Friday, January 13, 2017

NYJFF ’17: Peshmerga

The Kurdish homeland remains divided between four nations: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Sadly, these days Iraq is probably the friendliest nation of the quartet—and the one in the least position to object. Moderate Sunnis also appreciate the efforts of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces countering the advance of ISIS. Is it time to call for the independence of a free, unified Kurdistan? French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy indirectly but unmistakably raises that question in his remarkable documentary Peshmerga (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.

These are the Kurdish resistance fighters who rose up against Saddam Hussein. It was also the Peshmerga who uncovered key intel that led to the capture and death of Osama bin Laden. Lévy (or BHL as it is often dubbed in the press) flatly asserts they have been the most effective fighting force battling ISIS (they prefer the term “Daesh,” which is good enough for us)—and he ought to know. For six months, the mediagenic BHL was embedded with various Peshmerga companies, with brief time out taken to tend to his wounded cameraman. Yes, they were very definitely under fire.

Understandably, BHL was reluctant to leave Ala Hoshyar Tayyeb during his initial treatment, but the time was not entirely lost. While waiting to either return to the front or shuttle his crew member to France for treatment, BHL visits an Assyrian Christian priest, who fled the Daesh onslaught along with his flock, the last native speakers of Aramaic let on earth, which just shows how closely linked this region is to antiquity.

Initially, viewers might presume Peshmerga was selected by the NYJFF simply because of BHL’s Jewish faith, but the film takes on deeper Jewish resonance when Lévy visits a remote village that still takes pride in its ancient Jewish roots. Surely, the significance of the Muslim Kurds embracing ancestral links to Judaism is so self-evident, it hardly needs belaboring. As an additional fun fact, the Peshmerga are sufficiently progressive to have women’s platoons, whom Daesh particularly fear, because if they are killed by a woman they will supposedly be denied their place in paradise and those seventy-two virgins, so good hunting to the Peshmerga women.

BHL is indeed one of the most important living philosophers, but as an embedded journo, he captures episodes of warfighting comparable to anything in the films of Sebastian Junger. He introduces viewers to several Peshmerga commanders, who are colorful and . . . commanding. Sadly, we will also mourn for one of them. BHL conveys the shock of his loss, but still handles the incident with appropriate sensitivity.

Lévy is clearly a Peshmerga backer, but it is hard to blame him, given the boots-on-the-ground reality. Arguably, his upfront honesty on the subject is rather refreshing, while the film itself is enormously informative and persuasive. The Peshmerga are protecting their homeland, but they are also fighting our fight. Hopefully, the incoming administration will be more proactive aiding them. Very highly recommended, Peshmerga screens twice this coming Wednesday (1/18) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.