CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS OF REPORTAGE (Texts and Photos)

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KURDISTAN IRAQ: Hiner Saleem, Film Director;

Long live the Bride... and the Liberation of Kurdistan

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Hiner SaleemThe Kurds living in exile in Europe may have their feet in Germany or in France but their hearts remain in Kurdistan. At least, this is the message of the film “Long live the Bride...and the Liberation of Kurdistan”, the first film written and directed in France by a Kurd.

In this excellent film, Hiner Saleem, an Iraqi Kurd, tells the story of Kurdish intellectuals and militants who are sufficiently assimilated into French culture to have a French mistress but traditional enough to want to marry a girl from back home.

Looking for a wife

The film opens with a scene showing Cheto, the “hero” of the film, watching a video with his two best friends. The video film, compiled by Cheto’s friend Misto, shows several Kurdish girls, all of whom are looking for a husband. Predictably, Cheto chooses the most beautiful girl and equally predictably, the girl who eventually arrives in Paris is her elder unmarried sister, Mina, a plain and physically unattractive woman. At first, Cheto refuses to marry Mina, but the pressure applied upon him by the Kurdish community is so strong that  eventually he gives in.

Hiner SaleemAt this point the film takes a new turn. With the assistance of much wordlier -- some moght say “feminist” -- Kurdish women such as Leila, a lawyer, who has lived for some years in Europe, Mina learns that to be be happy a woman has to be independent: she has to take care of her body and her clothes (and to get rid of the ugly gold tooth that disfigures her smile), to learn the language of the country she lives in, and to find a job.

Slowly Mina evolves to become an informed and attractive woman. When he realises this, her husband Cheto falls in love with her. But it is too late, she leaves her husband, and the film ends with a scene showing Mina and several Kurdish women friends watching a video cassette compiled of men looking for a bride!

This sentimental initiation of a young Kurdish woman to European culture gives Hiner Saleem the opportunity to show the daily life of Kurds living in exile in France: it is a journey into the Kurdish workshops and associations, the hammams and the restaurants of the “Kurdish village” of Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, where the Kurdish community in Paris live and work.

Hiner SaleemFrench filmgoers seem to love Hiner Saleem’s comedy which focuses on a lively community they largely ignored until the film came out. Kurdish audiences however, are divided. While most women love it, many Kurdish men do not like the image the film portrays, especially with regard to their relations with women. Many militants are also shocked by details which they consider to be “unrepresentative”: for example the film shows Kurdish militants who drink, who use force to collect the “revolutionary tax”, or who interrupt their mission to meet their French girl friends.

A comedy based on the lives of Kurdish exiles

These critics seem to forget that Hiner Saleem’s film is not a documentary based on absolute fact, or indeed any one particular Kurdish political organisation: it is a comedy based on the lives of Kurdish exiles, torn between their distant homeland and their new country.

Born in Akkra, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in 1964, Hiner Saleem is the son of a “peshmerga” (Kurdish freddom fighter) who was the personal Morse code operator of the charismatic Kurdish political leader, General Barzani. The young Hiner Saleem recalls the many occasions when his father would take off  for the mountain with his old Brno rifle, repeating: “Next year Kurdistan will be free”.

Indeed Hiner Saleem is full of memories, of sudden flights from the family home in Akkra, of killings, of the many and various tragedies which make up the daily life of the Kurds in Iraq.

Returning home from one of his family’s many exodus Hiner Saleem went back to school in Akkra -- to discover that he did not understand a word of what his teacher was saying: the teacher was speaking in Arabic. Several years later his father bought the family’s first television set and when Hiner Saleem realised that Arabic was the language used by the presenter as well as the actors, he swore to himself: “one day I will make a TV programme on which everyone will speak Kurdish”.

Hiner Saleem was to keep his word by making films in the Kurdish language. He fled from Iraq to Syria in the early 1980s, and lived in Italy, where he made a living as an artist painting sketches of tourists in Florence. Then he travelled to Paris, where he worked in various Kurdish associations, organized exhibitions of his paintings, and nursed a burning desire to make films, while working on a book based on his memories of a Kurdish childhood. He completed two films, “Shero” (1992), and “A bit of border” (1994): after borrowing money from friends to buy cheap airline tickets to take amateur actors to Iraqi Kurdistan.

A self taught director

These early low budget films helped Hiner Saleem get the money for his third film. he was unable to go to film school in Iraq and is largely self taught in the art of directing. Indeed he prides himself on the fact he has actually seen very few few films by other directors.

“In Iraq you had to be a member of the Baath party to go to such a sensitive institution as film school”, says Hiner Saleem. Yet, despite his lack of formal training he was awarded the prize for the best screenplay for “Long live the Bride ... and the liberation of Kurdistan” at the French film festival of Angers last year (1997).

His film is full of real stories picked up in the Kurdish tea houses and restaurants where he used to spend hours in conversation with his friends, waiting for the money to shoot his next film. “Many of my friends got married like that, shopping for their wife from a video cassette”, tells Hiner; “sometimes it works, sometimes it ends tragically, maybe with the husband sending his wife back to Kurdistan”.

Despite enjoying huge success with French audiences, many Kurds have criticised the film denying it is in any way representative of their lives in France.

“Myself, I am also a Kurd”, answers Hiner, “I myself and many of my friends we are like this: we drink raki, we like to have a joyful party, we love women. They criticize the way the “revolutionary tax” is collected in the film? On the contrary, this makes my personnages more human; they are not racketeers, they have feelings, they love life. I am more patriotic than many of the people who criticise me: I say publicly that one should give money for the struggle. My critics hide themselves... Some blame me for doing a comedy but it is a comedy with a noble cause. I can do what I want with my cause and with my flag, the Kurdish flag, it is mine: I can cover myself with it when I am cold, I can use it to cover my girl friend if she is naked. I can put it in my brother’s hand or in my son’s hand to lead a demonstration... A flag, like people and a cause, must live.

(The Middle East magazine, October 1998)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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