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Women at heart of Dahuk film festival

From Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad to the film "Girls of the Sun" at the Cannes Film Festival, 2018 has been a year of Kurdish women.
Yazidi children hold pictures of Nadia Murad, who won the Nobel Peace prize, in Duhok, Iraq October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal - RC1A9917F900

It should come as no surprise that this year’s Dahuk International Film Festival (DIFF) looks at women’s representation and contributions to Kurdish cinema, given that 2018 is a year of Kurdish women’s experiences being foregrounded on and off screen. The film “Girls of the Sun,” which competed for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, follows a battle-hardened Kurdish military unit in northern Syria comprised exclusively of women once held captive by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Yazidi activist Nadia Murad received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Her tale of persistence in the face of deep trauma is told through a new documentary released this month (but not featured at the festival), “On Her Shoulders,” by Alexandria Bombach.

Bina Qeredaxi, a co-founder and former program manager of the festival, has witnessed the increased participation of women in Kurdish film and in the festival itself over the past few years. “We wanted to promote this topic to both support women currently in the field and also encourage women on the sidelines to jump in,” she told Al-Monitor.

The fact that there is an international film festival at all in Dahuk is impressive. Dahuk, nestled in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, is a semi-autonomous region that has been roiled by a seemingly endless succession of crises and conflict, including humanitarian and psychological impacts caused by IS; financial crisis; a failed independence referendum last September; ongoing territorial disputes with Baghdad; and increased attacks on its soil from Turkey and Iran.

Nonetheless, DIFF, whose sixth edition runs Oct. 20-27, has endured and is, in fact, growing. According to award-winning filmmaker Shawkat Amin Korki, who is the artistic director for this year’s festival, “It has become the largest event of its type dedicated to Kurdish film.”

DIFF’s profile has been raised even higher, as the International Federation of Film Critics, which has juries in over 70 international film festivals, will present an award for the first time this year.

The opening film of this year’s festival is the Iraqi premiere of Sahim Omar Kalifa’s “Zagros,” which tells the story of Havin, a young Kurdish woman forced to flee to Belgium with her 9-year-old daughter after she has been accused of adultery in Kurdistan. The film looks into the double standard of sexual behavior between men and women in Kurdish culture. Other features include Ender Ozkahraman’s “Ugly Duckling,” which looks at the issue of arranged marriages in a Kurdish village in Turkey, and Alireza Mohamadian’s “Towards Salvation,” which follows the struggles of a pregnant woman in prison. The festival has also introduced “The Female Lens” category into this year’s program to weave in short documentaries that emphasize narratives of women.

Some think, however, limited resources can be better spent. Naz Salih has been an active member of the Kurdish film industry since she was 14, having worked as an actress, writer, producer and filmmaker. She sees the huge investment in film festivals as mismanaged. Salih told Al-Monitor, “Why all the festivals? The production quality of our films continues to remain low, so instead of pouring money into festivals, the money can be used to improve our films.” This frustration stems from the difficulty Salih and others have found in producing Kurdish films.

Lise Goll, one of DIFF’s program managers, sees the festival as key step in attracting outside money and attention, which can ultimately make Kurdish cinema more successful. She told Al-Monitor, “[At DIFF] people who have never been to this part of the world and may never come again meet Kurdish filmmakers who have never crossed any international borders. But they share the same passion for cinema. The festival brings the world to Dahuk and Kurdistan for a week.” DIFF’s focus on women in cinema is meant to not only highlight their contribution but also make the audience aware of what continues to be lacking.

“Where are the female directors? Where are the actresses? There is still much to be achieved for the future generations of Kurdish female filmmakers,” Goll said.

Beri Shalmashi, a director of Iranian-Kurdish heritage, screened her film “Shouted from the Rooftops” at last year’s festival. The film follows a Kurdish woman, Sherin, going to war while her anguished lover stays behind. According to Shalmashi, the image of female fighters has become a popular issue to explore in Kurdish films. Sherin must sacrifice everything, imperiling herself and her loved ones, to defend her war-torn town and become a hero.

Shalmashi was deeply impressed by the commitment of DIFF and resolves that “one day Kurds will fully represent themselves on-screen, as part of the international film community as a whole.” She sees this year’s theme as a positive step and encourages Kurdish women, from producers to sound designers, to get involved in the industry. “We have to become able to have control over our own stories. Full control,” Shalmashi told Al-Monitor.

Dejin Jamil, who will moderate a panel on Kurdish women’s contributions to cinema at this year’s DIFF, described her own experience becoming an actress in Dahuk. At first, she was not in control. When offered her first role in a film — as a sister to one of the protagonists in “The Swallow” — Jamil worried that her parents would think her interest in acting would bring shame on the family. The Kurdish expression tu buye cinema,” literally meaning “you’ve become a movie,” can be applied to someone engaged in an activity causing public embarrassment. In this case, it is a particularly ironic use of the concept of film itself to stigmatize those who might participate in the making of one.

Shawkat Amin, whom many consider the godfather of modern Kurdish cinema, explored just this dilemma in “Memories on Stone,” which was screened at the third DIFF in 2015. Indeed, the film is about the making of a film, and about all the challenges that come with doing so in Kurdistan. Chief among them is casting the lead actress, whose domineering family becomes the production’s largest obstacle. As in Jamil’s case, the family is worried about on-screen romance spoiling the girl’s — and by extension, the family’s — honor.

“My parents actually encouraged me to take the role," Jamil said. "As long as I didn’t play someone’s wife in the movie.” In such a case, her mom feared, no one would want to marry her. In the end, however, she did take the role, which marked the start of her career.

All the female cineastes who spoke to Al-Monitor described how excited Kurdish women were to get more involved in film. “It is everyone else that is the problem,” Qeredaxi quipped, in reference to the requirement of consent by their fathers, brothers or husbands, as women in Kurdish cinema continue to face social and cultural barriers.

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