Kaleem Aftab talks to the director Ebrahim Saeedi about his debut feature film Mandoo, in which he explores the crises facing Kurds in Iraq trying to rebuild their lives following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2004.
It’s only after having worked in cinema for two decades that Ebrahim Saeedi has finally made his first fictional feature film. The Iranian national of Kurdish heritage has spent most of that time working as an editor and has directed several documentaries. For his first feature film, Mandoo, Saeedi, who was born in Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan, has chosen to focus on the people of Kurdistan and the trouble that they continue to face.
Mandoo is a story about Kurds who moved from Iran to Iraq after the 1979 revolution, only to be put into refugee camps by the Ba’ath party. The toppling of Saddam Hussein seemed to give them hope of a better life, but this wave of optimism didn’t last. Instead of a story of happiness, it’s yet another tale of woe of a people who seem to head into one crisis after another.
The premise is that a family of Kurds who have been in a refugee camp in Iraq decide to return to the place they once called home. Set in 2004, their journey and story are complicated by the arrival of their cousin Sheehan (Rojan Mahamed), who has been living in Sweden for the past 20 years. She works as a doctor and wants to find her uncle to try to persuade him and his family to move to Scandinavia.
What should be a moment of joy and happiness at a family reunion is complicated by the reaction of her cousin Shaho (Shahab Fazilli). He doesn’t want much to do with Sheehan and definitely doesn’t want to leave his homeland. His main goal is simply to make good on his dying father’s wish – to see his childhood village for one last time and to be laid to rest there. However, the journey to Iran is a road full of many twists and turns.
The film, which will be showing at the Dubai International Film Festival next week, has been successfully playing at film festivals since it debuted at Locarno in the summer, and I caught up with the 45-year-old director at the Toronto film festival where he was in attendance with his wife.
Speaking through an interpreter, Saeedi explains his desire to tell this story. “I don’t believe that I’m from a specific location or place. Yes, I’m a Kurd, and I have views on the people because I have connections with them and the characters I used are part of these people. During the four decades that I’ve lived in Kurdistan, be it in Iranian or Iraqi Kurdistan, I have personally seen so many ups and downs and many crises that the Kurds have gone through and that is why I wanted to tell this story.”
The Kurdish plight became big news in 1991 when it was discovered that there were refugee camps in southern Iraq. Then came the discovery of mass graves in the southern deserts in Iraq, a subject that was the basis of Saeedi’s last documentary All My Mothers, made in 2009. The Kurds became a cause célèbre around the world and were used by western powers as yet another reason for wanting to bring regime change to Iraq. Yet, the fall of Saddam has not resulted in Kurds being able to control their own destiny.
“Is it worth it for the Kurds to go through all these crises?” ponders Saeedi. “All I can tell you is that none of these crises and difficulties that the Kurds have gone through have been initiated by Kurds. There has always been some third party that has initiated the crisis and brought it to the Kurds, and the Kurds have had to deal with that crisis. The life of the family that I show on screen, even on this peaceful trip where they wish to go back home, they are continually facing crises not of their doing.”
In this way, the trip becomes an analogy of the history of the Kurdish people. There are cunning individuals who try to uproot them and soldiers questioning them. Saeedi is even careful to leave the conclusion open enough for it to leave hanging the question: what will happen to these people in the future?
“This is a constant fear that every Kurd is facing: ‘What is the future? What will it bring?’” states the director. “History has always repeated the same experiences. Seemingly, there are always opportunities for the Kurds, but before they know it they are being backstabbed and then left alone. Because of this experience through history, Kurds always look with a question mark at everything.”
This constant state of crisis has left the Kurdish people thirsty for peace, he argues. Saeedi sees the Kurdish question as being part of a general problem that happens every day, the question of forced migration. The desire to return home is something that doesn’t necessarily afflict Saeedi himself, who says that the character he feels closest to is Shohan, who just wants to help his father fulfil his wishes.
There is also an unusual advantage in being a filmmaker working in Iran, but dealing with subjects that are not directly about the Iranian regime. He is given much more freedom to work on films about Kurds than some of his peers who make films about life in Iran.
The director, who studied cinema at the Arts University in Tehran, explains: “It’s a truth that for independent filmmakers who want to make anything they want to make and the way they want to say it, the current situation in Iran has made it very difficult to do so and that has made me want to move my subject away from dealing with stories in Iran to, for example, Iraqi Kurds. By doing so I have more freedom to work and tell my own story and that has become a way of thinking for Iranian producers. I also have a wish to be able to work and produce my movies in Iran because I know many people around me in Iran who are great filmmakers, but at this moment I feel more possibilities and better opportunities to make films in Kurdish Iraq.”
So his next job sees the director venture back into documentary filmmaking. “I am making a new documentary and it is still not completely finalised. It’s about another family after the toppling of Saddam, and them having the opportunity to have their own government in the Kurdish region after this. They are trying to give everything they have to this system and trying to establish an environment in which all Kurds will benefit. In that documentary I try to bring up the same question that is always existing and which has no answer, what will the future bring for Kurds and Kurdistan?”
This question is found throughout his work. It’s clearly a constant in his mind, even as he sat in Toronto, being fêted at yet another film festival for his piercing and intriguing debut narrative feature film.
Mandoo is playing at the Dubai International Film Festival on December 15 and 16. For more information visit www.dubaifilmfest.com
Source: The National