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Real and Imagined Kurdistan

Flaherty at MoMA: The Films of Bahman Ghobadi, June 27-July 7

<i>From top to bottom: Stills from Ghobadi's</i> Turtles Can Fly <i>and</i> Half Moon. <i>Photos courtesy</i>
From top to bottom: Stills from Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly and Half Moon. Photos courtesy

This month’s Bahman Ghobadi retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art features seven of his short and feature films, all concerning his enduring subject: the daily lives and struggles of Kurdish people living in a region that exists for the most part in the imagination.

As a Kurdish Iranian, Ghobadi is drawn to the idiosyncrasies of his culture. Each film follows his characters interacting in villages, doing what is necessary to survive as war continues to divide them. They perform recurring tasks, which range from the customary, such as building an instrument, to the terrifying, like smuggling goods and digging up landmines. Patterns emerge as the same performers appear from film to film. The plots resemble each other. Hardship is punctuated by moments of joy and comedy. Scenes abruptly change from the drudgery of pulling a donkey uphill in the snow to a singer performing before a rapt audience. Ghobadi’s films have no narrator or defined point of view—scenes unfold naturally as if we are watching from just outside the frame. When a truck stops on the side of a dusty road to pick people up, the camera moves on board and we too feel the sun in our eyes and the shouts of the other passengers just audible above the engine’s roar. Ghobadi’s longer pieces breathe cinema: gusty, saturated panoramas of the Iranian hillsides and intimate close-ups of faces, wind blown and searching. His shorter and older films are just as consuming in story but humbler in style and simple almost to the point of the prosaic. The earliest film in the program, Life in Fog, is a documentary about the difficulties three siblings face when their parents die. With each subsequent film, Ghobadi’s technique becomes more elaborate, more constructed, more inventively cinematic, but the fixation upon Kurdish people and how they go about their daily lives remains.

Ghobadi’s method teeters the line between documentary and fiction. A Time for Drunken Horses is a feature length production returning to the scenario from Life in Fog, but the story has been fictionalized and expanded. All of Ghobadi’s fiction films use non-professional actors. They are both young and old, and sometimes whole families. One of the sisters in the film Daf, about a family that makes instruments out of sheep hide and wood, remains visibly uncomfortable. Her eyes drift downwards when the camera nears and a nervous smile spreads across her lips. Watching her draws attention to the apparatus of filmmaking—the camera, the director, the crew. Ghobadi tinkers with casting and location, feeling out a place and its people before using them. His process of determining aesthetics and script (he has said that he writes most of the script while on set), when applied to “real” places and “real” people, merges the resources of a documenting practice with imagined stories. Ghobadi’s films produce a documentary-like understanding of a hitherto unknown place, culture or issue, but they also explore cinematic and whimsical terrain. The result is a special hybrid: both real and devised. The films hook you to the performer’s charisma or beauty, and you want to see more.

Ghobadi delves into the rhythm of detail, bringing music and drama to the smallest activities. He is able to film the lives of these Kurdish people as they are now: ravaged and desperate for money, but possessed of a strong unity for their ever-threatened population. Their camaraderie and willingness to help each other is overwhelming. They speak loudly and use exaggerated gestures to make their points. It seems that they are constantly fighting, but they are not. The English subtitles are basic at best, which makes it seem that more has been said than we have understood. Still, the tone feels universal. Language comes second to the emotions and physical presence of people as they persevere in a bleak environment.

Ghobadi is unusually adept with children. In the feature Turtles Can Fly, their faces bear ageless expressions that speak with a poetry unmatched in his other films. Youths dig for landmines (to sell in the market) with harrowing caution, and a blind baby boy cries in shameless, abysmal sobs as he wanders through a desolation of hollowed cars and dusty, abandoned construction pipes. Love brims between siblings and towards other children—a sacredness is cultivated around them, the most vulnerable victims of war. As the older seer-brother in Turtles Can Fly knows, disaster is always near. A quiet night, hopeful in its tenderness, must succumb to morning. There is always violence on the periphery. Agents of the outside world: refugees, strangers who cannot be traced to a certain village, or bombs and mines that continually drop and explode, are the perpetrators of cruelty.

By crafting situations rather than simply documenting facts, Ghobadi creates an exchange. He gives and takes; he makes Kurdish people real by presenting their lives in his own fashion. But his films transcend the ethnographic. They are humanist stories formed to make analogies between people and place, joy and despair, documentary and fiction. And they are funny. The situations are catastrophic, yet life goes on as it would and as it must. Eventually, paths meet and songs end, but the impact of each film continues. Revelations are tucked into the script that are devastating to discover and hard to forget.


Camila de Onís

CAMILA DE ONIS is a Brooklyn-based writer who wants a dog like Lucy.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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