Dir: Bahman Ghobadi
Starr: Helly Luv, Nariman Anwar
Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark (Screen 11)
Influential Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi has a track record of blending together elements of documentary and fiction film form. His last major festival success No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009) was a part-documentary upon the subversive underground music scenes within Tehran. His latest effort, A Flag Without a Country, is a Kurdish-Iraqi production, featuring the Kurdish pop star Helly Luv (aka Helan Abdulla) and the news media sensation known as the Kurdish Icarus (aka Nariman Anwar). These two individuals are effectively the protagonists of a split narrative, scripted from material to do with their actual lives. Ghobadi seeks to further blur the boundaries between the documentary and fiction feature by asking both Helly Luv and Nariman to play themselves within the film. The result is an interesting but rather problematic film about recent Kurdish history, as seen through the prism of two prominent Kurdish celebrities, who have both developed public personas that draw attention to the Kurdish independence struggle.
Nariman Anwar is a plane enthusiast and amateur aviation engineer, who garnered a degree of internet and news media celebrity by piloting planes that he had made from welding together scrap metal and waste products. The local government within Kurdish-Iraq supported Anwar in his development of small prototype planes for internal flights within the Kurdish territories of Iraq, Iran and Turkey. They also helped to back his flight school that has the aim of training a young generation of airline pilots who will operate a Kurdish domestic airline service. Within the film there is a degree of tension between Anwar’s supposedly peaceful reasons for pursuing a career as a trainer of pilots, and the accusation that he is in fact training his young charges to be future fighter pilots for a Kurdish armed struggle. Helly Luv, by comparison, is an Iranian born Kurd who grew up in Kurdish Iraq before seeking refugee status in Turkey and then Finland. Growing up in Scandinavia, Luv has become an international pop sensation, who has repeatedly exploited her Kurdish roots for the kind of pop-shock imagery associated with other European-based refugee figures, such as MIA.
Ghobadi has essentially created a fantasy film, which uses the pretence of a documentary form examining the two protagonists’ dreams of a homeland. These highly individual dreams of flying and pop stardom are then neatly interwoven into the fabric of Kurdistan’s own dream of nationhood. The Kurdistan that is presented within the film is one of refugee camps and bombed out towns, yet it is writ large, with a sense that Ghobadi is indulging his two co-creators by imbuing their individual struggles with the power and force of a national struggle. Jafar Aslani’s camerawork seems to glide through this intensified reality as if the world of the two protagonists had been slowed to a point where it is more sensitively received. Colours and textures are enhanced and foregrounded throughout, with surprising overlaps between the film’s dominant aesthetic and the inserts of Helly Luv’s frenetically edited pop videos. The judicious and shocking use of news footage and web content covering the Kurdish conflict with ISIS in Syria and the civil war within Northern Iraq are an added documentary layer to the film, with both protagonists interacting with this media at some stage. Helly Luv’s pop videos actually incorporate much of the military paraphernalia and hardware from this news footage, making a hipster combat fashion out of fetishised flak jackets and Kalashnikov rifles. Personally, I found this aspect of the film most jarring, as it seemed only to serve the purpose of promoting Helly Luv’s brand.
Despite the fact that both protagonist’s stories are compelling, the film has a number of flaws in its structuring and approach to subject matter. The existence of Nariman’s flight school is never fully explained, with many of the townspeople that appear in the film being mistrustful of the Kurdish Icarus’s motivations. The idea that Nariman is only training young men to be commercial pilots seems even more preposterous when you consider how he decides to become involved in military service at the film’s end. Ghobadi is also guilty of taking a near wholly uncritical approach to Helly Luv and what precisely she is hoping to do in Kurdistan. The overwhelming sense that I had is that she is, at best, merely engaging in the kind of ‘humanitarian’ press junket that the likes of Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga pursue. At worst, she is simply using Kurdistan as an edgy backdrop to enhance her pop profile. The end of the film, as already hinted at, brings the two protagonists together as recruits to a military struggle against ISIS. This seems very much like Ghobadi advocating and promoting armed combat in a manner that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Frank Capra’s Hollywood of the 1940s.
Despite the weighty subject matter that Ghobadi has chosen to engage with A Flag Without a Country generally conveys a light and breezy approach to its material. There are plenty of instances within the film of tongue-in-cheek humour. In fact the film opens with a scene that makes a mockery of the predominately masculine world of guns and bombs. Helly Luv visits a munitions dump where she engages in a fairly knowledgeable conversation about the best kinds of military hardware and asks to be shown various items. There is also the way in which Nariman’s students look out for the now disabled pilot – he had a serious accident that features in web footage at the start of the film – by assisting and affectionately mocking him at the same time. Ghobadi has also managed to capture some moments of pure cinema the like of which I haven’t seen in any other film. There is a mesmerising sequence in which soldiers help to bring a piano into a refugee camp so that the kids auditioning for Helly Luv can have musical accompaniment. The manner in which the piano wends its way through the makeshift city of tents is weirdly dignified. In the same passage of the film a little girl called Hoda sings a ferociously defiant Kurdish song which even managed to send a shiver down my spine, and I was only reading the subtitles. It feels like Gobadi has created two films that don’t fully cohere. There is a film about individual dreams and aspirations, and there is a film about the dream of a country. When Ghobadi is in pursuit of the latter this film soars, yet Nariman and Helly Luv bring the whole thing back to earth with a crash.