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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2005

Scenes from the front

The real Middle East on screen at Fukuoka International Film Festival

Special to The Japan Times

The Fukuoka International Film Festival has been specializing in Asian films since it began in 1991 under the leadership of Director General Tadao Sato and Coordinator Hisako Sato -- the Japanese festival scene's ultimate power couple. Almost from the start, their definition of "Asia" has been broad and their net has been wide, encompassing not only centers of Asian film production like Japan, South Korea, China and India, but emerging industries in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Mongolia.

News photo
A scene from "Jiyan," directed by Kurdish-American Jano Rosebiani

For this year's festival, held Sept. 16-25, their focus shifted to the Middle East. Long "the Orient" to Europe, this region was the starting point of the Silk Road, by which ancient Japan maintained contact, however tenuous, with the peoples and cultures of the Eurasian continent.

Middle Eastern films, particularly those of Iran, had been screened abroad for years, in all their variety, but the most highly acclaimed ones, by directors like Abbas Kiarostami ("Where Is the Friend's Home"), Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Close-up") and Majid Majidi ("Children of Heaven"), tended more toward the poetic than the overtly political.

This trend appears to be changing among younger directors if the FIFF opening film, Reza Azamian's "A Border for Life," is any indication. A drama about the Iran-Iraq war and shot in Iran, it is not the propaganda one might expect, but an antiwar film in which the humanity of both sides is emphasized. An Iraqi soldier, crippled by a bomb blast, is trying to escape the front lines when he encounters a blinded Iranian soldier with the same objective. To survive, they have no choice but to help each other.

The acting is overwrought and the message over-obvious, but the film relates to the current situation in which Shiite communities in Iran and Iraq are finding common ground, for reasons religious and political.

The festival's most openly advocatory film, however, was Jano Rosebiani's "Jiyan," which depicts the aftermath of the 1988 biochemical weapon attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja by the forces of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Rosebiani, a Kurdish-American, shot the film in 2002 in Kurdish Iraq (or as the Kurds call it, Kurdistan) when Saddam was still in power and he had to smuggle his footage and equipment out of the country. "Otherwise we might not have had a film," Rosebiani said.

And he might not be in a Fukuoka hotel room to talk about it.

Using local actors and extras, Rosebiani re-enacted the Halabja attack, in which nearly 5,000 died almost instantly, but the film's most shocking scenes are of real survivors in a real hospital, many disfigured and barely clinging to life. "[The survivors] told me that the ones who died quickly were lucky," he said. "They are dying little by little. . . . They haven't seen one happy moment."

News photo
Jano Rosebiani

His heroine, Jiyan (Pisheng Berzinci), is one such survivor, a girl with a scarred face, who suffers from flashbacks of the attack, in which she lost her parents. She becomes attached to Diyari (Kurdo Galali), a Kurdish-American man who has come to build an orphanage in the village.

The story is a simple one of Diyari's deepening relationships with the people of the town, including Jiyan, her wily orphaned cousin Sherko (Coman Hawrami), a war-traumatized man who plays the flute all day on his rooftop and three marriable sisters who look on Diyari as a sort of movie star (though one eventually marries her poetry-spouting village lover). There is an ever-present sadness in these lives, as well as a barely suppressed horror, but there is also love, jealousy, envy -- and even touches of slapstick comedy.

Although Rosebiani had to struggle for years to get his film made ("Hardly anyone had the Kurds on their agenda," he reminisced. "It just wasn't sexy."), he has, since the fall of Saddam, become in demand, taking "Jiyan" to festivals around the world and winning several prizes.

"Even people who were against the war have come up to me after screenings to say 'Thank you for making us understand,' " he said. In reference to the current war in Iraq he said, "I think it's changed a few minds."

The fortunes of Kurdistan have also changed dramatically. No longer subject to Hussein's oppression, protected by their own militias and the U.S. military, the Kurds are finally their own masters. "Kurdistan has a bright future," says Rosebiani, citing a September business expo in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, in which multinationals like Hewlett-Packard, Canon and GE exhibited products and services. He also mentioned ambitious plans to build a mega-mall complete with a multiplex theater and, inevitably, a McDonald's. "It's like Jordan was a decade ago -- ready to boom," the director says.

His own future includes two more films based on the Kurdish experience, but he adds that he would like to make American films as well. And though he is dedicated to "showing the Kurdish people's spirit in film," he urges them to "forget about revenge -- instead we should focus on progress and advancement."

But the thousands that were killed in Halabja, as Rosebiani so vividly shows in "Jiyan," will never be part of this brave new world. "Saddam created this tragedy," he said. "The Kurdish New Year is on March 31. He attacked on March 16, to destroy the celebration. On the 31st the Kurds built fires to celebrate anyway. They couldn't give it up."

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