The Kurdish filmmaker on deploying a camera rather than a gun to fight for his community.
In October 2014, the Kurdish filmmaker Mano Khalil arrived in Dharamsala, a northern Indian town inhabited by thousands of Tibetan exiles, for a screening of his recent documentary, The Beekeeper. Edward Said once wrote that to be an exile is not to feel alienated from the idea of home, but to be reminded every day of your life “that you are in exile, that your home is not in fact so far away.” Though the film screening marked Khalil’s first visit to the city—the site, also, of the Dalai Lama’s residence—he is intimately familiar with states of exile: he has lived in Switzerland for over twenty years, since escaping the Baathist regime in Syria, his place of birth.
There are close to 30 million Kurds living in the contiguous area that now lies divided between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, making them the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. Kurds are also among the most persecuted minorities in the region. “It was enough to say that one was a Kurd to be imprisoned,” Khalil said during our interview, which took place in Dharamsala a day after the screening. He spoke from firsthand experience. As a film student in former Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s, Khalil mentioned his Kurdish identity in a magazine interview. Upon his return to Damascus, he was jailed for the offense.
For Khalil, filmmaking is as much a political act as a creative pursuit. He told me he’d picked up a camera instead of a gun to “continue that fight”—the fight for Kurdish statehood, the fight against mass repression, and the fight to restore the Kurdish identity both politically and culturally.
The documentary The Place Where God Sleeps is the only film Khalil has shot in Syria. Released in 1993, the film tracks the lives of Kurdish community members living between the borders of Syria and Turkey. It was well received, winning first prize at the Augsburg Film Festival in Germany. But following the film’s international reception, Khalil said, “the doors of hell opened” for him and his family in Syria, and he fled the country for Switzerland, where he later became a citizen.
For more than twenty years, through both feature films and documentaries, Khalil has continued to explore themes central to the Kurdish experience, including ethnic repression, displacement, and loss. His 2005 documentary, Al-Anfal: In the Name of Allah, Baath and Saddam, was an investigation into the holy war Saddam Hussein waged against the Kurdish population of northern Iraq in the 1980s. David the Tolhildan, released in 2007, follows Swiss citizen David Rouiller as he gives up a life of Western privilege to join the Kurdish liberation movement.
That particular narrative arc is reversed in The Beekeeper, which explores a Kurdish refugee’s life in Switzerland. In the film, Ibrahim Gezer pursues his passion for rearing honey bees while coming to terms with the loss of his family: some left behind in war-torn Turkish Kurdistan; others, including his son, killed fighting alongside the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
When the film opens, Ibrahim has already spent seven years in hiding in the mountains following his arrest and torture by Turkish forces. In Switzerland, as he rebuilds his life from scratch at the age of sixty-four, beekeeping—a childhood enthusiasm—is his only contact with the past. “I love it when they sting me,” Ibrahim tells the camera at one point. This “hobby,” as the Swiss authorities disparagingly call it, becomes a symbol of normalcy and continuity.
Khalil grew up speaking Kurdish and Arabic, later becoming adept in Czech, German, Swiss German, and English. He spoke with me in fluid English, though he routinely apologized for his lack of fluency. Twice after the interview, he contacted me to say that he wanted to have another go at what he thought he’d failed to convey earlier. At times I wondered if a camera, which conveys truths through the manipulation of light rather than words, might have proved more comfortable.
—Vineet Gill for Guernica
Guernica: You were born in the Syrian part of Kurdistan. Tell me about growing up as a Kurd in the shadow of Arab nationalism.
Mano Khalil: My mother came from Turkish Kurdistan and my father was from Syrian Kurdistan. When they got married, there was no border between Syria and Turkey, and people could move freely between the two countries. Then, around sixty years ago, the border was set up, and my mother just couldn’t go back to her family. She was stuck in Syria.
I was born in a small village in Syria where Kurdish was spoken: a language absolutely different from Arabic, which is a Semitic language. Kurdish belongs to the family of Indo-European languages. We were forbidden in Syria to speak Kurdish. This was of course a time of Arab nationalism—of Assad’s Baath party in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In these countries, if you were caught selling ten kilos of heroin, you could be imprisoned for a year; if you killed someone you’d get a three-year prison sentence. But if you wrote a poem or a small article in Kurdish, you’d spend over ten years in jail and may even have ended up being killed. Kurdish was seen by the authorities as a dangerous language.
My brothers and I were all sent to Arabic schools, where speaking Kurdish wasn’t allowed. Imagine six-year-old Kurdish kids walking into these schools without knowing a word of Arabic. The teachers would start hitting the kids, saying, “Why do you speak Kurdish?” We started asking ourselves, “Why are we being treated like this? Why is it that my mother sings Kurdish songs to me at home, and at school they say that it is a bad language?” Very quickly we learned what it meant to be a Kurd. We had no rights. It was enough to say that one was a Kurd to be imprisoned. Which was exactly what happened to me.
Guernica: You were imprisoned for saying you were Kurdish?
Mano Khalil: Yes. I was studying filmmaking in the former Czechoslovakia. In 1988, I was interviewed there for a magazine, and the introduction to that piece said, “Mano Khalil, a Kurdish student from Syria, studying film direction in Czechoslovakia.” The interview was about why I had chosen Czechoslovakia for my studies. In 1992, I returned to Syria and was arrested on arrival. Then they showed me a copy of this Czech magazine that carried my interview. They asked me, “Why did you say you were a Kurd when you know there are no Kurds in Syria?” Remember that this was a time when there was no Internet or e-mail. The regime still managed to get copies of this article, and my name was all across the country’s borders and airports as a wanted man. So I was sent to prison in Damascus. Thankfully, it was only for a short time. We paid some money and I was allowed to go free.
The options were clear: either I’d work as a lawyer under the Baath regime or make movies independently.
Guernica: When and how did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Mano Khalil: This was before I went to Czechoslovakia to study filmmaking. We were young and we were all thinking of liberating the world through socialism. We were reading the works of Che Guevara, Mao, and Lenin. After school, I went to Damascus to study law and history, which I didn’t really like. I didn’t like history, in particular. In Syria, the regime was trying to present to us a distorted version of the past. Assad was shown as the father of history.
So I decided to shift to film, which was something I had always loved as a teenager. For instance, we had hundreds of Bollywood movies in Syria. I would walk into the cinema ten minutes after the film started, as it was cheaper. Ticket prices were halved a few minutes into the movie. And sitting in the darkness of the cinema, I got to see another world. This imaginary world was a refuge for many of us. Of course, the films were controlled and censored by the regime. But I still thought, around this time, that maybe making films would be good for me. I thought of expressing myself through this medium, and of doing something for the Kurds. The options were clear: either I’d work as a lawyer under the Baath regime or make movies independently.
Guernica: Is there any particular filmmaker from the region whose work inspired you when you were starting out?
Mano Khalil: There was a Kurdish filmmaker named Yılmaz Güney. In 1982, he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This inspired great hope in us. We got a movie out into the world that spoke about the Kurdish people! The name of the film, Yol, means “the road.” It’s a story of five Kurdish prisoners in Turkey who are going back to their families.
For the first time we saw the word “Kurdistan” written there on the screen. I watched that and said to myself, “If my friends are going to the mountains with guns to fight, I will continue that fight, not with guns but with a camera.” So I decided first to go to Moscow, but when I couldn’t get there due to lack of paperwork, I went to Czechoslovakia instead in 1986. I dreamt of making films about my people, about the fate of this nation of 30 million people who had no right to have a single school in the Kurdish language.
Guernica: So when you returned to Syria after studying filmmaking, you made a movie about the Kurdish people?
Mano Khalil: Yes. I finished school, returned to Syria, and made a movie. Unfortunately, this is the only film I’ve made in Syria. It’s called The Place Where God Sleeps. It is a short movie, about thirty minutes in length: a documentary about Kurdish people living at the border between Syria and Turkey. I see it as a mosaic, the life of one family in Kurdish Syria at that time. The film won first prize at the Augsburg Film Festival in Germany.
Soon after, the doors of hell opened for me and my family. The regime was very aggressive toward us. They wanted to know who had financed the film, who had helped me make it. How did I shoot the film in Syria without their knowledge? For me, it was becoming impossible to stay in Syria. I decided to go to Switzerland in 1996, and I’ve never returned since. Now I meet my family in Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan. At the Turkish-Kurdistan border, my family walks across some ten meters to this side of the border and we see each other.
Guernica: You studied fiction filmmaking, yet your focus has been on documentaries. Do you find the sense of urgency in documentaries lacking in feature films?
Mano Khalil: It’s difficult to make movies. For me it was easier, as a refugee in Switzerland, to make documentary films, because I didn’t need a lot of money for it. The way I tell my story or my opinion would be very similar in both fiction and documentary forms. But I found I could speak more effectively to convey this brutal reality through documentary than I could through fiction. With fiction, you are creating an imaginary world. And it can be a very mechanical process. In a fictional film, you create the characters who become “real people” when facing the camera. When you stop shooting, they change their costumes and become someone else. And people tend to believe in documentary more than fiction. Even if the fiction is based on a true story, everybody will say, “Oh, they’re only actors.”
In documentaries, you have to deal with real people and their real feelings—you are working with real laughter, happiness, sadness.
Guernica: This wariness with which some audiences approach works of fiction may have to do with a difficulty in understanding how close to reality good fiction can get.
Mano Khalil: Exactly. Most people look at a feature film and say, “It’s just a movie.” For me there is no border or wall between fiction and documentary filmmaking. In documentaries, you have to deal with real people and their real feelings—you are working with real laughter, happiness, sadness. To try to reflect the reality is not the same as reality itself. That’s why I think that making a good documentary is much harder than making a good feature film.
Documentary has been a way for me to establish myself as a filmmaker. It’s my way of proving that I have a language, that I can say something through film. Now, after a couple of successful documentaries, including The Beekeeper, it’s become a little easier to get some more money and work on fiction. My latest movie, The Swallow, is a work of fiction based in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Guernica: Could you talk a little more about The Swallow? How much of the film did you draw from real events?
Mano Khalil: The Swallow is a story of a 28-year-old Swiss girl who travels to Iraqi Kurdistan in order to find her father, a man she’s never before met. Equipped only with an old letter and a faded photograph, she leaves Switzerland on a journey that will change her life. This movie is a work of fiction, but the way it’s shot makes it seem more like a documentary. Of course there was a script with dialogue and scenes, and everything was planned. But we shot the film mostly with a hand-held camera, barely using the tripod or artificial light. Some of the long scenes were completed in a single shot. We had actors who knew exactly what to do and say. But there were times when these actors were talking to people in villages and in the streets, as in a documentary. The most important aspect of this movie is how it is rooted in contemporary reality—words like “Peshmerga,” “ISIS”, “Yazidis,” themes of war crimes and revenge.
Guernica: I’m curious to hear about the rapport you share with the subjects of your documentary films.
Mano Khalil: In all my documentaries, I have great respect for the people I work with. Really, I love them. And it’s very important for me that when I finish a movie, they stay my friends. It’s important that they won’t feel that I in any way manipulated them or showed them in a bad light. I want to show them in all their reality—not as subjects but as people with flesh and blood—but I want to do this with all my respect.
Guernica: In The Beekeeper, there comes a point where Ibrahim, the protagonist, doesn’t forget about the camera so much as he befriends it. There are scenes in which the camera is his only companion and he exchanges brief knowing glances with it.
Mano Khalil: Some months ago, a friend of mine, a Swiss filmmaker, told me he was going to make a movie about this person. And he started speaking about her very negatively. He said, “Oh, the subject is so fat, and she stinks,” and so on. I said, “Hey, your movie is going to be bad.” Why? Because you don’t like your protagonist. When I am making a film about you, I have to like you. Even if you make a movie about a criminal locked up in prison, you may not support him as a criminal, but you have to like him on some level. You have to love your protagonist and respect him. He will only open his heart to you when he believes that you are treating him with respect, with love. Only then will there be no more walls between the filmmaker and the protagonist. I acted the same way with Ibrahim, whether or not the camera was on. I was eating, sleeping, laughing, and crying with him. We built a life together. And this brought out a very intimate reality.
I am not the Kurd from Syria anymore, as I was before. Kurdistani Syria developed somewhere, and I developed elsewhere. I think we will not find each other easily again.
Guernica: You said that you picked up a camera instead of a gun. Are you interested in influencing politics with your art?
Mano Khalil: Yes, I hope so. I never think of myself as a Buddha or a Christ figure saving humanity and so on. But the fact that this film, The Beekeeper, was screened in India, and that people saw the story of Ibrahim here, means a lot to me. When I see that people are touched, and they feel solidarity with him, I say to myself, “I made a little change.” We went to Turkey with this movie. The film was screened at a film festival there. I was concerned that the audience there would see the story of Ibrahim [whose son dies fighting for the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party] as somehow connected to terrorism. But I brought this film to Istanbul, and people said, “Our government did all this to him?” They told me, “Ibrahim is such a nice person. He is so lovely.” The film has changed people’s perspectives. That sort of change is small, but it has power. It would be nice if we could resolve all our political problems through cinema.
Guernica: Do you ever think about returning home?
Mano Khalil: I dream about going back, but I know that it isn’t easy. Thirty years of being in Europe has changed my life. I am not the Kurd from Syria anymore as I was before. Kurdistani Syria developed somewhere, and I developed elsewhere. I think we will not find each other easily again. If I go back I will be a foreigner in my own country now. But of course it remains a dream to make another movie in Syria, and I am waiting for that opportunity.
Guernica: What are your views on the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Has the current crisis impacted the push toward a free and sovereign Kurdistan?
Mano Khalil: The problem of ISIS is not recent. Ever since the Second World War, people in this region have been, and are today, living under brutal dictatorships governed by nationalistic fervor. As for the Kurdish question: nobody from the Arab world is serious about fighting ISIS. It’s only the Kurdish people who are standing firm against ISIS. And I think Europe, the United States, and most other democratic countries of the world are beginning to look at the Kurds in another way. The Kurds are really becoming their partners in the region.
Guernica: Do you see Kurdistan becoming a political reality?
Mano Khalil: I do believe Kurdistan is becoming a reality. When we shot our movie in Iraqi Kurdistan a few months ago, it became clear that there is a country called Kurdistan there. Nobody knows about it, but there is a border between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan. It’s not easy for a man from Baghdad to go to Kurdistan. You have to have a sort of visa for that. The border is controlled. There are now Kurdish forces there for security, too.
Also, now the world believes in Kurds, as they have become partners in that region. The West doesn’t believe in the Iraqi government—not in Maliki before or Abadi today. It doesn’t believe in Syria in any way, nor in Iran. So the Kurds could maybe work together with the Western world to bring stability to the region. It’s a nice change, coming as it is after hundreds of years of the struggle of the Kurds. I am not saying that the Kurds are angels, but they have suffered too much. These people have a right to live in their country. The right just to be where they are, in freedom. And now the world has started believing in this. Kurdistan is coming. In some five years, I hope, we will have a flag in New York, hanging with all the other flags.
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