Divided and Fragmented, Political Tensions Take Center Stage at Kurdish Film Fest

It's risky to show movies presenting a perspective that doesn't align with the accepted narrative, according to which the Kurds saved the Yazidis and are now helping them.

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Kurdish Film Festival in Dohuk
Kurdish Film Festival in Dohuk Credit: Website
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The uproar caused by one of the movies screened at a Kurdish film festival reflects the divisions and disputes that are afflicting Kurds these days

The city of Dohuk, in the northern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, has seen better days. It used to be a leisure center for American soldiers taking a break from the fighting in Iraq. Its streets are pleasant, with numerous supermarkets and movie theaters, and life there is calm, far from the horrors taking place elsewhere in Iraq and the war being waged against the Islamic State, or ISIS.

But Dohuk is currently going through an economic crisis. The head of the municipal directorate of health, Nizar Tayeb, said in an interview to the Kurdish website Rodeo that he cannot pay doctors their full salaries. Young physicians who have just finished their studies locally are now seeking their future in Europe, while veteran doctors get only a quarter to a half of their usual wages. There are 4.5 doctors for every 10,000 people.

Yazidi women who have joined the Kurdish peshmerga in Shingal, Iraq, August 24, 2016. Credit: Ari Jalal/Reuters

Indeed, throughout the Kurdish region of Iraq the government is having trouble paying salaries to its employees. Ten days ago teachers demonstrated against the government, which can barely find funding to cover its own expenses. Even though an agreement on marketing oil from this region was signed recently, in a deal expected to bring in abundant revenues, locals worry that the money won’t trickle down to them.

Despite all this and after investing much effort in finding funding, organizers of an international Kurdish Film Festival managed to pull the week-long event off, in Dohuk. The festival was devoted to the subject of borders, marking a century since the Sykes-Picot agreement and its demarcation of regional borders, which divided the Kurds among four countries: Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

According to its organizers, the festival was supposed to show the difficulties faced by the Kurdish people, but also to “plant the hope that these can be overcome and that a better future is in store.” However, already at its outset the event sparked an uproar, when 30 lawyers from the minority Yazidi community decided to file a suit against the festival’s organizers – in particular, against Hussein Hassan, director of the movie “The Dark Wind.”

The film tells the story of Pero, a married Yazidi woman who is abducted by ISIS fighters and becomes pregnant after being raped. She manages to escape her captors and return to her husband and family. She has an abortion under difficult conditions and is murdered by her father, who cannot bear the humiliation brought upon him by his daughter.

At this point in the screening of the movie, several viewers stood up, yelling, “It wasn’t like that!” Their fury was directed at the depiction of Yazidis as people holding benighted and primitive views.

There were other accusations of inaccuracies in the film. Judit Neurink, a freelance Dutch journalist who lives in Kurdistan, and has helped set up a center for independent journalism there, wrote that, “ISIS pickup trucks are white, not black as shown in the movie.” She was also troubled by the fact that initially, "Yazidi women were being sold for $100, not $800 as the movie claims.”

In response, many internet users accused Neurink herself of being anti-Kurdish. “I thought she came here to protect artistic freedom,” wrote someone called Mary. “Please stop reading her.”

In general, it is now risky to show movies presenting a different perspective, one that doesn’t align itself with the accepted narrative, according to which the Kurds saved the Yazidis and are now working to help them. As in every war, each side is concerned with its own narrative, and is trying to destroy other ones.

If this is the situation at film festivals, in political reality things are more complicated. The Kurds, perceived by the West as a monolithic group that opposes ISIS and supports Western powers, are fighting among themselves as if there were no ISIS. Thus, for example, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who was Iraq’s president until he suffered a stroke, opposes selling Iraqi oil with the help of the government of the Kurdish region. She demanded that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sell her 50,000 barrels of oil a day so that she could sell 30,000 of them to Iran, with the rest going to refineries in Dukan, near Sulaymaniyah, which are controlled by senior officials of the Kurdish opposition party Gorran (Change).

Within the ranks of the Kurdish army, the peshmerga, there is opposition to taking part in the battle for Mosul unless there are guarantees that the Kurds will control the areas they liberate. Others believe that Kurds should fight.

The same divisiveness characterizes the subject of the Turkish invasion of Syria, which is directed mainly against Syrian Kurds. Some Iraqi Kurds support this invasion, seeing it as a legitimate campaign against ISIS, while others oppose it due to the serious damage being inflicted on Kurdish centers in Syria.

Last week, Iraq’s Kurdish finance minister, Hushiar Zebari, was fired. He was formerly also Iraq’s foreign minister. Previously, such a move would have spelled the end of Kurdish participation in Iraq’s government. But now that the oil agreement has been signed, there was hardly any criticism of this move.

As preparations for the battle to liberate Mosul are progressing, it would be worthwhile check which Kurds intend to take part in it.

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