Sahim Omar Kalifa on Zagros

Zagros, the feature film debut of Kurdish-Belgian director Sahim Omar Kalifa, is full of contrasts: Kurdistan versus Brussels, man versus woman, the political versus the personal and autobiography versus ‘exactly the opposite’.

They both came to Belgium illegally, they both came in the back of a truck and they’re both Kurdish. But despite these commonalities, filmmaker Sahim Omar Kalifa and his titular character Zagros are miles apart. For Kalifa, arriving in Belgium felt like arriving in a warm home, but to shepherd Zagros, who was used to a tranquil countryside life and the vast nature of Kurdistan, Brussels remains cold.

Zagros made the move for the sake of his beloved wife Havin, who has had to flee the village after accusations of adultery. Can he resist the demands of family honour and jealousy pressuring him to revenge Havin? An interview with filmmaker Kalifa in four contrasts.

Contrast 1: Brussels/Kurdistan
Kalifa: “There are several reasons the story leads to Brussels. After being accused of adultery, Havin first seeks refuge in Istanbul, but the threat is still too present there. She decides to put Zagros’s love to the test: if he follows her to Brussels, their love will prevail. Besides, for me it was all about the contrast for Zagros. Turkish Kurdistan is like paradise to him; he cherishes every moment there. He knows Brussels could be hell, but he loves his wife and wants to support her. We emphasised this idea in post-production by using warm and overexposed shots for scenes in Kurdistan and grey, dark and rainy scenes in Brussels. The weather is a weight on Zagros’s psyche as well, as are his pressuring family and work-related stress.

“Zagros’s father then undertakes a costly and troublesome journey of over 4,000 kilometres just to get his son back. To Western Europeans, that may seem like madness. But to the father, it is imperative. He wants to be able to look the people back in Kurdistan straight in the eye. It’s comparable to Isis in a way – they’re the kind of people who think: we have faith, we are in the right. But they’re more dangerous than Isis in the sense that Isis can be set apart as a terrorist enemy force, whereas you’ll always have people within a society itself who exert those types of threats every second of the day.”

  • Still from Zagros

  • Still from Zagros

  • Still from Zagros

  • Still from Zagros

  • Still from Zagros

Contrast 2: man/woman
“The film is called Zagros, because it’s his story. We contemplated using the perspectives of both Zagros and Havin, but we decided to stick to Zagros, since most films about these issues of family honour are told from the female perspective. We can relate to Zagros more when we don’t know everything about Havin. But don’t be mistaken: most people would be surprised if they knew the level of women’s rights in some Kurdish cities in Turkey. There’s a progressive side to Kurdistan. But there’s also the strictly conservative side, which produces a lot of victims – a side represented by traditionally minded men whose way of life is threatened by emerging women’s rights. On the one hand, many women in small villages hardly have a voice at all, but on the other hand, guerrilla soldiers in the mountains, like Havin’s sister in the film, have just as much say as men do. Havin sees that Zagros accepts that, so she knows she can trust him.”

Contrast 3: political/personal
“We didn’t want to make a political film, because the Middle East, and Kurdistan especially, is the most politically complex region in the world. But at the same time, you can’t ignore politics. That’s why it’s always there in the background. It makes the story feel realistic and contemporary. But the focus remains on Zagros and his view of the world. Through his eyes you experience the steep difference between Belgium and Kurdistan. In Kurdistan, neighbours drop in to have a drink, people share meals together. Social ties are much stronger. Zagros is unable to find those interactions in Belgian society. For Havin, Belgium is paradise, the best place she could be. But Zagros wasn’t made for Brussels. The Kurdish landscape is a part of his life; in Brussels he disappears among the people, the cars, the chaos.”

Contrast 4: autobiography/fiction
“I don’t want to make purely autobiographical films, but they are always close to my own experience. Like Zagros, I came to Belgium illegally in the back of a truck. And the female guerrilla soldiers I know first-hand, too. In 1991 – I was eleven years old – the Iraqi government retreated from Kurdistan. Our village was in Iraqi Kurdistan, just ten minutes away from Turkish Kurdistan. It was a conservative atmosphere, women didn’t do much besides cooking and cleaning. And then one day, armed female militia appeared. It was like a UFO from a different planet had landed in our village. It inspired me. Those women have changed a lot. They encouraged the women in our village to claim a more influential position, going against century-old traditions. You see the same pattern in Syrian Kurdistan, where female Kurdish soldiers have defeated Isis.

“I also met a lot of people like Zagros when I worked as an interpreter in Belgium: people who came to Europe with high expectations and were severely disappointed when they got here. They had a lot of trouble adjusting to the weather, the social life, everything. Some went mad. If I compare it to my own experience, I would say I’m the exact opposite. I fully integrated and went on to study film. To me, Belgium is like paradise.”

Zagros had its Dutch premiere at IFFR 2018 and is screening in Dutch cinemas from 28 June 2018.

Photo in header: Interview: Kees Driessen