Although I question its political premise (more about which later), Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtei dar Aragh) is one of the most dazzlingly brilliant films I have seen about the impact of war on civilian populations. It was written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurd, and it became the first film to be shown in U.S.-“liberated” Iraq, where its popularity was immense. The film, which touches on the alleged genocidal use of nerve gas, by Saddam Hussein, on northern Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, won prizes at Cannes, São Paulo, Tromsø, and Chicago.
It’s a comedy, robust, energetic and humane, in the great tradition of “road films,” that veers seamlessly into a depiction of war’s horror and attendant grief. The film suggests a fusion of Abbas Kiarostami and Emir Kusturíca. It is full of humanity, music, bustling movement, broad farce, and terrible human tragedy. Formally, it’s an amazing work of art—in its personal, clamorous, immediate way, as much so as Aleksandr Sokurov’s silken, dreamlike, memory-drenched Russian Ark the same year. It is stunningly photographed—especially in night scenes—by Saed Nikzat and Amir Asadi.
The plot is minimal. Mirza, who hauntingly resembles the dying old man near the beginning of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), sets out with his two sons to find Hanareh, the wife who left him years ago and married a close friend of his. This journey, by motorcycle and by foot, will take them from Iranian Kurdistan in the direction of the increasingly snowy Iran-Iraq border, which Mirza alone will cross in order to complete the quest. There will be misadventures along the way for the trio of musicians, which include being robbed of their motorcycle and their gold teeth, but whose climax transcends their own limited, individual circumstance: the bombings of Kurds, and the wailing over the mass murder of male Kurds. When Mirza finally reaches the place where she is encamped, Hanareh will not reveal herself; once a beauteous singer, she is ashamed because her voice is a casualty of the chemical agents that have poured down on her and Mirza’s people.
The raucous early parts of this film recall the zany, zesty atmosphere of Kusturíca’s Black Cat, White Cat (Crna macka, beli macor, 1998), especially as both films include gangsters and a wedding. As there, Ghobadi’s characters are—well, characters. One of Mirza’s sons, for example, is searching for an eighth wife, the first seven having all given him daughters and not one son. A lovely young singer eventually catches his eye and ear (musicality is a priority in this family, as indeed music is essential to the joy of Kurdish existence), but she tells him off for having made so many women miserable and wanting to add her to the unhappy harem. Later, their paths again cross as the girl grieves over the death of her brother, and Mirza’s son ends up adopting two young boys whom the war has orphaned. For the battered Kurds, children embody radiant hopes for the future. Mirza, too, acquires a child—the daughter of Hanareh and her now deceased husband. The film ends with a long shot borrowed from John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), as Mirza, carrying his new daughter, sets out for Iranian Kurdistan, a tiny figure against a vast horizon and snowy landscape.
Did Saddam Hussein order the genocide of Iraqi Kurds? Is he the one who showered them with the nerve agent Sarin? Certainly that is the current prevailing view throughout the world, echoed in George W. Bush’s insistence on the fact as part of his preparation of U.S. citizens for his invasion of Iraq. “Fifteen years ago,” Bush stated in a radio address on March 15, 2003, “Saddam Hussein’s regime ordered a chemical weapons attack on a village in Iraq called Halabja. With that single order, the regime killed thousands of Iraq’s Kurdish citizens. Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky. Many who managed to survive still suffer from cancer, blindness, respiratory diseases, miscarriages, and severe birth defects among their children. The chemical attack on Halabja—just one of 40 targeted at Iraq’s own people—provided a glimpse of the crimes Saddam Hussein is willing to commit, and the kind of threat he now presents to the entire world. He is among history’s cruelest dictators, and he is arming himself with the world’s most terrible weapons.”
However, the Iranians as well as the Iraqis employed their chemical arsenal in the war, rendering ambiguous the actual source(s) of the nerve gas that descended on Kurds and whether the Kurds were at all targeted (as distinct from being caught in the crossfire) in the first place. It is very possible that these deaths of Kurds were the result of Iranian, not Iraqi, bombardment. Jude Wanniski, whose revival of the currency of “supply-side economics,” in the 1970s, inspired Reagan administration economic policies in the 1980s, wrote the following to Barbara Crossette, whose article “Iraq Is Forcing Kurds from Their Homes, the U.N. Reports” had appeared in the New York Times (December 11, 2000): “You report . . . that ‘[i]n 1987 and 1988, 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were gassed to death with chemical agent by Mr. [Saddam] Hussein’s government.’ You attribute the claim to ‘American officials’ but provide no further details. I’m fairly certain the claim that Saddam Hussein used chemical warfare against Iraqi Kurds was part of the demonization campaign against Iraq in preparation for the war against that country by the U.S. and its allies.” In any case, Wanniski has noted, “[t]he United Nations tells us that 1.4 million Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the [U.S.-generated] sanctions [following the Gulf War], which is three thousand times more than the number of Kurds who supposedly died of gassing at the hands of Saddam.” Alas, that figure has exponentially risen since.
Another prong of Bush the Second’s “demonization” of Iraq, voiced in the same radio address as is quoted above, repeated Bush the First’s contention that Iraq’s leader was “unprovoked” in the invasion of Kuwait that had launched the 1991 Gulf War in retaliation. However, a 1990 Pentagon report from the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, lays the groundwork for a different perspective on this and other matters relating to Iraqi conduct. Written by Stephen C. Pelletiere, Douglas V. Johnson II, and Leif R. Rosenberger, and published just prior to the U.S.-led coalition’s launching of Bush the First’s war, the report notes that the U.S. came to side with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War largely in hopes of ridding the region of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic leader, Khomeini, whose “revolutionary appeal was anathema to both Baghdad and Washington.” Thus the U.S. “mounted Operation Staunch, an attempt to stem the flow of arms to Iran.” In September 1988, a month after the war had ended, though, the U.S. alliance with Iraq vanished: “the State Department abruptly, and in what many viewed as a sensational manner, condemned Iraq for allegedly using chemicals against its Kurdish population,” elements of which, during the war, had sided with Iran and revolted against Iraq. For its part, Iraq denied that it had launched any such retaliation, that the incident ever occurred, and indeed investigations by international relief organizations who examined the Kurds failed to discover any victims inside or outside Iraq. Regrettably, the two events—the one five months earlier, with the nerve gas, that may have not been caused by Iraq, and the later one that may never have occurred—have become conflated and confused in the American mind, to this effect of thinking: “If Saddam Hussein did one, he almost certainly did the other, and if he would thus murder his own people, he is capable of any mayhem, and therefore he must have had a hand in the 9/11 attack on the U.S. despite the existence of no evidence whatsoever linking him to the event, whether in its encouragement, planning or execution.” Indeed, the Gulf War now looms, Bush for Bush, as an anticipation of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Citing the 1990 Pentagon report, Wanniski, in 1998, shared his own thinking with Jesse Helms, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “The entire report is worth reading, as a matter of fact, because of its credibility on the threshold of the Iraqi invasion. The authors are quite emphatic, by the way, in stating that Iraq was struggling for its financial survival at this point—because of its debts from the Iranian war, and the decline of the world oil price. That is, they did not believe Iraq would have expansionist designs in the Middle East for years to come, given how financially flattened they had been.” Wanniski added: “[B]y squeezing Saddam with sanctions that included a cutoff of [International Monetary Fund] assistance, [Congress] thrust Saddam into the confrontation he had with the Emir of Kuwait over oil fields and better port access to the Gulf that the Iraqis claimed going back to World War I.” In this light, aggressive action by Iraq against Kuwait suddenly makes sense, and the handprint of the U.S. can be discerned in the creation of the situation that provided the justification for Bush the First to embroil Iraq in the Gulf War. The visibility of this handprint, of course, has been one of the casualties of Bush the Second’s demonization of Saddam Hussein.
I note all this by way of background. None of it detracts one bit from the formal beauty of Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq, nor does it reduce the impact of the film’s humane consideration of the Kurds.
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