What a total joy it was to be at the Amsterdam Kurdish Film Festival this weekend, under the powerful, inspiring organisation by filmmakers Reber Dosky and Beri Shalmashi. I finally saw Yol by Yılmaz Güney, I saw newer feature films and short films, and danced govend as icing on the cake. Kurdish cinema is a great way to struggle, to contribute to spreading the story of the Kurds but also in this field, Kurds are not free to shape their cinema the way they see fit.
Let me first say something about Yol, a film made in Turkey and Kurdistan in 1982 by the legendary actor and director Yılmaz Güney. It started in the “half-open prison” of Imralı, actually, where a group of inmates are send on a week’s leave and, as Reber Dosky introduced the film, ‘found obstacles on their way’ in their week outside prison. It is just flabbergasting this film was made two years after the military coup in Turkey, at the hight of severe suppression of civil society as a whole and of Kurdish society specifically. Güney was imprisoned himself and managed to write and direct the film despite that. Such a film couldn’t even be made now in Turkey and Bakur, in 2022.
I can’t reflect on the film further, I’m no film expert in any way, but if it is programmed next year again – because yes, this was the first but not the last edition of the Amsterdam Kurdish Film Festival – I will watch it again.
One of the issues I am eager to follow in the years to come, as the Amsterdam Kurdish Film Festival will be organised again and again (the organisers swore to me this was only the beginning) is to what extend it will be possible to make Kurdish films more independently. What I mean is: more independent of the funding that they have been forced to rely on. During one of the Kurdish film festivals that were held online during the coronavirus pandemic, I followed a discussion about this in a panel partly consisting of filmmakers from the Kurdish diaspora.
One of them explained how frustrating it was to apply at funds and TV channels in the countries where they lived, which were assessing their applications from a perspective that didn’t understand or acknowledge the position of Kurds. They had learned that it was easier to get funding when your film connects to the country where you live. Kurdish woman/man/family in Sweden/the Netherlands/Germany/France/US travels back to Kurdistan to bury mum or dad, to find their roots, to fight in a war, to travel, to love. But that is not always the perspective that they aspire to tell their stories from. Can’t Kurdish stories be told as just that: Kurdish stories, from a Kurdish perspective, not aiming to make a connection to a white western audience with an often orientalist gaze?
One filmmaker said he had applied twice for funding to a national fund in his European country with a film that was purely Kurdish. Even though he knew in advance that his chances were small, it was very painful to get rejected for reasons that showed no respect for his Kurdish identity. The fund for example required a domestic peg, or the ‘audience potential’ was considered to be too small. Such reasons to reject reveal a narrow definition of ‘domestic’, and suggest that fully Kurdish stories don’t appeal to a wider audience than Kurds alone.
This is a problem other diaspora communities also deal with, but one big difference with Kurdish film, one of the panelists explained, is that Kurdistan doesn’t have a film industry of its own. That is different for diaspora communities that do have an officially recognised home country with a film industry.
Kurdistan doesn’t have a national fund where filmmakers can apply, there are no Kurdish film academies, there are hardly any facilities for post-production in Kurdistan. And it’s hard to develop that. In Bakur (Kurdistan in Turkey) the state of course doesn’t allow it: many of the initiatives in for example Diyarbakır have to struggle their way through censorship and suppression. In Başur (in Iraq), nepotism and corruption f* up everything, also cinema initiatives. In Rojhilat (Iran), well, don’t expect free expression in a dictatorship. Rojava is a different story. I myself travelled with the Rojava Film Commune in January 2020, when their brilliant film ‘The end will be spectacular’ (Kurdish title: ‘Ji bo azadiyê) was filmed there. They are funded by the culture ministry of the Autonomous Administration, which doesn’t interfere artistically in any way.
What if Kurdish filmmakers, producers, financiers and educators could come together and set up a fund for Kurdish film that doesn’t have to bow down to the demands of (often white) western standards and regulations? What if young Kurdish filmmakers didn’t have to struggle their way through the mine fields of the western film industry to build their portfolios and be taken seriously? What if there was an academy that recognised the multi-layered reality of Kurdistan and gave space to students to develop themselves independently from boxes western teachers pushed them into?
The first Amsterdam Kurdish Film Festival was inspiring, diverse and rich already. Its future will be spectacular.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/fgeerdink or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.