America "owns" cinema—and so what better gift for Iraq? The move from shooting bullets to shooting film would be a welcome oneby Mark Cousins / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
I’ve just returned from Iraq. Not the theatres of war of Mosul or Baghdad, but the wings, in the Kurdish north.
Like many a stage wing, Kurdish Iraq is humming. There are constant jokes about the action “down the road.” One minute the landscape is all waterfalls and rivers, with kids splashing around in dappled sunlight, then, a bit further along the same road, such bucolic scenes are replaced by biblical ones, of kids dressed in turquoise driving goats across a distant valley. Theme parks—or dream parks as they’re called here—with flumes and big wheels shimmer in the furnace heat. I saw sheep on basketball pitches, peacocks and a gazelle. At one point, dust devils turned the sun white and the light pearly.
I was in Iraq to make a documentary, and the filmmaker in me couldn’t put my camera down. This corner of the world has long been a magic realist landscape—this is the land of One Thousand and One Nights and the epic Kurdish fairytale love story Mem and Zin, first written down in 1692. Stories are usually told here when people are woozy from the shisha pipe; fables recited in the fabulous shade of a riverside tree or a nomad’s tent. I sat in one such tent, on fine carpets, sipping sweet tea, then realised that the bump under my rug was a machine gun.
Magic and trauma: I was both entranced and dispirited. It became clear to me that if a place this ripe with narrative, this full of drama and loss, is to recover, it will have to start telling new stories about itself. Given that Iraq is so overwhelmingly pictorial, some of these stories should be told on film.
Iraq and Kurdistan have never been filmic hotspots. Egyptian and Iranian films have sporadically played in northern cities like Irbil and Suleymaniye since the 1950s. The Turkey-born Yilmaz Güney was the first Kurd to make a major impact on the movies—he was a kind of middle eastern Sean Connery, starring in over 100 films from the late 1950s onwards before turning to directing in 1966. Güney was also a dissident who spent years in prison, and he eventually won the Cannes Palme d’Or with Yol, which he directed by proxy from behind bars in the early 1980s (he escaped imprisonment in time to receive the award). In 2000, the Iran-born Kurd Bahman Ghobadi directed…