« I am now a traveller with several suitcases », explained internationally acclaimed Kurdish film director Bahman Ghobadi, during a short visit to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, in June (2010) … »I have two suitcases in the United States, where I go to improve my English, one in an apartment in Berlin, where I plan to shoot a film, and one in Erbil, where I have several projects under way. »
Why did he leave Iran? Well, Bahman Ghobadi explains, it all happened after the Cannes Film Festival in May 2009, where his film No One Knows About Persian Cats, usually referred to under the shortened title Persian Cats, won the Un certain Regard award and the Special Jury prize.
A few days after the festival ended, at the beginning of June 2009, Bahman Ghobadi travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan and clandestinely crossed the Iranian border, as did the smugglers of his film A Time for Drunken Horses, released in 2000. But he did not get very far. He was quickly discovered, arrested and sent to prison, spending three days in Hamadan jail and four days in Tehran. Then, just three days before the presidential elections on12 June 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad announced that Ghobadi was free to go. He was turned loose and told firmly : « Go, and do not come back.
During the intervening year Bahman Ghobadi has been busy promoting his film Persian Cats, the « first Iranian film about music and rock ‘n‘ roll », which was shot in only 18 days.
One particular striking scene in the film shows young musicians playing among cows in a barn! « Heavy metal is very noisy »; explains Bahman Ghobadi, « the musicians had to go and play outside the city. However although the authorities were not prepared to accept us, the cows didn’t have a problem. » « .
« Since I began shooting my films, I have never been able tolet my guard down », laments Bahman Ghobadi. « After the film Marooned in Iraq (2002), I was called in by the security services and interrogated five times. After Turtles can fly (2004), I was questioned again and told that the film was « pro-American » !
« Just a day before the shooting of Half Moon (2006), the head of censorship at the Ministry of Culture called me in and demanded : « Don ‘t make this film in the Kurdish language ! » I have repeatedly told them : « Look, I am an Iranian, I love Iran, but I am also a Kurd »
« But », he adds, « I don’t want to be treated like a second-class citizen - if I go back to Iran, they might send me to jail, like Jafar Panahi, or maybe they will decide to confiscate my passport. In any case, I know they will do everything they can to try to make sure I cannot make a film. »
The tragedy is that Bahman Ghobadi cannot, he says, live without shooting films or at least passing his expertise and teaching others how to shoot films. « I have a dream », Bahman Ghobadi says, « I want to open a festival centre here in Erbil. »
Currently, he is trying to convince Nechirvan Barzani, the former Iraqi Kurdish prime minister, who is still a powerful decision-maker in Iraqi Kurdistan, to build a big festival centre for cinema, music and theatre… « Iraqi Kurdistan does not need to be like Dubai », adds Bahman Ghobadi, « on the opposite, we must be the best centre for culture in the Middle East ».
Bahman Ghobadi’s master plan is to create a centre where he could teach a dozen young Kurds at a time, the techniques of film making and of post production—editing, sound mixing, special effects, subtitles and so on. « If every year we could produce just one good Kurdish film-maker, it would be a great achievement », he noted. « I was lucky to grow up in the culture of Sanandaj, the Kurds best known centre of creativity and culture. If I am able to achieve 50 % of my dream, I will be very happy ».
Bahman Ghobadi has always two or three film projects in mind. He describes Iraqi Kurdistan as « the same country » as his native Iranian Kurdistan. There is an idea which, he says, has haunted him for three years ; a film he would like to make with Guillermo Arriega, the famous Mexican screenwriter responsible for 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006).
Bahman will only say it will be the story of an Iranian Kurdish writer who moved to Germany at 21 years of age and who – by the time he is 25 - is sick and depressed. Bahman plans to shoot the German part of the story in Berlin, and the Iranian part in Erbil and Dohok.
There is also another project on the drawing board that, he hopes, he will be able to shoot in Istanbul and in Diyarbakir.
Then, there is an ambitious project to make a movie about the life of General Barzani, the hero of the Kurdish national movement. « It will be an artistic film », says Bahman Ghobadi, « not something following the Hollywood style… I want to make a film about Barzani’s childhood, showing how he grew up, why he took arms against his oppressors. I want to illustrate his love stories and his exile in the former USSR—making it a road movie. I want to show the whole world exactly who the Kurds are ! »
The Middle East magazine, August/September 2010
Umm Qasr, Iraq