Geoff — Cameras for Guns

Comments Off on Geoff — Cameras for Guns

Cameras for Guns
“Marooned in Iraq, Songs of My Motherland”
Directed by Bahman Ghobadi, Iran 2002, 97 min
by Geoffrey Garrison – 07/15/2003
published on THE THING
Looking like a Kurdish beatnik, a man on a motorcycle wearing dark sunglasses tears through a rocky valley in Iranian Kurdistan. Actually, Barat, the man on the motorcycle, is something of a rock star. He is a popular musician and the son of Mirza, the most famous musician in Kurdistan. The second feature film by Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi, Marooned in Iraq, Songs of My Motherland, opens with Barat rushing back home to his father who has sent for him. What develops is a simple adventure tale that combines a quirky sense of humor with tragedy. Mirza persuades his two sons, Barat and Audeh, to accompany him into Iraqi Kurdistan to find Mirza’s ex-wife Hanareh, who is among refugees terrorized by Saddam Hussein’s bombers and gas attacks. The sons blame Hanareh for creating a scandal that split up the music group and the marriage. But now she is in trouble, and Mirza must travel to Iraq to help her. Piling onto Barat’s motorcycle and sidecar, they set off to Iraq, periodically stopping to perform folk music for wedding ceremonies or bands of refugee children. Along the way, they are sidetracked on various picaresque escapades, coming into contact with thieves, police officers, a conniving doctor, a womanizing lecher, and a long list of other characters.
At last entering Iraq, the fellowship is attacked and tortured by police officers, or bandits (their identity is never really clear). Barat’s motorcycle is stolen, and the group is forced to continue across the ice-covered peaks by foot. Later they come across a pair of men, handcuffed and stripped to their thermals, ambling along the road as if they had wandered in from a Marx Brothers film or Beckett play. Claiming to be police officers, they no longer have any proof of authority or means to uphold the law. In this lawless land where no one trusts his neighbor, the distinction between outlaw and lawman is never well defined.
Within this chaotic environment, even the most banal activities take on an overwhelmingly absurd quality. Ghobadi depicts a teacher conducting class in a war zone. On a snow-draped hill, the schoolteacher attempts to explain warplanes and bombs to young children. His precocious pupils don’t make the job easy for him. “Have you ever been in a plane?” No, he responds, but he has met someone who has flown. He then has them fold paper airplanes and launch them over the edge of a cliff. This Kurdish air force takes on gigantic proportions with the addition of a soundtrack of jets dubbed over a shot of the paper planes gliding into the blue sky.
In a scene more horrifying because it is all too real, a mob of mourning women desperately searches a mass grave for the remains of loved ones. Barat, almost oblivious to the morbid circumstances, approaches a woman he is in love with although he has only seen her once before. He immediately proposes marriage to her for the second time. Less of a romantic, she reminds him of her responsibilities and the urgency of the situation. Either because of the woman, or the macabre scene, Barat removes his shades for the first time. A layer of fiction, like the shading effect of the sunglasses, is removed from our eyes as well. And yet we remain in the world of cinema where a love affair may begin on the edge of a mass grave.
At the center of the film is the relationship between men and women in Kurdish society. Audeh, Mirza’s other son, has amassed a collection of seven wives and twelve daughters. After each wife gives birth to a daughter rather than a son, he finds a new woman. Seeking a new wife in a refugee worker, he instead receives a lecture on the virtues and necessities of adoption. “Why have you made so many women miserable?” she asks him. She convinces him to adopt not one, but two refugee children. Barat too is given a lesson from the woman he seeks to marry. In return for her hand, she demands that he teach her to sing despite the fact that it is considered indecorous for a married woman to sing.
Besides advocating a better place for women in Kurdish society, the film focuses on the atrocities of Saddam Hussein. As the film progresses, the soundtrack is more and more punctuated by the roar of Saddam Hussein’s warplanes and the whistles of bombs. The film culminates in a meeting between Mirza and a woman suffering from a gas attack. Her voice squeaking from the shadows, she relates Hanareh’s fate. Despite its central role, the conflict is vague and unexplained. It could be during the failed uprisings in the aftermath of the first gulf war and Bush’s failure to come to the aid of the insurgents. Or perhaps it is during the Halabja massacre in 1988 when 5,000 Kurds fell victim to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons (while he was still receiving extensive U.S. support).
Marooned in Iraq appeared as part of the second annual Kurdish Film Festival in Berlin. Hosted by Filmkunsthaus Babylon and Eiszeit Kino, the Berlin Festival is one of the few festivals around the world devoted to the cinema of this stateless people. Though Kurdistan has existed at least since 1150, the Kurds have been dominated by outside powers for a good deal of the time, and their land is now divided among Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. The Kurds have struggled for recognition and self-determination since the early 19th century when the Ottomans annexed their land. Victims of cultural repression in every country to which they are annexed, Kurds have been slow to develop a national cinema. But film as a medium does seem to have caught on there: according to Ghobadi, the number of filmmakers in Kurdistan is growing rapidly. “These days you do not see anyone with a weapon in their hands, but the camera, the greatest cultural weapon of our age, has replaced the gun.” Or at least that is how Bahman Ghobadi would like to have it: an army of cameramen and a fleet of paper airplanes.