Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtei dar Aragh) was Bahman Ghobadi’s second feature film, following on from the amazing achievement of his debut effort, A Time for Drunken Horses. Like that earlier film, the setting is Iranian Kurdistan and the language spoken in the film is Kurdish, not Farsi. Marooned in Iraq, though again dealing with the harsh reality facing Kurds, adopts a lighter tone than A Time for Drunken Horses and could be said by some people to be a tragicomedy. In this respect, the film raises a question:
Does this film successfully combine humour with the macabre circumstances of war in an authentic way? In fact, is that even possible? In this connection, Roberto Benigni’s film, Life is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella), despite its popularity, was not in my view a successful combination of these two themes. So did Marooned in Iraq succeed where Life is Beautiful, in my view, did not?The story of Marooned in Iraq concerns a renowned retired Kurdish musician, Mirza, who has received word that his former wife, Hanareh, now in Iraqi Kurdistan, urgently needs his assistance and wants him to come to her. This is not such an easy thing to do. The Kurdish border area is very rough terrain, and it is full of armed bandits and smugglers who prey on anyone travelling through the area. In addition, the setting is apparently during the time of the Iran-Iraq war, and Iraqi warplanes are bombing the area, while the Iraqi military is impressing stray civilians captured to serve in their army. So Mirza summons his two sons, Barat and Audeh, both of whom are also musician/singers and formerly members of Mirza’s group, to accompany him on the dangerous trip across the border in search of Hanareh. On their journey through the ruggedly beautiful mountains of Kurdistan, the three travellers find themselves engaged in various misadventures with colourful people from villages of the region. The early episodes are shown with energy and broad humour, but they progressively become more enshrouded with the grim realities of war as the film proceeds. And the frequent sound of Iraqi jet planes flying overhead is a constant reminder of the violent circumstances in which the Kurdish people find themselves.
Early on, as they drive in Barat’s flashy sidecar-equipped motorcycle, they encounter a man who has flogged a mullah, and the three travelers stop to lend assistance. It turns out that this violent man is unhappy that the mullah has not stopped the family of the woman he wants from marrying her off to someone else. In short order he and an accomplice get the upper hand and march them all of at gunpoint towards the village where the wedding will take place. Mirza and his two sons are quickly recruited into a performance for the wedding ceremony, where the musicians perform their lively and passionate song, "Hanareh" -- a high point of the film. But this scene is eventually interrupted by an exchange of gunfire between the unhappy suitor and the bride’s father.
After escaping that fracas and getting back on the road, the trio are stopped by armed bandits who rob them of everything: money, motorcycle, clothes, and even Barat’s gold fillings. It’s not long before they hitch a ride to the next village and see their motorcycle having just been sold in the bazaar. Later, they come across a school teacher who is teaching war-orphaned children about airplanes. Airplanes have a good side and a bad side, he tells them: they carry goods and people, but they are also employed for dropping bombs. He takes the children to a hilltop cliff, from where they throw dozens of paper airplanes, a visual symbol highlighting the contrast between the innocence of the Kurdish young people and the harsh cruelties of the ongoing war.
Finally, they come to a newly discovered mass grave of Kurdish civilians executed by Saddam Hussein’s military, and reference is made to a nearby mass grave that has 15,000 corpses. As the going gets more dangerous and the threat of the two sons being impressed into Iraqi military service more evident, Mirza finally makes his way alone on foot to the city where Hanareh is supposed to be.
What he finds is that most of the men are dead and many of the women are disfigured and enfeebled by the effects of mustard gas from Iraqi air attacks. Mirza is finally directed to a woman whose voice is ruined by the mustard gas and who is so disfigured that she refuses to show her face, who knows something about Hanareh. Fully covered from his sight, this woman (who may, in fact, be Hanareh) informs him that he cannot meet Hanareh, but that Hanareh wants him to take her young daughter to Iran with him for safety. Mirza sets back on foot with the child on his back, and the long closing shot, reminiscent of the final shot of A Time for Drunken Horses, shows Mirza crossing over the barbed wire fence that marks the border between Iraq and Iran.
Although the film was released to the Western public at about the time of the US invasion of Iraq, which, of course, entailed a heightened public awareness of the Iraq situation and which may have influenced the title change, the events in the film appear to be set just after 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war. This is because of the depiction of what appears to be the effects of the Iraqi chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, which killed around 5,000 people. That attack was clearly an attempt to kill civilians and has been labelled an act of genocide by Human Rights Watch. Here is what the BBC said about it:
Most of the wounded, who were taken to hospital in the Iranian capital Tehran, were suffering from mustard gas exposure. Those who escaped death have developed respiratory or visual problems from the cocktail of chemicals dropped on the city. According to some reports, up to 75% of the victims were women and children. The injured survivors seen by reporters showed the classic symptoms of mustard gas poisoning - ugly skin lesions and breathing difficulties.The US government initially ignominiously claimed that the attack was from Iran, but evidence showed that it was an Iraqi attack. Certainly Ghobadi wants a reference to that atrocity to be recorded and remembered in his anthem to the Kurdish people. Marooned in Iraq was given an award at the Chicago Film Festival, but because the US government resisted giving Ghobadi a visa, he refused to accept the award.
With all these grisly goings on, I come back to the question posed earlier? Where is there latitude here for authentic humour? Or do the humourous earlier scenes just sit uncomfortably with the latter parts of the film? In the case of Marooned in Iraq, I believe that the parts do make a coherent whole. The film is not just a comedy, but actually a tribute to the Kurdish people and to their culture, which (as I understand it) encompasses a life full of hope and passion. This is why music is such an essential element to the film. It’s not just that the principal characters happen to be musicians, but that music is a deep-level tonic that fortifies Kurdish people to engage in life passionately, in all its circumstances. In fact an alternative title of the film in Iran was “Avazhayé Sarzaminé Madariyam” (“Songs of My Motherland”). The music here has some of the same features and attractions as gypsy and flamenco music, which also expresses an earthy passion for the joys and sorrows of life. Both the gypsies (Roma) and Kurds are stateless peoples who have endured centuries of persecution as minority populations, but something inside them has enabled them to endure. For his part, Ghobadi has ended both of his first two films with Kurdish people passing across borders that he considers to be artificial, political separations that only cause problems and set people against each other. He explicitly has Mirza stomping down on the barbed wire marking the border at the end of the film, thereby offering his own opinion of the value of borders.
Another subtext in Marooned in Iraq is the place of Kurdish women in society. Women seem to be symbolic of a hopeful future for the Kurds. Early in the film during a brief interlude shot mostly as a lyrical series of closeups, we see village women industriously working together to make mud bricks. Women shown later in the refugee camps are all working to help their people. Mirza and his two sons are all seeking different women in the film. Moreover, Mirza is trying to find his former wife, Hanareh, Audeh is looking for another wife so that he can finally sire a son (he already has seven wives and 11 daughters), and the bachelor Barat is looking for his soul mate. Audeh never finds that 8th wife, but he does get his wish for a son by being persuaded to adopt two orphan boys that he intends to train as musicians. Barat falls in love with a women without having seen her face, but simply by virtue of having heard her beautiful singing voice. When he talks to her (only seeing her shadow behind a wall), he tells her that he loves her beautiful voice and would like her to be his bride. She says she will accept on the condition that he teach her to sing, and when he responds that Iranian women cannot sing in public, she runs away. Near the end of the film Barat meets this woman again, where she is searching for the body of her brother. This time, with his eyes more open now (he has finally taken off his self-image-enhancing sunglasses that he has been wearing throughout the film), he humbly offers whatever assistance he can provide. She doesn’t answer, but does show her face to him. So he, too, finds grounds for a more hopeful future.
In the story, Mirza’s Hanareh, who had dreamed of being a professional singer, had run away to Iraqi Kurdistan with his best friend, Seyed, 23 years earlier. If you date this film from its release in 2002, this earlier event would be placed right after the Iranian Revolution and the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, when women were banned from singing in public. Although the Halubja poison-gas bombing massacre suggests to me that this film should be placed just after 1988, Ghobadi has admitted in an interview that the explicit reference to 23 years earlier was meant to coincide with the decree banning women singing in public.
Given what must be difficult shooting conditions, Marooned in Iraq has outstanding production values. The cinematography is excellent, and Ghobadi employs scenic cutaways skilfully to maintain a fluid visual rhythm. Unlike some other Iranian filmmakers, Ghobadi employs numerous camera setups in order to maintain a continually interesting visual profile for the film. The rugged Kurcish landscape presents a picturesque backdrop, but Ghobadi chose to shoot during the winter, when much of the mountain scenery was covered in snow. He chose this time of year so that the mountain background would be more bleak and abstract and not dominate the figures in the foregound.
It’s also interesting that Ghobadi did manage to achieve a humorous tone for certain scenes, even though he was working with an entirely nonprofessional cast. He has said in interview that he spends months with his main actors before shooting starts in order to learn about their characters. Then he only asks them to behave in ways that are natural to their personalities. In Marooned in Iraq, two of his actors were professional singers (Mirza’s two sons) who were used to projecting their personalities in passionate songs, and so could project in front of the camera, too. This is perhaps why Ghobadi had the characters shouting at each other much of the time. Mild, subtle interactions would more likely have exposed the inexperience of his actors.
The overall message of the film is a tribute to the unyielding hopefulness of the Kurdish people and their musical culture that supports that hope. Mirza never gets to see Hanareh in the film, but he brings back her young daughter to Iran. It is she who represents the hopeful future for Kurdistan.