Bahman Ghobadi’s five feature films are impassioned cries for justice on the part of the dispossessed and those whose lives remain unseen. While the first four films all take place in Ghobadi’s native Kurdistan, his latest work brings the same passion to present-day Tehran. Ghobadi’s ouevre to date is an extraordinary example of cinema dancing on the abyss.
Born in 1969 in Iranian Kurdistan, Ghobadi moved to Tehran in 1992 and started a career as an industrial photographer. After studying film at the Iranian Broadcasting College, he began shooting short documentaries on 8mm, an experience that led directly to the creation of his first feature film, A Time for Drunken Horses. The film’s immediate international success not only made Ghobadi a prominent name in Iranian filmmaking – alongside Jafar Panahi and Samira Makhmalbaf – but also marked him as a pioneer of Kurdish cinema.
Ghobad’s subsequent three films similarly featured the lives of the Kurds – whose land is divided among Iran, Iraq and Turkey – and their music. Inspired by the raucousness and manic energy of Kurdish music and, by extension, Kurdish culture as a whole, Ghobadi’s first four films present a rich and moving tapestry of the recent history of the Kurds after the Iranian Revolution, their suffering at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and their provisional state under the Kurdistan Regional Government. With a population of at least 30 million, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group. It is music that provides the link between these works and Ghobadi’s latest, No One Knows About Persian Cats. This portrait of the uncertain fortunes of the Iranian musicians and youth chafing under the restrictions of their government was finished just weeks before the Iranian presidential election in June 2009, and it foretells the massive unrest that the disputed election results would produce.
Although all of Ghobadi’s feature films are fictional, he has described his films as “documentaries that have a lot of fiction in them,” since he derives the characters from his (mostly) non-professional actors and his plots from their actual lives. At the same time, Ghobadi combines these semi-documentary elements with heartfelt melodrama and occasionally hints of vaster mythical and eschatological themes.
Life and death, music and humor: Ghobadi’s cinema is driven by that vitality found at the extremes, and it is fitting that the films are largely populated by children and young people. For all the direness of the predicaments of those onscreen, these are films full of life, whether they are exuberant or despairing, or encompassing both of these poles.
Ghobadi’s films are full of near constant motion, with charactersalways on the move – travelling, performing, working or struggling to survive. Throughout, Ghobadi’s camera remains close to them, bringing us a precious glimpse at a large region of the world and an entire culture rarely seen on our screens.
This program is co-presented by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard, and partially funded by a Title VI/U.S. Department of Education grant.
Special thanks: Cemal Kafadar, the Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies, Harvard University.
Directed by Bahman Ghobadi. With Soran Ebrahim, Avaz Latif, Hirsh Feyssal
Iran 2004, 35mm, color, 97 min. Kurdish with English subtitles
Turtles Can Fly takes place in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Turkey-Iraq border in the chaotic days of March 2003 just before the beginning of actual combat in Iraq. Because of Hussein’s ruthless oppression, the Kurds eagerly anticipate his defeat. Nevertheless, the more immediate concern of the troupes of children who are the film’s protagonists is the local power struggle between two boys: the young, tech-savvy Satellite, and the mystic Henkov, who lost his arms to a land mine. The presence of Henkov’s sister and her attraction to Satellite provide hope that the two boys can settle their differences more maturely than Bush and Hussein. She, however, harbors a dark secret of her own. As in Marooned in Iraq, Ghobadi draws ironic parallels between the children’s quarrelling and game playing and the combat all around them.
Directed by Bahman Ghobadi. With Shahab Ebrahimi, Alah-morad Rashtian, Faegh Mohammadi
Iran 2002, 35mm, color, 98 min. Kurdish and Persian with English subtitles
Ghobadi’s second film (after A Time for Drunken Horses) is once again set in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan along the border between Iran and Iraq. The story follows the quest of three Iranian musicians for Hanareh, a woman with a remarkable singing voice who fled Iran for Iraq 23 years earlier. The date is significant for coinciding with the Iranian revolution, which in time led to the banning of women singing in public. Of course, as Marooned in Iraq makes clear, Iraqi Kurds were subject to constant harassment and attack under Saddam Hussein. Despite the grimness of its characters’ living conditions, the film is full of humor, both broad and witty, and music – often punctuated by the sound of jet bombers streaking across the sky. Although the protagonists of Marooned in Iraq are men, Ghobadi pays special attention to the labor and resiliency of Kurdish women. Gradually it becomes clear that the search for Hanareh, who seems as much myth as woman of flesh and blood, is the search for a homeland.
Directed by Bahman Ghobadi, Appearing in Person.
With Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad
Iran 2009, 35mm, color, 101 min. Persian with English subtitles
In his latest film, Ghobadi films not in Kurdistan but in Tehran – specifically, in the apartments, squats and basements of Tehran’s underground musicians. Nevertheless, he still films in the same way: mixing fiction and documentary, based on the actual lives of his actors. His subjects here are two young musicians looking either to get a permit to play their indie rock or else to get a visa in order to leave the country. Ghobadi’s agile camera follows the two down alleyways and in and out of impromptu jam sessions and illicit concerts. In between the scenes of the musicians as they search for a way to leave the country, legally or illegally, are sequences of various kinds of musicians active in Tehran’s lively music scene.
Directed by Bahman Ghobadi, Appearing in Person.
With Ayoub Ahmadi, Rojin Younessi, Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini
Iran 2000, 35mm, color, 78 min. Kurdish with English subtitles
Ghobadi’s first feature effort instantly launched him as an important Iranian filmmaker, and one uniquely concerned with the struggles of the Kurds. The film follows the fortunes of a family of motherless children, whose father has departed to work as a smuggler along the Iran-Iraq border to support them. In his absence, the eldest child, severely handicapped, has become in need of serious medical attention. His younger brother becomes a smuggler in turn, in a desperate attempt to raise the necessary money. Ghobadi has spoken of the film’s cruel snowy landscape as the reflection of a Kurdish ambivalence towards nature; Kurdistan is beautiful but the mountainous landscape is also the site of so much suffering. Exemplifying this suffering, the snow also serves to downplay the landscape’s beauty and foreground its starkness.
Directed by Bahman Ghobadi. With Ismail Ghaffari, Allah Morad Rashtiani, Hedye Tehrani
Iran 2006, 35mm, color, 107 min. Kurdish and Persian with English subtitles
Producing Half Moon as part of a series of films commemorating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, Ghobadi drew inspiration for this film from the composer’s Requiem Mass. Accordingly, the film is full of eschatological concerns: there is imagery of death, yet also of rebirth. In fact, it is a rebirth of sorts that the film’s main character struggles toward. The renowned Iranian musician Mamo has been banned from performing as part of Saddam Hussein’s suppression of Kurdish culture. In the wake of Hussein’s fall from power, Mamo assembles his ten sons, who are also his musicians, as well as the legendary singer Hesho. Together they embark on a road trip from Iranian Kurdistan to the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan to perform for the newly established Kurdistan Regional Government. As a female musician travelling with a group of men, Hesho must be smuggled across the border from Iran to Iraq where combat is not yet over. It is not just Momo’s career that is struggling to be reborn but Kurdish culture itself. While a major theme of Turtles Can Fly is the acquisition of a satellite dish, here the isolated Kurds have access to cell phones and e-mails. As a result, this isolated population seems to live in several worlds at once: a timeless one of tradition, a modern world of buses, roads and guns, and a contemporary world that brings the hope that this stateless people can communicate with each other and the societies beyond.