Laughing into the void, making machine speak Kurdish (Vodka Lemon)

Tne Daily Star, Lebanon
Oct 22 2004

Laughing into the void, making the machine speak Kurdish
Filmmaker Hiner Saleem reflects on art, politics and good vodka

By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Scrutinizing Hiner Saleem through the clouds of smoke, it
seems from time to time that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the
American actor Kevin Spacey. The effect fades as Saleem navigates his
way through the English-language interview. Spacey has never carried
off such a bravura performance. He’s certainly never worked with such
a good scriptwriter.

“My grandfather used to say, ‘Our past is sad. Our present is a
catastrophe.” Saleem taps his cigarette. “‘Fortunately, we don’t have
a future.'”

The remark nicely evokes the unpredictable wit that radiates from
Saleem’s “Vodka Lemon,” a highlight of the recent Ayam Beirut
Cinemaiyya. The setting alone – a snow-bound Kurdish-Armenian village
where state and economy are so marginal that everyone seems to be
selling themselves to stay alive – is the recipe for a truly grim
film. “Vodka Lemon” is not depressing: its visual and spoken language
crackles with a humour that is as humane as it is absurd.

“I never say that I will make something sad or with humor or comedy.
My stories just come like this.” He picks up a cigarette lighter.
“Humor is the politics of despair.”

In a region where it is common to see directors turn their cameras on
their own countries, it seems exotic to have a Kurdish filmmaker
working in a country that – at least in popular perception – is so
different from Kurdistan. For Saleem the choice was perfectly

“Because of Saddam Hussein, because of the lack of democracy and
freedom, it was impossible for me to make a film in Kurdistan. … It
is impossible to make films if it’s illegal to speak your own
language. Things are changing of course. In south Kurdistan – what
diplomats call Iraqi Kurdistan – there is now freedom. School,
university – everything’s in Kurdish. But we are imprisoned there.
… We are free within this prison but we don’t have contact with the
outside world. Things change also in Turkey, a little, reform and so

“It has been very difficult to have Kurdish cinema because cinema
needs a public, needs money, needs support. [But there have been
Kurdish filmmakers]. We must not forget Yilmaz GŸney, whose film
“Yol” took the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1982. Now people are
beginning. There is a Kurd in Iran who made two very interesting
movies. And there’s a new generation living in Europe, some in
Germany, some in New York. So it’s beginning.”

He lights a cigarette. “But why not Armenia? I love this country, and
it has an important Kurdish community. We are very near one another
in cultural sensibilities. We drink good vodka.

“Of course when I write it I think about Kurdistan, but when I finish
my scenario I come back to my reality, and it’s not possible to go
back and make something. Even if there’s freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan
since 1991, the countries surrounding it are not very tolerant. So
how can I take materials? How can I take a team? So when I think of
an alternative, I think about Armenia.

“I make the movie in a Kurdish village so it’s Kurdish and Armenian
at once. The movie moves back and forth between Kurdish, Armenian and
Russian. It’s easy to drink in Russian, to sing in Kurdish and insult
in Armenian, for example. But the story is universal. I was in Brazil
recently and somebody told me, ‘If you took out the snow it could be
a Brazilian story.’ Somebody said something similar in Bangkok.
Basically if there are humans, you will find these kind of problems.”

“Vodka Lemon” does succeed in elevating itself beyond the locality
where it happens to be set. Though he wants, and is clearly able, to
make films with universal themes, issues of identity remain important
to the Paris-based director.

“Iraqi Kurdistan never accepted me. So I don’t accept Iraq. I am not
‘Iraqi Kurdish.’ I am only Kurdish, Kurdistani Kurdish. Throughout
its history Iraq has destroyed me, and I’m not crazy or a masochistic
enough to call myself ‘Iraqi Kurdish.’ When Iraq respects me I will
respect it. When Iraq loves me I will love it. … We are no better
than any other people, but no other people is better than me. I like
to live in equality, not under an Iraqi-Arab hegemony that doesn’t
respect our culture, that destroyed us culturally and physically.”

A Kurdish emigre filmmaker, he doesn’t go out of his way to associate
with other members of that community.

“I’m a very individual filmmaker. Of course I feel very happy when I
see something good from a Kurdish director. But film it’s individual
work, writing is individual work, painting … you don’t need a
community. You don’t need an association. You are alone [as] I am in
my kitchen at 4 a.m., after two bottles of vodka.

“Fortunately [there are many French producers] who like my work. I
don’t think I have more problems [in this] than French filmmakers. To
be a Kurdish filmmaker doesn’t give you more opportunities, and it
doesn’t give you less. The problem is the same if I’m Kurdish or
French or whatever.”

Saleem resists having his work compared to that of other filmmakers –
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, for instance, who, like Saleem,
began his career as a painter.

“I’m absolutely not a cinephile,” he says. “Really. The first time I
saw a camera was when I shot my first film [in 1998]. I have no
cinema culture. … I picked up a camera because I was helpless.”

Presumably then, making films gives him a sense of power. “Absolutely
not,” he responds. “First of all I’m here, and I must do something in
my life. Second, I’m sensitive to this and I like to talk about it.

“Third” – he glances at his cigarette – “to pass the time.”

The real story behind how Saleem became a filmmaker comes from his
life in Kurdistan, one he describes as “like that of a million other

“As children we used to run to the mountains because the Iraqis were
making a massacre. We would go live in the caves – no electricity, no
television, nothing. My father every night would read to us classical
Kurdish poetry – printed clandestinely. He’d say to everybody, ‘You
must listen.’ But myself, I didn’t understand.

“But one day he came with a new book – also classical Kurdish
literature – but with illustrations. I was fascinated. It looked like
I’d discovered God. I asked ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘My son, this
painter read this poetry and the poetry gave him the inspiration to
make this.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, you mean it’s also the poetry. … It
[must be] something beautiful if it gives this inspiration. So I
begin to listen to him read.

“When we go back to the city, the first thing I begin doing is buying
materials to paint, and I begin to link poetry and pictures. A little
bit later, one uncle came back with a television and I was
shocked-surprised for a second time. ‘What is this? My God. People
moving and talking and I look around -” He stands up to look behind
the imagined television set. “And nothing.

“All the time the television begins with the imna, for Arab
nationalism, Hizb al-Baath … I’m fascinated. Of course, this is
picture and poetry, so I like it. I watch everything. Some days
after, when the shock passed, I begin to ask people, ‘I don’t
understand anything. We are in Kurdistan, why does this machine not
speak in Kurdish?’

“I think maybe every people make for himself this machine, talking
only his language. In the beginning, when he make the machine, he
also put the language. I don’t know, but I say ‘One day I will make
this machine speak in Kurdish.’

“I don’t know what I must be to make this machine. I think I must be
a mechanic or an electrician or a singer … or Saddam Hussein. But I
say, I must make this machine speak in Kurdish.”