The English translation of this article was submitted to Autonomy News by a comrade in Northeast Syria
Featured image from “The End Will Be Spectacular”, which tells the story of 100 days of resistance that took place in the Kurdish city of Sur (Republic of Turkey).
Since 2012 a group of Kurdish filmmakers from North and East Syria have been developing the Rojava Film Commune, a popular institution for the production and screening of revolutionary film. In addition to several short films about the reality and social issues of North and East Syria, recently they have produced the film The End Will Be Spectacular, about the uprising of 2015 in the cities of Northern Kurdistan, and the documentary Love in the Face of Genocide, about the tradition of popular singing within the Kurdish Ezidi community. We sat down with filmmakers Sêvînaz Evdikê and Şêro Hindê to talk about their work and their understanding of art, identity, language and the relationship between tradition and revolution.
I need to ask someone this, maybe you’re the right people. Why is La Casa del Papel so popular here? The people here know Spanish words that they’ve learned from watching this series, and I’ve even heard that they use the names of the characters on the front: Tokyo, Professor…
Sêvînaz: Well, here society looks at everything which is popular elsewhere, it’s not very different from Turkey or Iraq in this sense. But certainly this series is a little different. It shows a revolutionary personality, someone who wants revenge, who is revolutionary, and this has an influence, an effect on society. People want to change things, their being demands it. But in this series the revolutionary is not a real revolutionary, it’s a cliché.
I’d like to ask what your favorite childhood movie was.
Şêro: I loved cowboy movies, westerns. At that time I didn’t know why, but now I think it’s because of the nature, the landscape is similar to ours, very hot, very flat. Even the rhythm of these films is very similar to our lives, a very slow tempo. Everything takes time, time is very important in these films. The characters are thirsty all the time, they carry guns… and it takes a long time before they do things.
When you watch cowboy movies you can see the history of America, how that country was built. You can see the details of this society that is now where it is, see how it all began. Now, if our situation was good and we weren’t in wartime and didn’t feel a duty to make movies about what was going on, I would love to make movies about the people who lived here 100 years ago, and see how they got here, how it all developed.
Sêvînaz: My favorite movie was Forrest Gump. (laughs)
Sêvînaz: Yes, when I was little I had a very strong relationship with that film. I never got to go to the cinema, because during the last 20 years the culture of cinema was destroyed in Syria. There was only one cinema in Amude, which had a very bad reputation because they only showed very low quality things or films that were propaganda for the Baath regime. In my house we waited a long time for a DVD to come into our hands through neighbours and relatives. Also, I was always told that I was forbidden to watch movies, that I couldn’t watch them, and I managed to watch bits and pieces, but Forrest Gump was the first movie I was able to watch in its entirety, and it had a strange effect on me.
At some point you have expressed that as artists you do not consider yourselves different from any soldier or worker making their contribution to the revolution. You have subordinated your creativity to revolutionary tasks and objectives. What is the role of the filmmaker in the revolution?
Şêro: Our role as artists is to protect the revolution. There are many comrades giving education, doing seminars, giving political interviews, working in our media… but we have reached a point where it’s a high number of people who have fought for us who were hurt or even died for us. The artist must defend the revolution from this, first by showing the beauty of the revolutionary process and second by recording everything, preserving it, filming it to protect it and show it to the world.
Sêvînaz: Maybe if we were in other circumstances we could be the kind of artist who likes to be alone, who does things that people don’t understand, but we are part of this revolution and that’s why we follow principles and do things according to what we see and according to what we believe. We belong to this society that has been surrounded by enemies for ten years, that has been constantly under attack, that has not stopped fighting. We are no different and we are not far from what is happening, we cannot say “we are just artists!” No. We are in the middle, for better or for worse we are part of everything that happens. At the same time that we are trying to make films, we are participating in everything, we are protecting the revolution and we are protecting our land.
There is no image out there for Kurdish minds of the Kurdish identity, to see how a Kurdish personality could be, so when we hold screenings and show our films, this has a huge influence on society.
Your art is linked to reality and the problems of your society, but at the same time cinema is also about creating dreams, isn’t it? What is the relationship between dream and reality for you?
Şêro: Right now, one cannot distance oneself from the real image of what is happening around us, although maybe one day, if the situation is peaceful, I would like to add more fantasy to our films, to think like an individual… Before the revolution I wrote poems. Many were special to me, poems about details of my life, about my dreams, about things I could imagine, but my mother could not understand them. At the time of the revolution, if we talk about making movies, it has to be a movie that my mother can understand. It can’t be a ‘special’ cinema that only a small group of people can understand, the kind of people who go to film festivals, the critics.
Sêvînaz: I personally imagine cinema as the place where reality and dream can meet, where you can show what you are really living, but at the same time you can create hope, give hope to the people you are making films for.
About film festivals. When I saw that you had been invited to the Rotterdam International Film Festival just after the Turkish invasion of Rojava in October, the story of the revolutionary filmmaker Yilmaz Guney, who wrote many of his scripts in prison and who was a bit out of place in these big events, came to my mind. How did you feel at these festivals?
Sêvînaz: I went to this festival right after I left Serekaniye, about two months after the start of the invasion. I thought that maybe it would be good for me, that I would feel better, that it would help me forget a little bit. But what happened in the first week was that I saw everything and I felt an immense rage towards the world, I cried a lot. When I saw a street in good condition, or a beautiful person, when I saw a big hall, or people talking in a way I didn’t even understand, I had the feeling that the decision to go there had been totally wrong, that I didn’t belong there and that it was all so unfair.
I felt that I didn’t want to make films to feel this bad. That I wanted to make films to make a change or to make people feel what I want to convey in those films, but not to present myself as that person who comes from a place at war and tries to convince you of something However, I think that sometimes it is necessary, that it was necessary to go there and make our voices heard on certain levels. Going there didn’t make me happier as a filmmaker, it made me more aware.
How do people here react to your films? What effect do they have on society?
Şêro: Perhaps the most important thing is that as Kurds we have not had a mental image of what it means to be Kurdish. As I told you, we have seen many Westerns, we have had in our heads an image of societies from hundreds of years ago, or also images of societies like the Turks, the Arabs, an image of what it is like to be a Westerner, even a Native American… but in the Kurdish mind there is no image of their own identity, of what a Kurdish personality could be like, so when we make screenings and show our films, this has a huge influence on society, probably more than on other societies.
In your films, music is extremely important. You have also made several feature films and documentaries on popular music, in particular the oral tradition of Dengbej. Abdullah Öcalan says that “our lives cannot be explained with books, only with songs”. What does this phrase mean to you?
Şêro: In the Middle East in general, the culture and the legacy of tradition is very important. How you dress, how you sing, how you dance… when a person wants to understand a culture they have to look at the traditions. But for the Kurdish people it is a bit of a special situation because we never had institutions, we never had a state or a written tradition that could tell us about our history. The history of the Kurdish people has been written by the states that oppressed them, so all they had were their songs. The songs have been a tool, a way to resist against oppression, against genocide, against everything that has happened to us. It is a way to protect our history, to preserve it, to pass it on to future generations. In Kurdish folk songs you can see the history of this people, know what happened to them and know the everyday stories that express the way people lived before.
The Kurdish folk singer is not only a person who has a good voice and can perform correctly, he has to know the history, have the ability to understand the people, the tribes, their geography and what happened to them throughout history. At the same time he has to know what rhythm to use to express the actions that took place in a specific time and space, to show all this in an appropriate way. The Kurdish folk singer has to have and unite knowledge of all these diverse fields, that’s why we think we can use this figure and this music as a basis for our art.
Sêvînaz: When you are at a rally, a demonstration, or even a meal, if you want to create an effect on people you do it by singing, because you start singing and everybody is quickly drawn to it, it is something very rooted in our society. Cinema is the new thing, but our musical tradition is so rich and deep that we think we can build a new art and a new cinema based on this tradition.
“The fact that in spite of everything we have preserved our language and continue to speak it shows our resistance over time.”
Your art is focused on protecting tradition and identity from denial and persecution, but at the same time the revolution is also a process of breaking with the old. Of destroying old structures and building new ones. For you, what is the relationship between tradition and revolution, how do they relate in your art?
Şêro: For years there have been several Kurdish movements, several parties trying to make a revolution, but the difference is that in Rojava the change was led by women. These women created new institutions in a ‘colourful’ way, not with the conservative mentality of men that has been hegemonic all our lives.
This revolution changed society with the leadership of women, women who, while taking strength from the time of the Neolithic Revolution, tried to cleanse society of the negative influence of the old structures, of religion, for example. Women protect these changes and our goal is the same, to protect revolutionary achievements and defend them from the influence of a reactionary mentality.
Before the Rojava Revolution there were several Kurdish movements that tried to bring about social change, but their political leaders were men from the bourgeoisie who looked at the culture of the tribes as something backward, so that society did not appreciate or accept them. What Abdullah Öcalan did was to analyze and try to understand this tribal tradition and culture and identify the positive elements in it. When we talk about communal life, it’s an international thing, but what we try to do is to draw strength from the communal life of villages and tribes as we find them in our society, making changes based on their positive qualities.
What is the importance of language in your films? Is language the most important thing when it comes to developing Kurdish culture?
Şêro: You cannot solve the Kurdish question with language alone, but language is the most important thing. The fact that we have preserved our language and continue to speak it shows our resistance over time. We want our own Kurdish cinema, like Iranian cinema. But even if, for example, Hollywood decides to make a film in Kurdish, they would have to rely on Kurdish directors and actors who, because they are Kurds, will know how we think and how we live.
Sêvînaz: This question has been raised in many different ways. One of them is people who say, wouldn’t it be better to make films about the Kurdish question, but in a different language that can be understood by more people? A person can come here, spend a lot of time in this place and present his or her work in the best possible way, he or she can even make a good film and we would appreciate this person very much, but it cannot be done in a really appropriate way if it is not by someone who is from here, who speaks our language, who has gone through the ‘film’ that we have gone through all these years of our life. It cannot be done if it is not by someone who has really lived all this. It is not only a question of language, but of life.
In your film Lonely Trees there is a moment when it is said that if we look at the popular music of Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, we see many points in common, also because it is music that is very much linked to a common nature and landscape. For me this is interesting, how music can preserve its own identity and at the same time build bridges between peoples.
Şêro: Yes, before I told you that the Kurdish people are very rich in their music and traditions, but all the cultures that live here have practised it together for many years. They have lived on the same land and the same geography and what happened to them was very similar due to oppression and authoritarianism, that’s why they sing in a very similar way. They may physically show themselves differently, they may have a different language, but they are all so bound to the same land that the difference is not great, even if some wear a red, green, and yellow scarf and the others wear only a black scarf or only a red scarf. The earth is one and cannot be separated. It was oppression and authoritarian systems that tried to separate people.
In this same film there is a song that talks about a white horse, a bride with a white handkerchief, white as the color of purity… and my question to you is what is the colour of revolution?
Sêro: The revolution does not have one colour, the revolution is colourful. Just like the map of Kurdistan is full of cultures, full of colours and we will never accept that one colour is put over the others. The Baath regime tried it, the Turkish state tried it, various systems tried it throughout history, but we do not accept this, we do not accept taking just one colour, one way of thinking. We believe in colour as our culture and our daily life is colourful, as our clothes are colourful when we go to demonstrations or to any event. So the revolution is colourful… on a red background (laughs).
On a red background?
It is like this! Red is the color of love and revolution, it’s the color of change. The nomadic Koceri people say: it has to be red, even if it costs two lire more! (laughs)