Bahman Ghobadi vowed last fall he would never come to the United States again. He even went so far as to return a prize he received in October at the Chicago Film Festival for his latest movie, “Marooned in Iraq,” after U.S. authorities refused to grant Iran’s most prominent Kurdish director a visa to pick up the honor.
“I waited five months for a visa but wasn’t granted one,” says the 35-year-old director through an interpreter. “I had already been to the U.S. three times. I went to Dubai [to apply] and was insulted. One time a soldier kicked me. I was so offended. I felt that [the U.S.] was the least cultured political system. I loved my soil and I would never step foot in America again.”
But here it is early April, right in the midst of America’s conflict with Iraq, and Ghobadi is having lunch at a tony West Hollywood hotel. A compact man with expressive, long-lashed brown eyes, Ghobadi speaks passionately about the plight of the Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world that doesn’t have its own state. With a population of some 20 million -- 6 million alone in Iran -- the Kurds live in the region of southwest Asia known as Kurdistan. During the Iraqi conflict, the Kurds fought with the coalition troops against Saddam’s forces. (Last week, “Marooned in Iraq” became the first movie to play in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam’s regime.)
“I said I would never come again to the United States, but in one 24-hour period they gave me the visa,” he says. “They actually called to say it was ready.” Ghobadi decided to come to America to promote “Marooned in Iraq” because “hopefully, I can do something for Kurdistan here.”
Like post-World War II Italian neorealist directors such as Vittorio DeSica, Ghobadi uses the cinema as a political weapon, casting nonprofessionals and shooting on actual locations. Ghobadi’s acclaimed first full-length film, “A Time for Drunken Horses,” released in 1999, is a heart-wrenching story of five orphans trying to survive in a Kurdish village on the border of Iraq and Iran. The 12-year-old head of the family, Ayoub, does anything and everything to make money after the doctor tells him that their handicapped brother, Madi, needs an operation to survive.
David Pendleton, programmer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, says Ghobadi is one of the top new talents in Iranian cinema. “I thought ‘Time for Drunken Horses’ was an interesting mixture of this political plea of recognition for the Kurds, with neorealism mixed with real melodrama,” he says. “In some ways he is as much a descendant of D.W. Griffith as the neorealists, using melodrama to dramatize the plight of the downtrodden.”
Ayoub Ahmadi, who played the lead in “Drunken Horses,” is now 18 and worked as an assistant on “Marooned in Iraq.” “I showed him how to shoot,” says Ghobadi, adding that the young man is now going to work as a TV cameraman.
Whereas “A Time for Drunken Horses” tugged at the heartstrings, “Marooned in Iraq” is filled with music, vitality and colorful characters. Though there are scenes of death and destruction, Ghobadi’s message this time around is much more hopeful.
Set in 1991, “Marooned in Iraq” finds the Iranian Kurds being decimated by Saddam Hussein’s air force. An aging Kurdish singer and his musician sons go on a road trip to search for his ex-wife, Hanareh. Once a singer in his band, Hanareh left the elderly singer 23 years before to marry a musician in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now he hears that she is singing for Kurdish refugees on the border and is in need of his help.
“When ‘Drunken Horses’ was finished I was told by many people that it made them very sad,” says Ghobadi. “It moved them, but it was also bitter. I decided to go after a different subject, a different kind of language, and to explore a different kind of storytelling.”
To help finance the film, Ghobadi had to sell his camera. “I do everything on the film myself, fund-raising, everything,” he says. “I don’t let anyone help me because I believe that as the Kurds are living in difficulty, I want to make my film with real difficulty to be like them. I can’t sit during the shoot and have chicken while I know the people throughout the whole village where we are shooting are eating grilled tomatoes all week. I tell my team when we are shooting to sort of eat on the sly.”
Whenever he shoots a film, he takes 20 or 30 young people with him on location to teach them about filmmaking. “It slows everything down, but that’s OK. I’m shooting, and I have to look around for [land] mines everywhere and make sure we don’t step on mines. On ‘Drunken Horses’ one of the kids [in the movie] walked on a mine. It wasn’t during our shoot. We shot one day, and the next day, when we went to get him, they said he stepped on a mine and lost his legs.”
Ghobadi, who was born in Baneh in Kurdistan, had a difficult childhood. Many members of his family were killed during the eight-year conflict between Iran and Iraq. “When I was 15, my father left our life,” he says matter-of-factly. “There were seven of us, and with my mother it was eight. I was the oldest son. When my father left, my mother’s brother said to me, ‘Now you are a man.’ At 15, he called me a man and taught me to be a man.
“I left school and I worked. As of today, I still support not just my immediate family but a whole clan.”
Eventually Ghobadi returned to school, receiving his bachelor’s degree in movie directing from the Iranian Broadcasting College. He started his professional career as an industrial photographer, segueing to 8-millimeter movies, short documentaries and short films.
“My films are made with prayers,” he says with a smile. “We pray for the right weather, we pray that we should get a permit. It is the cinema of prayer.”