DUBAI – The 5th Gulf Film Festival closed on Monday night honoring the best in Gulf cinema. This year, 155 films from 40 nations competed for the festival’s awards.
Akram Hidou received the Best Director Award in the Official Gulf Feature Competition for his film “Halabja – The Lost Children.” In it, the protagonist, Ali, visits the Halabja cemetery in Kurdistan, Iraq two decades after Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack during the Iraq-Iran war to look for his lost family and gets entangled in the hopes of members of the local community.
Another Kurdish film in the Official Gulf Feature Competition worthy of merit is “Red Heart,” the first film by the 26-year old filmmaker Halkawt Mustafa. “Red Heart” is a love story, taking place in contemporary Kurdistan. It might initially seem detached from the political reality. It is one of the few Kurdish films that do not overtly tackle political issues: the suffering of Kurds under Saddam, their separation from Iraq and their problems with Turkey, and focuses instead on social conditions in Kurdistan.
Mustafa manages through Shirin and Soran’s love story, to offer what seems like a requiem for a dream, not just the young couple’s personal dream, but one of teenagers who try to find love. As Mustafa walks us through the events, he suggests that the contemporary world order makes that dream impossible, not just in Kurdistan, but throughout the Arab region and the world in general.
Shirin is a beautiful 19-year-old, who lives with her father in a breathtaking mountainous village after her mother passed away. In the opening scene we see them weeping over the mother’s grave. But, that is only the beginning of the young woman’s suffering, as the widowed father forces her to marry a psychopath just because he wants to marry his mother, instead of her beloved Soran.
Soran first sees Shirin outside her school. As local customs prevent him from talking to her in public, he awaits on his motorbike outside her school hoping to catch her attention and ask her to go on a ride. Soran is handsome and kind with knightly manners. Instead of a horse, he however, rides a motorbike. The chivalry imagery continues when he later breaks into the house of Shirin and her groom and takes her away to Erbil, where they are faced with the harshness of reality.
Before that, the story is one of dreamy romance, carefully constructed through the selection of the scenery. Soran manages to convince Shirin to go for a ride after he brings her his mother’s black cloak that would make it difficult for the village people to recognize her. The constraints placed on the young couple are emphasized when compared to the attitude of Shirin’s father who is willing to trade his own daughter to fulfill his sexual desires by pursuing a new wife.
In the first part of “Red Heart,” the filmmaker plays on this idea of dream. It is a platonic love story, where the hopeful couple can only hold hands timidly in an Eden-like natural environment. But after Shirin’s father refuses to marry them, they flee the village and move to Erbil city, a very different setting from their village.
So far, “Red Heart” might seem cliché. But the filmmaker manages to overcome that through the plot and characters he introduces like the old beggar woman who meets Shirin when the couple first arrives at Ebril and foresees their future.
There are no coincidences and simplistic happy endings. When the couple first tries to book a room at a motel in Erbil, they are denied one until they provide a marriage certificate, forcing them to spend the night on wooden benches in a public park. The guard then finds them sleeping in the garden and kicks them out; they become homeless until Soran is arrested and sent to jail.
The events get more complicated when Shirin tries to visit him. She is met with a number of parasitic characters who disrespect women, constantly trying to lure her sexually, from the crook she meets at the marketplace where she tries to sell the motorbike to the prison warden. Shirin ends up pregnant, alone and in prison, willfully.
The young filmmaker manages to engage viewers throughout, keeping the end open. In the final scene, both Shirin and Soran meet by chance on the streets of Erbil. Their faces are, however, blank, free of despise and blame, promising the beginning of a new story, one that might not be as dreamy as their initial one.