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Home Podium Kurdish Cinema

Kurdish Cinema

amir_hassanpourProf. Amir Hassanpour

Although film, the oldest audiovisual mass medium, reached some Kurdish cities as early as the mid-1920s, Kurdish-language cinema had a very retarded beginning. Obstacles to the development of Kurdish cinema have been political, economic and technical. Regarding the political aspects all films, whether imported or locally produced, have to be authorised by the governments' censorship committees. Aninterviewer once asked the Kurdish director Yilmaz Güney why he had produced no films in Kurdish. The answer was: `Simply because the Kurdish language is legally proscribed in Turkey' (Studia Kurdica 1, January 1984, p. 97).

The Soviet Union and Iraq were the only countries where political barriers to the development of Kurdish cinema were less prohibitive. In the mid-1920s, two feature films produced in Soviet Caucasia depicted the life of the Kurds before and after the October Revolution. None of the films were in
Kurdish, however. Other works were four documentaries on Soviet Kurds produced in 1932, 1959, 1979 and 1982 (Shawâlî 1985: 4).

Film production in Iraq is of recent origin. By 1950, only two films had been produced, both under foreign direction. Capital and trained staff were lacking even in Baghdad, let alone provincial areas such as Kurdistan. The number of foreign films distributed annually during that time was estimated at four hundred, of which 30 per cent were filmed in Egypt and were in Arabic; almost all non-Arabic films were subtitled in Arabic (UNESCO 1950 1950:358). The first time a movie was shown in Kurdish town of Iraq was in July 1925 in Suleymaniye (Zhiyanew 1, No. 31, July 16, 1926, pp. 2-3). A number of films, including a few imported Persian-language ones, were shown with Kurdish subtitles in Suleymaniye in the 1970s. This situation, however, has changed drastically in the last two decades. By the 1970s
trained staff were available, although they had to work as part of non-Kurdish production teams. Some Kurdish students have studied and received advanced training in cinematography, although under the present political conditions they are still unable to produce films in Kurdish (Shawâlî 1985: 9).

Before the 1960s, subtitling in Persian was popular in Iran, but it was later replaced by dubbing all foreign films. Dubbing in Kurdish was not allowed until quite recently.

Kurdish cinema was finally born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Revolutionary changes in audiovisual media (the introduction of video, and satellite TV broadcasting) have made it impossible for despotic states to have complete control over the flow of films and television programming. A significant political change is the formation of a sizeable Kurdish diaspora in Western countries, which produces audiovisual works capable of reaching Kurdistan through the video medium. In 1989, preparations were made in Iraq for the production of the first Kurdish motion picture, Mem û Zin. Filming was planned to start in 1990 with the participation of some hundred Kurdish actors. Strict government control can be seen in the preparation of the script. Based on a folklore version translated into Arabic, the script was written by an Arab writer and was then translated into Kurdish (Rengin, Bo 3, September 1989, p 16). The project was not completed, apparently owing to the Gilf crisis of 1990-91. The production of a privately financed film, Nêrgiz Bûkî Kurdistan (Nergiz, Bride of Kurdistan), began on the day Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and filming was completed in 'liberated Kurdistan'. The movie, produced by actor Mekki Abdullah, is about the escape from an arranged marriage of a girl who finds that her lover has been jailed for political activity (Murray 1993). The producer showed the film in 1993 in a number of European countries. Another cinematographer, Mehdi Umed, born in Kirkuk, began his work in theatre and studied cinema in the USSR in the 1980s. He was director of Gelê Gurg ("Flock of Wolves', 1990), a feature film based on a novel by an Iraqi Kurdish writer, and Tunnel ; the latter was shown at the Seventeenth Götenberg Film Festival in 1993.

In Iran, the first experiments with film were made by Timur Patai, born in Sine (Sanandaj) and a graduate of TehranUniversity's school of Fine Arts. His work began in television in the 1970s, leading to several documentary films including Nan û Azadî (Bread and Freedom, 1984), filmed in liberated areas of Kurdistan, and Gelê Gurg.

Kurdish cinema in Turkey is dominated by the name of Yilmaz Güney, actor, director, writer and political activist, and a known figure in international cinema. He introduced `Revolutionary Cinema' and achieved the stature of a folk hero (Giles and Sahin 1982). The Kurdish identity of Güney and his films has, however, been denied by both the right (Dorsay 1987) and left (Giles and Sahin 1982). Because of his revolutionary creations, he was jailed and later went into exile in France where he died in 1984. his film Yol (`The Road'), which won the Palme d'Or award at Cannes in 1982, was banned in Turkey until 1993 (Turkish Daily News , October 17, 1993). Building on the tradition of Güney, another Kurdish director, Nizammettin Ariç, produced in exile Ein Lied Für Beko (`A Song for Beko'), which won the first award, Olivier d'Or, at the Ninth Film Festival of Bastina in 1993. The movie depicts the life of Kurdish people in their struggle against the repressive Turkish state [See Le Provençal, October 21, 1993]. Finally Mem û Zin was produced in Turkey in 1992 by Ûmit Elci, a Turkish director of Kurdish descent. The language was Turkish but the film was dubbed in Kurdish [See Le Courrier, January 18, 1993].

In the Kurdish diaspora, two video movies , Aso and Çarenûs (Fate), were produced by Salman Fayiq, who was born in Kirkuk (çiyan 1993:13). The Swedish International Development Agency provided funds to the Institute Kurd de Paris for producing videos of the theatrical productions of the Kurdish Theatre of Tiflis, Georgia.

In spite of economic hardships in the republics of the former Soviet Union, there is considerable cultural activity. In November 1992 a `Kurdish cinema Studio' was established in Yerevan, after deliberations at a meeting attended by Kurdish and Armenian intellectuals and artists [See Berbeng 86, 1993, unnumbered page between pp. 29-30.]. Since production costs are much lower in these republics, the movie Tunnel was produced in Tajikistan, while Gelê Gurg was filmed in Turkmenistan.


çiyan, G. (1993). Pirsa Sînema Kurd û Tilmaz Guney [Yilmaz Güney and the Question of Kurdish Cinema], Norsborg, Sweden.

Dorsay, A.(1987) `An overview of Turkish cinema from its origins to the present day', in: Renda and Kortepeter (eds.), The Transformation of Turkish Culture: the Atatürk Legacy. Princeton, N.J., pp. 113-29.

Giles, D. and H. Sahin (1982),, `Revoloutionary cinema in Turkey; Yilmaz Guney', Jump Ct 27, pp. 35-7.

Murray, L.(1993), 'Nergiz: Bride of Kurdistan', Kurdistan Focus II, No. 6, March 1993, p. 16.

Shawâlî (1985), 'al-Akrâad fî al-sînamâ al-kurdiyya' [The Kurds in Cinema and Kurdish Cinema], Gel/al-Sha`b 4, No 15, pp 4,9.&

UNESCO (1950), Reports on the facilities of Mass Communication: Press, Film, Radio IV, Paris.

About the author:

* Amir Hassanpour was born in Mahabad and studied English Literature and Linguistics at TehranUniversity. He went on to study Communications at the University of Illinois, and now teaches Communications at ConcordiaUniversity, Montreal. He is the author of several publications on the media in connection with the Kurds, including Nationalism and language, 1918-1985.

Copyright© 1996 , Philip Kreyenbroek and Christine Allison (eds), Kurdish Culture and Identity , 1996, Zed Books. 185 pp.

Source: http://www.cogsci.ed.ac.uk/~siamakr/Kurdish/KURDICA/1999/MAY/cinema.html


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