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“Zagros and his wife are victims of the burden of tradition”

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Sahim Omar Kalifa • Director

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- Belgian-based Kurdish director Sahim Omar Kalifa talks to us about his feature debut, Zagros, which was presented in competition at the Film Fest Gent

Sahim Omar Kalifa • Director
(© Film Fest Gent / Bas Bogaerts)

This week, Sahim Omar Kalifa presented his feature debut, Zagros [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Sahim Omar Kalifa
film profile
]
, in competition at the Film Fest Gent. The film follows the journey of a shepherd who leaves the Kurdish mountains and heads to Belgium out of love. He follows his wife, who was being harassed in their small village, but he is unable to face up to the process of cultural integration, or to the burden of tradition and family. Kalifa discusses his own life story with us, as well as the origins of his feature debut.

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Cineuropa: Could you tell us a little about your own life story?
Sahim Omar Kalifa:
I come from Kurdistan. My father was active in the field of politics, and he had to leave the country in 1996, followed by my mother and my brothers and sisters three years later. As I was already an adult at the time, I couldn’t get a visa. I finished my accountancy studies in Kurdistan, and I decided to join them in Belgium in 2001. I had to make the journey illegally and resort to people smugglers. It was difficult, and I even thought at one point that risking one’s life for a better life was still first and foremost risking one’s life.

Once I’d finished my accountancy studies in Belgium, one of my friends told me: “You talk about film all the time; why don’t you study it?” So I signed up to the Sint Lukas School of Arts in 2004. My graduation film received the VAF Wild Card for Best Flemish Graduation Film, which was a great honour, of course, but above all, it gave my career the kick start it needed.

Where does the idea for the film come from?
I always make films that closely mirror my own experience. I have also had to make decisions in my life because of cultural or family pressures. I also come from a truly magnificent region, where the landscapes are majestic, and my arrival in Belgium was difficult. Unlike Zagros, I succeeded in integrating into Belgian society. The village I grew up in was very conservative. When the Turks left and installed a Kurdish government, we saw warriors arrive in our villages, strong women who made a big impression on me, especially as their freedom was a stark contrast with the bullying that the women in my village had to put up with.

You deal with the issue of the status of women through the portrait of a man – why did you make this decision?
Zagros is a shepherd, but he is a modern shepherd, even though his family is very conservative. Through his contact with the guerrillas hiding out in the mountains, he met his wife, Havin, a very emancipated woman whose freedom means everything to her. When Havin arrives in Belgium, it’s like paradise for her – not so much for Zagros, but he wants her to be happy. His wife matters more to him than his attachment to the Earth. But in the end, men’s freedom is just as restricted as women’s.

Does the burden of tradition weigh heavily on men?
Zagros’ father can no longer look the villagers in the eyes. To hold onto his position, he is willing to sacrifice other people along the way. In the Middle East, you rarely make decisions for yourself; it’s the perspective of other people that’s decisive.

The viewer is particularly struck by the tragic irony that befalls Zagros
The characters always wonder about their decisions in my films. Is this the right thing to do? In general, it’s not! In the end, Zagros is punished everywhere, both in Europe and in Turkey. His mistake cannot be forgiven at all, and there’s no going back. His response does not constitute a solution anywhere.

What upcoming projects do you have in the pipeline?
I’ve just received development support for the feature-length version of my short film Baghdad Messi. We hope to shoot it in autumn 2018.

(Translated from French)

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