In Iraqi Kurdistan, an international cinema festival brings Kurdish and international cinema to refugee camps
Getting into the second screening room of Duhok’s only commercial cinema on Tuesday night required patience, courage, and a body small enough to squeeze between the packed rows of the theatre, where dozens of people already sat crammed together on the popcorn-littered floor.
“Three years ago, the venues were almost empty, but now you can’t even find tickets for some films,” Khateen Abdullah, who manages the volunteers ushering people into the cinemas at the Duhok International Film Festival, told The New Arab cheerfully. “It’s great to see.”
The festival, which took place from December 1 to 8, ran a selection of nearly one hundred Kurdish and international films, fifty-five films of which were competing for awards.
Tuesday’s screening of The Bride, a feature film on a young French-Portuguese “ISIS bride” who faces trial in Iraq after the execution of her ISIS fighter husband, has been particularly popular – perhaps because it was filmed in Kurdistan with a large crew of local actors and extras.
"The women we hired from the Domiz camp, some had run away from ISIS, so they were victims of the group in some way. It seems like a contradiction, but it is not at all"
Among them were around 50 women from nearby Domiz camp – the largest camp for Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“The women we hired from the Domiz camp, some had run away from ISIS, so they were victims of the group in some way. It seems like a contradiction, but it is not at all,” Sergio Trefaut, the director of The Bride, told The New Arab. “We could not have made this fiction with actresses. They knew how women behave together in a tent, they had lived in tents, and this is what I couldn’t write about.”
The festival has been happening almost every year since 2012 in the city of Dohuk, in the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq.
For the first time this year, it will also be screened in the Domiz camp to bridge the divide between camp residents and people in the city.
“It’s been a great journey, and I hope it goes on like this,” Abdullah added. “We try very hard to keep it going year after year, which is difficult – especially with the situation here.”
Preparations for the ninth edition were marked by rising tensions between Kurdistan and its Iranian and Turkish neighbours, who have both carried out several deadly airstrikes inside Kurdistan in recent months.
Despite this volatile situation, the festival carried on this year, as it did at the height of the war against the Islamic State group (IS/ISIS). For many in the audience, the event is a welcome breath of fresh air in this tense regional environment, and a welcome opportunity for Kurdish artists to tell their own stories on screen.
Spotlight on Migration
The theme for this year, Exodus, has hit a sweet spot among Kurds, a people with a large diaspora who form part of a large stateless nation split between four countries.
“The theme of the festival this year is hijra, which means exodus or migration,” Saman Mustafe, the festival coordinator, told The New Arab. “We found this theme important because of all the human movement happening around the world at the moment – in Ukraine, in Iran, in Turkey, and the many displaced people and refugees we have here in Kurdistan.”
This reality is widely reflected in the selection of movies, many of which have been made by Kurdish filmmakers from the diaspora or in partnership with production houses in Germany and Sweden – countries that traditionally hosted large Kurdish communities.
"The theme of the festival this year is hijra, which means exodus or migration... We found this theme important because of all the human movement happening around the world at the moment – in Ukraine, in Iran, in Turkey, and the many displaced people and refugees we have here in Kurdistan"
It also materialises in the logistical arrangements made this year to screen some of the movies directly inside Domiz, which hosts around 40,000 Syrian refugees spread across two camps.
“Domiz is a bit far from Duhok city, and we know it’s difficult for people in the camps to travel every day for screenings,” Mustafe added. “We decided to bring the films to the camp because many residents took part in these films as actors or as extras. It’s their right to see the films.”
At the entrance of the camp, a large hall for weddings has been turned into an improvised cinema complete with around 200 seats, a projector, and a huge screen. Entry is free and dozens of children were among the first participants to swarm the hall on Wednesday when The New Arab visited the venue.
“We enjoy the festival a lot, and everyone is happy and proud that an international film festival has come to us in Domiz camp, in our refugee camp,” Mohammed Muselmini, an actor from the camp who also performed in The Bride, told The New Arab.
Screenings inside Domiz camp take place every day at 5 pm and feature a selection of movies and documentaries in Kurdish, most of which have been shot in Kurdish-majority parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Many in the camp came to seize the opportunity to watch movies in their mother tongue, like Rojen, an 18-year-old girl who has spent more than half of her life in the camp. “I came here to see and support Kurdish films because we are Kurds, and I think these movies are important for our identity,” she told The New Arab as she came out of the screening. “I have come every single day so far to see the films.”
A tense context
The festival takes place this year against a backdrop of rising tensions between Turkey, Iran and Kurds following a series of Iranian and Turkish strikes that targeted dozens of locations in Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Some of our guests couldn’t come this year because of the situation [with Iran and Turkey], and some didn’t want to come because they thought it was dangerous here,” Mustafe regretted.
But this didn’t deter many international filmmakers and actors from attending the event.
“When I first came in 2015, the situation was very tense due to the presence of ISIS. I remember a lot of Peshmerga walking around the university, (where some of the films are screened),” Freddy Olsson, a Swedish producer who has attended every edition of the festival since his first visit, told The New Arab. “But this year, even with the pressure from Iran and Turkey, it feels more stable.”
Keeping the festival running year after year has been a challenge due to the volatile political situation in Iraq, some of the organisers recognised.
“Unexpected things happen here, especially in Iraq,” Abdullah said. “First ISIS came, and then other things happened, political issues, then COVID. You never know exactly when something is going to happen. But with a great team and hard work, we somehow make that happen, which feels great.”
A budding cinema scene
Through the festival, Kurdish artists share their own vision of Kurdish culture and rewrite dominant narratives about the region. “People only hear bad news from websites and socials, but the truth is that Kurdistan is totally different,” Mustafe said. “We want to show Kurdistan to people who haven’t seen it yet: thanks to the festival, many directors from Europe got to discover this location and have come back to shoot here.”
The other goal of the festival is to support the Kurds’ nascent cinema industry by connecting artists from all Kurdish regions together and with international producers and filmmakers. This includes Olsson, who came to the festival for the first time in 2015 and has attended it ever since, as well as Sergio Trefaut, who had long been drawn to the region but decided to film The Bride in Kurdistan after coming to the festival, three years ago.
"People only hear bad news from websites and socials, but the truth is that Kurdistan is totally different... We want to show Kurdistan to people who haven’t seen it yet"
“It’s a very important platform for Kurdish filmmakers and anyone in the film industry here,” Abdullah added. “I personally got my first job on a set after meeting a director here. He was very happy to have me on set the following year, and it just happened.”
Slowly but surely, a local cinema culture is emerging despite logistical challenges and a dearth of independent film theatres. “There is no real cinema tradition here, so it’s a struggle to get people to come,” Olsson said. “But I was very happy to see some long queues this year. There is definitely an audience for Kurdish films, and one good thing they’ve done this year is to add subtitles in Kurdish.”
An audience that extends beyond the city of Dohuk. “Bringing cinema to the camp was a great idea,” Ramadan, a young man living in the Domiz camp, concluded. “It allows us to keep dreaming and to keep going in life.”
Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.
Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais