An Interview with Bahman Ghobadi

Art and Hardships

by Gilda Boffa, Zoya Honarmand Volume 13, Issue 1 / January 2009 10 minutes (2277 words)

Interview by Zoya Honarmand and Gilda Boffa
Interview translator Zoya Honarmand
Text translated by Zoya Honarmand

Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi directed the first Kurdish language feature film to be made in the world (A Time for Drunken Horses, 2000). Ever since, it has been of capital importance to him to represent Kurds in his films. In July of 2008, we met with the director in his Tehran office to conduct the following interview in which he shared his ideas about the Kurdish audience, the affect cinema can have on culture and society, the current state of Iranian cinema and the meaning of borders and children in his films.

Bahman Ghobadi. Photo by Gilda Boffa*

Offscreen: In the “Behind the Scenes” for Halfmoon, you said that it was very important for your films to be screened in Iran. You’re also currently involved in building a movie theatre in Kurdestan. Can you speak a bit about why it’s so important for Iranians and Kurds to see your films?

Bahman Ghobadi: Because, first of all, I’m Kurdish and there are a total of four million Kurds in the four countries of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. And for years we didn’t have a movie theatre or a film school or Kurdish films or Kurdish language films. I’m very proud to be the first Kurdish filmmaker in the world to make a feature film in Kurdish. So I have an audience—those four million Kurds are my audience.

Offscreen: So, for you, it’s a responsibility.

Bahman Ghobadi: Yes, it’s a responsibility. It’s not a matter of nationalism. Firstly, [I make] films for Kurds, because I’m Kurdish, films in Kurdish language because I know the language well. Where I can, I make films in Farsi so that both Kurds and Iranians might enjoy them, as well as an international audience. In a few years, if my English improves I may make a film in English, maybe in Mexico.

The human being is what’s important for me. But right now, as I speak to you, Kurds in Iran are struggling a lot, their lives are more difficult than other Iranians’. They’re second-class citizens. Their social and economic situations aren’t the greatest. They’re struggling for better living conditions. That’s why I want to build a theatre there. And I’m hoping to conduct my biggest workshop there soon for 500 people, including myself, and for all of us to make a film together consisting of 500 shots, which would have 500 directors. Nothing like that has been done in the world. I’ll give Kurdish children some ideas and a couple of cameras…. Unfortunately, because I’m in Iran and things are under such tight control, I can only help people to the extent that my current physical and spiritual and psychological state allows.


Offscreen: Is it any more important for you that Kurds see your films than other people?

Bahman Ghobadi: Kurds come foremost. If I had to choose whether my films would be screened in Europe of Kurdistan, I would say first, Kurdistan. Because they don’t see films—we don’t have theatres. But if I make a film with them and they have to see it, they will make me, or make some other person, build movie theatres there. That in itself would help cultural development in the region. Europeans have enough cinemas. Four million Kurds in the world do not have four movie theatres! You would do the same in my situation.

But I make films for everybody—that’s why my films can be screened in Canada, in the States, and why the audiences there can still relate to them. I think 92% of world’s films are about humanity. Some show its negative aspects, others show its positive side. It’s not just me, all these films are made to serve humanity. Even animal documentaries communicate some message about humanity to the audience.

Offscreen: Can you tell us about your opinions on Iranian cinema?

Bahman Ghobadi: To tell you the truth, I don’t have much of an opinion on the matter. There were some films before and some films after the revolution that I esteem, but since it was a cinema that was managed and filtered by the government, a cinema that, in my opinion, could have become universal took off only to retreat back into the village—they forced it into a corner.

Those managing cultural affairs ten, twenty years ago were responsible for Iranian cinema becoming so foolish. They didn’t provide any financial backing, foundational support, modern facilities or proper education for filmmaking. And the censoring, which has only been getting worse over the years, has resulted in Iranian cinema becoming very repetitive—right now, it’s just repeating itself. Even I’m repeating myself because in order to get permission to shoot, I need to censor myself. Then I take my proposal to the Ministry [of Culture and Islamic Guidance] and they censor it according to their views. Thus the formulas become repetitive and the foreign audience grows tired and the market doesn’t want it anymore.

But aside from the censoring, I think we are lacking the proper equipment and knowledge about filmmaking. For this reason, we no longer receive any kind of attention for [Iranian] cinema. Unless these filters and the government’s judgments are lifted—then, maybe a handful of great filmmakers will be introduced to the world.

Ghobadi on the set of A Time for Drunken Horses

Offscreen: So where do you hope to see Iranian cinema in the future?

Bahman Ghobadi: I’m very pessimistic. I don’t think we can do anything as a group because everything is controlled. The festival, the Ministry, film stocks, equipment, bank loans, permission to shoot… everything is controlled by the government. People can’t rise together under these conditions. I think there are opportunities for the success of one or two films every couple of years, but that’s not really success. Success is how Latin American cinema is thriving in the world right now.

The first thing a filmmaker here has to think about is how to rid themselves of these censors. But unfortunately, since there are no non-governmental organizations to support them, 99.9% of our filmmakers are forced to surrender to the will of the censors and the government. They have to make whatever they want. Because if we don’t, they won’t allow us to screen our films, they won’t give us loans, they won’t let us make more films in the future. You start to get depressed. And since you don’t know any other languages, and since you’re unfamiliar with European culture and you know no other way of filmmaking outside of Iran, you become dispassionate and you make pointless, meaningless films. Right now, each individual has to try to escape these restrictions. I’m trying, personally, and I hope to make a couple of decent films, but I’m not prepared to make them in compliance with the limitations of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Offscreen: You were speaking about how making films in Kurdistan can have a great effect on the population there. In your opinion, what effects can cinema have on culture and society?

Bahman Ghobadi: It’s both direct and indirect. In Kurdestan, for example, before I started making short films, there were no cameras. When you start making films, cameras enter the market. Right now, close to a thousand young people [in Kurdistan] are making films. In a very direct way, cinema becomes more widespread. There are ten to twenty small film production companies. Several films are being made in the Kurdish language, they have started making Kurdish television programs. It has created jobs. I can easily say that 500-1,000 people are now receiving an income through cinema in Kurdistan. They’re making documentaries, fictions, short and feature-length films… it’s making an impact. And in the long run, that will have a great impact on the shaping of culture. If all of these films total 1,000 minutes of film per year, that’s 1,000 minutes of film about Kurds—its culture, its music. It can then present itself to the world and make an impact by introducing another culture, a race, a land.

Offscreen: Let’s speak now about your own cinema. Borders play a strong role in your films, especially in A Time For Drunken Horses and Marooned in Iraq, where the final scenes are of borders being crossed.

Bahman Ghobadi: One time crossing over to Iraq, another time coming to this side.

Offscreen: Yes, exactly. As an Iranian Kurd, what role have borders played in your own life? What do they mean to you and why have you portrayed them the way that you have in your films?

Marooned in Iraq

Bahman Ghobadi: I grew up in a town called Banneh, a very small town at the edge of the Iraqi border. It was about thirty kilometers from my house to the border. So I was myself born on a border. From the day I was born, I remember seeing wars caused by this border. Civil wars, revolution, wars between Kurds and the Iranian government, between Iran and Iraq… I saw how when they were bombing us, everyone fled to Iraq, how when Iraq was attacking the Kurds there, the Iraqi Kurds would flee to this side of the border.

I came to know the border from childhood. A lot of the stories my mother and grandmother would tell me revolved around the border. Among the neighbours who lived on our alley, there were three girls named Border—Senoor. And I always wondered why their names were Border. Then I learned that it was a part of our culture.

Then, as I grew older and I started reading books, I learned that Kurds live in four countries and that they all have borders—there are walls between them. Suddenly, the significance of the border increased. And once I started traveling to Europe, I despised even more the quality of life in Kurdistan and in the Middle-East. I wondered why it was that they could travel through all of Europe with a bicycle, without passports or restrictions, while I had to wait an entire year to be granted permission to cross the border and see the Iraqi Kurdistan. One year, I had to wait! And the border was less than 50 km from where I lived. It’s torturous.

Since then, I’ve detested borders. I detested the Middle-East, my country, Kurdistan. I didn’t understand why borders had to be so sacred. That’s why, in my films, I’m so strongly opposed to borders. I think that the world is so small—it’s like a very small backyard. People have become so degenerate and worthless that they’re erecting thousands of walls around it.

And it’s so hard for me as a filmmaker. Having to go to the MoMA, in the United States, and not being able to get a visa. Then cursing America, who is preaching democracy but is worse than everybody else. Why the world has become so dark with these demarcations is always a question I raise in my films. My argument is that Kurds all share a common language, why not get rid of these borders between them? Why does there need to be a border between Iran and Iraq? Why can’t everyone be connected? Why is the border so sacred that if one country invades ten meters of another country’s land, you get an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq? Millions of people are killed, and there are millions of inflicted people in Iran right now, all because of this border. In my opinion, borders are the nemesis of people in the Middle-East today.

Offscreen: Another theme that’s very prevalent in your work is struggle and hardship. Why do you believe it is important for an audience to be confronted with these hardships?

Bahman Ghobadi: Well, these films are fragments of my life. I grew up in a very stressful environment. I endured a lot of hardship. My films are a reflection of my innermost being. I make films in the same way that I’ve lived. And I’m making films now in the way that I’m living now. I’m stressed out and depressed, I’m upset and angry about [my] situation, and I’m making films angrily.

I always try to inject my life and my complexes into my work. That’s all I do. Because my films are like my life. Actually, I’ve endured more in my life than you see in the films. In the films, I use humour and satire, too, so people won’t get too upset.

Offscreen: And what about the roles that children play in your films, and in Iranian cinema in general?

Bahman Ghobadi: I don’t see them as children. Halfmoon and Songs About My Motherland are about grown-ups. The children in my other films… you see them as children, but they’re not children. It’s my belief that us Kurds pass over childhood. We’re born and thrust into our twenties. The children in my films are suffering and struggling like Europeans do in their thirties and forties. They’re not like children in modern Europe and America. I can say that my films aren’t about children at all; they’re about people who have small bodies, but great spirits.

All other photos from Bahman Ghobadi’s website MijFilm.

An Interview with Bahman Ghobadi

Gilda Boffa completed a bachelors in Communication Studies and a masters in Film Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. She wrote her thesis about Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and won a scholarship to travel to Iran in 2008. She published several articles and a book chapter about Iranian cinema. She also completed a certificate in Arabic language and cultures at UQAM and a certificate in translation at Université de Montréal. She directed Belly Dance with a Twist, a short documentary about Syrian Canadian male belly dancer Pierre Khoury. She has been studying, performing and teaching belly dance and other Middle Eastern dances for several years.

Photo credit: Emily Hull

Volume 13, Issue 1 / January 2009 Interviews   iranian cinema