,
which Jiyan somewhat resembles, an urbane city man visits a small town in the
furthest reaches of Kurdistan. Rosebiani's protagonist is a Kurd returning to
the area for the first time after fleeing to America in the wake of the collapse
of the Kurdish uprising in 1975. His aim is to build an orphanage for the
children of Halabja, the decimated Kurdish town that lost around 5,000 of its
population in the 1988 attack. A Kurdish-American, Rosebiani makes no secret of
the personal relevance of the story. "I wanted to be a window through which
to introduce the Kurdish way of life, their culture; the Kurdish people and
their dilemma," he says. "As a Kurd and a film-maker, I felt it was my
duty to expose that information. Basically, me making the film Jiyan is the same
as the character building the orphanage."
Rosebiani was prevented from spending a long time in Halabja as, 12 years on,
the town's water supply and vegetation were still contaminated. Instead he
scouted for locations in other Kurdish villages and peopled his cast with
survivors of Halabja. It's perhaps no wonder, given the human cost of the
attacks, that Rosebiani finds it a struggle to keep his films apolitical. And,
he says, it is this unavoidable emotional involvement that sets his work, and
that of fellow Kurd Bahman Ghobadi, apart from that of Kiarostami and Mohsen and
Samira Makhmalbaf. "The [Iranian] films are more poetic and symbolic. A
Kurdish film-maker is trying to make art, but at the same time we have this
urgency to tell the world about this group of people and their plight."
Rosebiani says that, as yet, "there is no Kurdish cinema". But while
he is dismissive about the chances of a truly Kurdish cinematic voice emerging
from Turkey, he is optimistic about the prospects in the liberated Iraqi region
of Kurdistan. "They hadn't had the freedom even to publish their books, or
to write their poetry for so many decades. Now for 10 years they have had that
opportunity and suddenly hundreds of books have been published, and television
and radio stations opened."
Film-making in Iraqi Kurdistan is mainly restricted to video, the only medium
available. But there are plans to open a film academy as part of the national
university. "Everybody is in favour, and we'll see what the situation is
after the dust has settled within the next couple of months," says
Rosebiani, touching on one issue that may serve to increase international
coverage of the plight of the Kurds. War on Iraq can't fail to impact on
Kurdistan, perched between two major players in "the axis of evil".
"Now that the west is prepared to remove Saddam," says Rosebiani,
"once again the Kurdish issue is being used - not for the love of the
Kurds, but to convince their public that Saddam must be removed. Kurds have
always been victims of their own circumstances and at times they benefit from
the exposure. That's really the Kurdish dilemma."
For more rveiws
of Hejar visit <Hejar>.