Sign up for our free newsletter
It’s early April, and “coalition” bombs are falling on Baghdad. The American government, which has alternately cultivated and betrayed Iraq’s Kurds, is once again allied with the ethnic minority. But news of this affiliation was apparently late in arriving at the U.S. Embassy in Dubai, which Bahman Ghobadi visited repeatedly to get a visa.
“It took me five months,” says the Iranian Kurdish director, whose first feature, A Time for Drunken Horses, was a well-reviewed art-house hit. “Two years ago for my previous film, I came here three times. This time, for five months, I was going back and forth to Dubai. Two times, they said, ‘Absolutely not.’ The third time I went, I was finally given the visa. However, I was embarrassed because one of the guards put a gun to my shoulder and treated me very poorly. It didn’t matter that I was coming to promote a film that is anti-Saddamnot even anti-Saddam, but which spoke about the fate of the Kurdish people.”
Ghobadi was scheduled to introduce this film, Marooned in Iraq, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art last fall. He didn’t make it. Maybe American officials were nervous about the movie, which is set just after the Gulf War, when George H.W. Bush abandoned a Kurdish Iraqi uprising to suffer Saddam Hussein’s vengeance. (It came in the form of chemical-weapons attacks that killed some 15,000 Kurds.) Or perhaps the filmmaker’s visa requests were denied simply because he is an Iranian citizen. Last fall, Abbas Kiarostami was refused a visa to attend the New York Film Festival to introduce Ten, not exactly a pro-mullah piece.
“Coming to the United States was a hellish experience for me,” says Ghobadi, sitting in a Dupont Circle hotel the day after a local screening of Marooned in Iraq. “The fingerprinting, the strip search, being talked down to, being treated like I was subhuman. The only reason I went through all of that was so I could be a spokesperson for the Kurdish people.”
Ghobadi is a proud man. Even filtered through a translator, the 35-year-old director’s comments can be testy. Take, for example, his appraisal of attending film school in Tehran: “I didn’t learn anything about filmmaking there. I learned from actually going out and doing it. Making 30, 40 short films, and spending the time and getting the skills that were necessary.”
The filmmaker also objects to his official credit on such films as Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us and Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards. “They called me an assistant director, but I wasn’t just an assistant director,” he stipulates. “I was more of a consultant. Those films were shot in Kurdistan, and one of the reasons I wanted to work on them is because I wanted there to be a better image of the Kurdish people disseminated. Up until then, most of the films made in Kurdistan were the Iranian version of blockbustersaction-packed movies that didn’t have anything to do with the people of Kurdistan. So I took on those positions in order to work with renowned directors and show them things about the Kurdish people that until then were not shown.”
Despite Ghobadi’s insistence that he’s a self-made filmmaker, it’s suggested, his two features do resemble those of Kiarostami and other well-known Iranian directors.
“Are my films very similar to the Iranian films you’ve seen? I don’t think so,” he responds.
“What I’ve always tried to do with my films is to try something original. I think that it’s very important that there be a variety of different kinds of stories in Iranian cinema. And I think that my stories are very different from the stories that other directors have pursued.
“Have you seen A Time for Drunken Horses? What films did it resemble in your mind? How is it similar to other directors?”
In fact, Ghobadi’s films share many traits with the work of other Iranian directors, including the reliance on nonprofessional actors, the use of documentary techniques and sequences, and a concern for the poor, the young, and the dispossessed.
“That’s fine,” he retorts, “but there are many other directors from other parts of the world who are also using nonactors in their films. I think it can be said that my films are as much like those as they are like Iranian films. Chinese, Japanese, even Greek.”
Still, when Ghobadi describes his approach to screenplays, he sounds more Iranian than Japanese. “I never start out with a full script. I start with an idea, and I work with my characters in bringing that story to fruition. I might shoot all day and then go home and revise the story line, so that the next day I shoot again and do the same thing. Each night, each day, it’s constantly taking shape.”
In Marooned in Iraq, he says, half of the material came from his own experiences, and half from the performers’. “I don’t ask them to act. What I take from them is a documentation of their own lives. I ask them to live, and that is where I get my inspiration and story.”
Like its predecessor, Ghobadi’s new film begins in Iran and heads across the Iraqi border, the trek made this time by an old singer and his two sons, who are also musicians. “It didn’t really matter to me who I used as the main characters, as long as we could take the viewers through the villages, show them the people, take them from Iranian Kurdistan to Iraqi Kurdistan,” the director explains. “I thought, What is the best way of doing this? Musicians were perfect, because with their travels they’re bringing their music, and that’s bringing some joy.”
Although the three men are not as famous as the characters they play, they are all real musicians. “I don’t like to use actors,” Ghobadi says. “All of my characters are real people. If I want to use a doctor, I go and find a doctor. If I want to use a teacher, I go and find a teacher. Otherwise, it loses authenticity. I want them to convince the audience that this is real.”
Working with nonactors who improvise dialogue was once essentially forbidden by Iran’s censors, who had to approve the script before a film could begin. “Before Khatami became president, it was very difficult,” Ghobadi notes. “The censors were all over you. Right now, I don’t have to submit a full script. I can get permission based on one or two pages.”
In the region where Kurds traditionally live, he adds, “Iran is the only place that would allow such a film to be madea Kurdish film, spoken in Kurdish, made by a Kurdish director, with a Kurdish cast and crew. You wouldn’t be able to do that anywhere else.”
Still, he cautions, “there are certain things that you can’t show, unfortunately. Very basic things that you see here you can’t show there. You can’t show a boy and girl together. You can’t show man and wife kissing and hugging. You can’t show a woman’s hair.”
One scene in Marooned in Iraq is played as a dialogue between one of the musicians and the shadow of a woman he has just overheard singing. “This is the reality of what women in Iran and Kurdistan have had to deal with,” Ghobadi says. “They have had to deal with a life of prohibitions. This is not something I chose to show. It just came up because it’s the reality of the life there.”
Under Iran’s Islamic rule, women cannot sing in public or allow their voices to be recorded. “In Iran, a woman can’t sing freely, is not allowed to sing, and that has an effect on the way society views women as well. And it’s not correct.”
Despite broaching such issues, Ghobadi insists that he is not a political filmmaker. Yet his next movie will deal with the plight of Kurds in Turkey, which long denied them an official identity. (Until recently, the government called them “mountain Turks.”) And Malaysia actually banned Marooned in Iraq, labeling it a piece of pro-American propaganda that could “dangerously jeopardize relations” between Malaysia and Hussein’s Iraq.
The director reacts to the word “Malaysia” with a mixture of mirth and rage. “This just shows the level of ignorance and the level of backwardness of the Malaysians, to take time and energy denouncing a film that has nothing to do with politics. It’s not a propaganda film.
“They just want to act like a big player in a world where they’re really relegated to nothing. They should put a leash around the president’s neck and take him personally to the Kurdish areas and have him see exactly what is happening.”
Ghobadi says again that he’s not an ideological director. “But when the situation is so tied in to politics, when an ordinary person has to deal with suffering that is imposed by a government or a war, what do I do as a filmmaker? I don’t want to be a political filmmaker, but I want to tell the stories that exist, so I must include aspects of that. Whether or not I want it, it will come out.”Mark Jenkins