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KURDISTAN IRAQ : Out of Exile, Hiner Saleem tells the Joys and Sadness of Coming Home

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Hiner Saleem"Look, look, these hills look like the body of a woman. Their shape is gentle because they are fondled by the wind... And look at these spots of light in the sky".... Driving through the mountains near his home town of Akkra, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Hiner Saleem, a Kurdish film director living in France, is ecstatic. "It is so beautiful that when I am alone, I feel like crying".

And everytime he sees a Kurdish flag along the road -- there are plenty of them -- flying over official buildings, or carved into the slopes of the mountains, he is enraptured: "It is as if I am seeing it for the first time", he confesses.

Hiner Saleem is not unknown to the readers of TME who learned through its pages in October 1998 of his first professional film, "Long live the bride... and the liberation of Kurdistan".

Born in Akkra in 1964, Hiner Saleem described in his book "My father’s rifle", how, when a child, he would watch TV, where all the presenters spoke in Arabic, and he swore that one day he would make programmes in which everyone would speak in Kurdish

He kept his pledge. Since "Long live the Bride", he has directed several other films -- including Dream Smugglers, Absolitude, and Vodka Lemon -- which were shot in France and in Armenia, partly in Kurdish.

HinerImmediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, after nearly 20 years of exile, je went back to Iraqi Kurdistan and shot "Kilometer Zero", which tells, in Kurdish, the story of a young Kurdish villager unwillingly sent to war on the Iraq-Iran front. The second part of the film is a road movie: the hero is sent to Kurdistan as an escort a taxi carrying back the body of a "martyr". During this long journey from the south of Iraq to Kurdistan in the north -- a trip marked by several encounters with a lorry carrying a huge statue of Saddam Hussein -- the ongoing dialogue between the Arab taxi driver and the Kurdish soldier illustrates that, exceptional circumstances notwithstanding, there is little possibility of ever finding much common ground between them. The film, which was shown at the prestigious Cannes Festival, ends with a scene that takes place in Paris (and actually shot in Hiner Saleem’s flat) where the young Kurdish soldier and his wife have succeeded in escaping to France, and seeing on French TV news TV that the Americans have reached Baghdad, they go to a window and with the Eiffel tower in the background, shout "Long live G.W.Bush"!

Hiner Saleem is clearly not afraid of expressing views that could be interpreted as politically uncorrect. "When Saddam Hussin was captured, I rejoiced. How could I not rejoice when a bloody tyrant who had put millions of victims under the earth was put in prison"?

He asks, adding "I want the Americans to stay here, and to open bases in Kurdistan. In 1945, the Jews who were reduced to a mere 25 kg of bones in the Nazi concentration camps had no possibility to choose their liberators".

Hiner Saleem is one of those many Kurds who want their own state, and he says forcefully "If we cannot create a Kurdish state, I will destroy these states, Turkey and Syria, which are opposed to the creation of a Kurdish one".

For the time being Hiner Saleem is busy shooting his latest film whose working title is "The Drum". In a scene in which two brothers are talking about a woman one of them plans to marry, the director underlines the desperate situation of many women who have to deal with the aftermath of war. "She is a whore", one brother tells the other. "All the Iraqi army made love with her".

Hiner et Belcim"It is one of the topics of my film: men who come out of jail are heroes, but in Kurdistan the women who were freed from jail are treated like prostitutes", claims Hiner Saleem.

The story of "The Drum" takes in all areas of Kurdistan, in Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

In one scene, one of the main characters retrieves the bones of his late sister from a mass grave. The role is played by Abdullah Keskin, in real life the manager of the Istanbul based publishing house "Avesta". When he played the scene, Abdullah Keskin burst into tears. For him, explains Hiner Saleem, the scene provoked desperately sad memories. Abdullah, whose brother had "disappeared" three years before, was summoned by the mukhtar of his village who took him to a place in the countryside and revealed: "The bones of your brother are here". When he saw the bones in The Drum, he remembered his brother’s cruel fate.

During the same scene, four women extras -- villagers from the neighbouring area -- also wept spontaneously: "I didn’t need to tell them what to do", recalls Hiner Saleem, "they also had gone through similar experiences to the ones they were acting out -- the extras here have lived all those scenes in their personal history, such suffering is engraved on their memory".

Another scene of the film, set in Iranian Kurdistan, involves the wedding of the film’s two chief protagonists -- played by Belcim Bigin and Nazmi Kirik, also the main actors in "Kilometer Zero". During the marriage ceremony, the village is bombed, but the wedding goes on regardless. "We are used to it", says one of the guests. The next day, however, the village is deserted: the whole population has left.

For that particular scene Hiner Saleem, held negotiations with the muktar of a small mountain village to establish whether a few villagers would agree to having their houses blown out in return for financial compensation. The discussion took place in a small school built of clay, in the traditional Kurdish style, where a teacher was conducting lessons with three pupils, two boys and a girl. Altogether the school has just eight pupils and although it looks like a school that might have been built rdprcially for the purpose of filming, it is a real one, built by the Kurdish government of Erbil, which has vowed to create a school and appoint teachers in all the newly rebuilt villages of Kurdistan.

The Drum closes with a scene that takes place in Turkish Kurdistan: the newly wed couple go back to the village of the groom but, when they arrive, Turkish troops surround the village and both bride and groom are shot on the roof of a house, "dying", says Hiner Saleem, "in a final dance".

The end is bitter, as Hiner Saleem, despite his joy at being be allowed to shoot films in a free Kurdistan with the help of a Kurdish government, still feels desperately sad.

"I no longer have any home", he says, "when one has been in exile once, there is no longer any such place as home".

(The Middle East magazine, January 2006)

 

 

 

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