London Film Festival Shows Growth of Kurdish Cinema Industry

By George Richards – RUDAW- LONDON – “This festival is a key part of creating Kurdish cinema.  There is hardly any Kurdish cinema-going tradition, and no cinemas at all in the Kurdish villages of Turkey and Iran.  This is the foundation for something called ‘Kurdish cinema,'” said Shiereen Saib, a volunteer organizer of the 8th London Kurdish Film Festival which concluded Sunday.

The festival, which screened more than 120 films, ran for a week at the Hackney Playhouse in East London before moving venue for a second weekend to the Westbourne Studios in the west of the city.

The festival screened a wide variety of cinema genres, including feature-length, short and documentary films, as well as holding a $5,000 screenwriting competition and the 4th Yilmaz Guney short film competition, named after a Kurdish director who died in exile in Paris in 1984.

The first London Kurdish Film Festival was held in 2001, with the most recent, the seventh, in 2011.

“This festival was much better organized than all those before it,” said Roze Shevin, a festival volunteer whose first film, a short called Water-baby about a pro-peace family whose son disappears to fight for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, is still in post-production and could not be shown at the festival.

According to organizers, this year’s festival was supported by a concerted public relations campaign which raised awareness across the media and by volunteers from not only all parts of Kurdistan but also from Iran, Turkey, diaspora Kurdish communities and non-Kurds from as far afield as France and Malaysia.

This underlines the festival’s pedigree in the world of cinema, rather than just as a cultural event for London-based Kurds, they said.

What was the standard of the more than 120 films screened at the festival?

“If I’m honest, there were too many films this year and the organizers need to be stricter in picking what to show,” said one visitor, himself an artist. “And new Kurdish filmmakers need to simplify their films — one film, Before Snowfall, was too squashed, it had five countries and too many characters; but I’m confident the director’s next films will improve.  This is a first step in Kurdish cinema — I don’t want to say, ‘It is premature,’ but it is still early,” he said.

Before Snowfall, a feature film about honour killing in Kurdish society, premiered at the festival and was directed by Hisham Zaman.

“There is a wide range in quality in the films made by Kurdish filmmakers, but this is a relatively new industry and things will only become more sophisticated,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) representative to Britain and a guest at the festival’s gala opening ceremony, told Rudaw.

“Subject matter will change over time.  It is of course important that young filmmakers, if they feel the need, express the suffering of the experiences of the Kurdish people, of Anfal and Halabjah, but I hope that by filmmakers’ third or fourth films they will start to tell new stories,” she said.

The KRG representation sponsored the festival, which also received the support of the University of Kurdistan-Hewler, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization and other bodies.

“This year, we had a large selection of different styles, and we of course had mixed feedback,” acknowledged Saib.  “But this is one of the few platforms for Kurdish filmmakers.  It is a good place to reach a wider audience, to receive support from the community and to build new networks.”

“The most important thing for Kurdish films is funding, and the best thing about this festival for filmmakers is the chance to make connections with other people in the industry,” said Sahim Omar Kalifa, a director originally from Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan whose short film Baghdad Messi was screened at the festival and has won 23 awards worldwide.

Kalifa’s 2011 film Land of the Heroes won an international jury prize at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale.

Kurdish cinema will benefit from, not be overshadowed by, its association with such filmmaking powerhouses as Turkey and Iran, said Saib.

“Bahman Ghobadi profiled himself as a Kurdish filmmaker, but much of the world sees him as part of the Iranian ‘new wave’ — as the world becomes aware of Kurdish cinema, the work of directors like Ghobadi will work to our advantage,” she said, referring to the filmmaker whose first feature film, A Time for Drunken Horses, was one of the first Kurdish-language films produced in Iran and won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2000.

But the London Kurdish Film Festival is more than just an occasional screening of Kurdish films, according to Ata Mufty, coordinator of the festival.

“The London festival was the first Kurdish film festival anywhere in the world, but since then we have been in contact with Kurds organizing something similar in Berlin, and there have been two Kurdish film festivals in Sweden — the organizers attended this year’s London festival and we will be coordinating with them in the future,” Mufty told Rudaw.

“And in London we are planning a once-monthly screening of Kurdish films at the Westbourne Studios, called Cinemi Kurdistan,” or Kurdistan Cinema.  At the festival’s offices in West London, Mufty has assembled an archive of over 1,500 Kurdish films, which a team of three volunteers is cataloguing.

So, was this year’s festival a success?

The last day of the festival at the Westbourne Studios, which coincided with the launch of an exhibition of Kurdish fine art at the same venue, was busy with families, Kurdish artists and cinema enthusiasts.

“I have been surprised by how popular it has been, by how busy — screenings have been sold out most nights,” said Kalifa.  Speaking to Rudaw, his voice hoarse from the efforts of the festival, Mufty went further: “This is one of the best successes in the history of Kurdish film.  No, not just of Kurdish film, but even of Kurdish art and culture.”

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